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City of Parks

Project: The Buffalo Olmsted Parks, Buffalo, NY

Park Management: The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy; Laura Quyebral Fulton, Director of Strategic Initatives

Consultant: The Urban Design Project, School of Architecture & Planning, University of Buffalo, Buffalo, NY; Robert Shibley, AIA, AICP, Director

By Will Holloway

In 1868, ten years after designing New York City's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted headed upstate to create a park for the city of Buffalo. Unlike his Central Park design – an 843-acre rectangular tract – Olmsted envisioned for Buffalo a series of green spaces connected by a system of landscaped roadways, which would enable visitors to move between parks without leaving their verdant environs. When Riverside Park was completed in 1898, Olmsted's vision had been realized – Buffalo possessed the nation's first interconnected park and parkway system.

The six parks, eight parkways, nine circles and numerous smaller green spaces of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks system are spread throughout the city; no matter where one is in Buffalo, an Olmsted park is never far away. Designed between 1870 and 1876, Delaware Park is the heart of the system; at 350 acres, it is the largest and most utilized of the six parks. Its attractions include the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, a 23-acre lake and numerous recreation fields. A few miles to the southwest, overlooking the Niagara River and Lake Erie, sits Front Park (1871), which is connected to Delaware Park by the Lincoln, Bidwell, Richmond and Porter parkways. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park – originally The Parade (1871) – sits a mile southeast of Delaware Park. Though originally connected to Delaware Park by the Humboldt Parkway, MLK, Jr. Park is no longer linked by an Olmsted parkway – mainly owing to the introduction of the Kensington Expressway in the late 1960s. A few miles south of MLK, Jr. Park, Cazenovia Park (1892) was designed for residents in the southern part of Buffalo. Just to the west, and connected to Cazenovia Park by the Red Jacket and McKinley parkways, is South Park (1895), which was designed as an arboretum with thousands of types of trees and plants. (Although the two southern parks were designed to be connected to their northern counterparts, the connecting parkway was never fully built.) The last of the Olmsted parks, Riverside Park (1898) sits along the Niagara River a few miles northwest of Delaware Park; it was designed by the Olmsted Brothers firm – John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. – after the elder Olmsted's retirement.

Today, the parks are managed by a not-for-profit organization called the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservatory (BOPC). The BOPC grew out of the Friends of the Olmsted Parks, a small contingent of citizens who originally came together in 1978 as an advocacy group for the park system. In 1995, a memorandum of understanding was signed with the city making the group an official conservancy. In 2004, the conservancy signed an inter-municipal agreement with the city of Buffalo and Erie County to manage the Olmsted Parks system.

In keeping with its mission of preserving and restoring Olmsted's vision, the BOPC is currently in the process of preparing its 20-year Management and Restoration Plan, a comprehensive blueprint for how the parks will be maintained in the foreseeable future. To this end, it brought in the Urban Design Project of the University of Buffalo's School of Architecture, a group that works with communities, not-for-profit groups and private developers on plans and studies based on the concept of "place making." The Urban Design Project led two design charrettes for the Buffalo Olmsted Parks in 2005. Other consultants included: the Center for Computational Research at the University of Buffalo, which used aerial photography to create a 3-D model of the entire city, enabling the project team to assess current conditions and plan for future improvements; the Department of History at the University of Buffalo; the Ithaca, NY-based landscape architecture firm of Trowbridge & Wolf; Wendel Duchscherer Architects & Engineers of Buffalo; and the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council.

While the draft of the management and restoration plan is currently in the final stages of preparation – it is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year – the results of the charrettes offer a glimpse of how the conservancy will proceed. According to Laura Quebral Fulton, the director of strategic initiatives at the BOPC, once the plan has been reviewed by the conservancy and the public, its recommendations can begin to be implemented.

"When we say 20 years," says Fulton, "people have a hard time imagining things 20 years from now – with the way technology is and the way cities change. But it's 20 years, year by year. Central Park has a very similar format – they did 15 years, where they looked to capital projects in a logical sequence, so that you're not putting pathways in a place where you're going to have to rip them out when you want to do a restoration project two years later."

While the plan's recommendations vary from park to park, many initiatives are common to the entire system. Terms like "reunite," "buffer," "restore," "reestablish" and "enhance" appear throughout. For Delaware Park, the major recommendations in the preliminary 20-Year Management and Restoration Plan include: reuniting fragments of park by reconstructing the Scajaquanda Expressway as an Olmsted-esque parkway; restoring the meadow by recreating a lily pond and removing non-historic structures; restoring the water's edge by removing obstructions and improving water quality and accessibility; and restoring the heavily utilized central Casino area. For MLK, Jr. Park, recommendations include: restoring the central water features; restoring historic paths and plantings throughout the park; and improving circulation and calming traffic. For Riverside Park, the plan calls for reestablishing the central concourse and historic plantings, as well as enhancing and the park's connection to the Niagara River through the redesign of the pedestrian bridge and the creation of a pier.

The goals for the parkways, circles and smaller spaces include preserving and maintaining the system that remains today; restoring and reconstructing lost elements as originally built; and, most ambitiously, constructing elements planned by Olmsted but not fully realized. Doing so is a long-term goal of the conservancy. "That is a much larger scale project, and more public partnership is going to be needed because those are public right of ways," says Fulton. "The system is sort of broken in the middle, from the north and south of the system, and those connectors are, conceptually for the city, very important to make, and certainly a much closer restoration of what Olmsted really intended – he always intended it to be one continuous system. We certainly treat it as a system, but it doesn't literally connect in the way that he envisioned – and that is important if we are ever really going to restore the Olmsted vision."

Robert Shibley is director of the Urban Design Project. Having identified the projects and done the site plans, he feels that the plan is ready to move forward. "We have a pretty good idea what we think ought to happen, based on historic conditions, the demands of park users and trying to make a marriage that recognizes that this is both a nationally and internationally significant park system and concurrently has neighbors who make it their park," he says. "You've got to be able to deal with both of those things; we've taken the position that those are not contradictory concepts, that they require a different way of thinking about what our neighborhoods are, how they interact with the park, and also what other opportunities there might be in and around the parks.

"Number one, there's a set of short term, critical issues to engage: the primary entrance conditions, transportation to pathway system relationships – road and paths; the necessity to put the parks in service of a current user population with basic sign-age; path-system maintenance, erosion control – the fundamentals. As a given, we start with the idea of making the parks as usable and beautiful now as possible. From there, it was a lot of good homework by the conservancy and the teams involved, and an understanding of current park utilization and how much just making a projection of that is inadequate to the potential of the parks."

Fulton stresses that it's crucial for the conservatory to keep the community engaged in the process – without losing sight of its mission of restoring and maintaining Olmsted's vision. "I think people have this perception that the parks are static, that they're a grass museum and that's what we're looking to do," she says. "Olmsted wanted people in the parks, he designed it for people in the parks, and the separation of uses is still completely accurate today. If you look at the activities – we did a park-user count in the summer of 2004 – and people are doing pretty much all the same activities that they would have done in the 1800s – mostly walking, running, jogging. His concept was that people had ideas of their own and the park didn't need to be pre-programmed all over the place, that people will come up with the idea to have a picnic on their own, and they need the space to do that."

While Fulton concedes that there are pressures to modernize the parks with new construction, she feels that it's a false choice to say you can't do restoration and have the parks be modern places. "People love to see things built, they love to see new things," she says. "You do have to marry those things and really say 'What was Olmsted's intent for this area?' and does adding something new change that intent. Because he was so specific in his planning, you know what his intent was pretty much everywhere."

In a city that has experienced a continued economic downturn and a declining population over the last five decades, Fulton and Shibley agree that the parks are crucial to Buffalo's revitalization. Making that revitalization a reality requires not only careful planning, but also relentless fundraising. "There is a lot of investment going on," says Fulton. "It was private citizens that brought Olmsted to Buffalo to begin with. It's private citizens who are really interested in the restoration of the parks now, and a lot of private investment is going into it. You've got to have both – less than $10 a resident of taxpayer dollars are going into our parks right now. You look at a city like Minneapolis and it's well over $100. We don't have the tax base and people are leaving, so we have to find public/private partnerships that work."

Shibley points out that city parks like the Buffalo Olmsted system are not just important economically – they also provide social and health-related functions. "Parks make money, parks show themselves to be positively correlated with reductions in crime and parks show themselves to be positively correlated with health. The property values are clear. We've done the math, we've made the economic case, both locally and regionally, and, for the most part, have a lot of strong support – both from the philanthropic community and from the city and county."

"I came to Buffalo to work for the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy because I knew, knowing what the city really needed for revitalization, that the parks were going to be the answer," says Fulton. "Because of how the parks go throughout the entire city, the system is the one thing that all of the neighborhoods have in common. They make the city livable, and I think they are the key to the revitalization of the city." TB

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