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Restoring Buffalo’s parks will revitalize the city

By July 7, 2020April 22nd, 2021No Comments
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It is said of urban design that there is no neutrality. The built environment either serves to hurt or heal.

A decade of expressway building in 1950s Buffalo fed the era’s obsession with automobiles, hurt city neighborhoods and obliterated more than 80 acres of Olmsted parks and parkways.

The Kensington Expressway destroyed nearly 45 acres of parkland, including Frederick Law Olmsted’s grandest parkway, denying for decades an entire neighborhood the enjoyment and health benefits that parks offer which the non-profit neighborhood-led Restore Our Community Coalition is seeking to address by reclaiming Humboldt Parkway. A state-funded initiative to examine options for meeting those goals continues.

The Scajaquada Expressway bisected Delaware Park and stole more than 40 acres from it. The Scajaquada’s recently reduced speed to 30 mph makes the expressway no faster as a commuter route than adjacent city streets. This strongly supports the position that it should be replaced with a bike and pedestrian-friendly, generous, at-grade parkway There is $71.2 million in federal transportation funding and $17.8 million in state resources approved for these improvements. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy and other members of the Scajaquada Corridor Coalition have worked for and fully support these restorative initiatives. Further west, neighborhood advocates point out that the elevated section of the Scajaquada Expressway turns what should be a prime amenity for historic downtown Black Rock, its Scajaquada Creek waterfront access, into a source of blight, noise and pollution – and they want it gone.

These expressways were constructed when Buffalo’s population reached a peak of 580,000 – today the city’s population is 255,000, or 325,000 less than in that decade. Post-pandemic Buffalo should include more green, more bicycle access and more pedestrian spaces.
Pandemics and the hard lessons learned from them historically have changed cities throughout the world and in America, including here in Buffalo.

Buffalo suffered much death and destruction from the cholera pandemic of 1849-54. Thousands of lives were lost. Public parks and sewer and water treatment systems were built in response to that pandemic.

Before Olmsted became a renowned landscape architect, he was a public health care worker during the Civil War and lost his first son to cholera. He was a leading journalist covering the pre-Civil War south and he co-founded the Nation, the oldest progressive publication in the country.

It was these experiences that most influenced his work as the nation’s premier landscape architect.
Olmsted believed deeply in the healing power of parks. His writings often reference the importance of large open spaces to allow people access to fresh air and sunlight. Parks were essential in urban areas, he wrote, as a means to promote both social cohesion and public health.

His park system in Buffalo included novel parkways to make them accessible to all, embracing the democratic and inclusionary principles that defined his work. Unlike typical small urban parks of his day, there were no fences, gates or walls. The park and parkway system that Olmsted proposed in 1868 would grow to become an 850-acre system – consisting of six major parks, eight parkways and eight traffic circles. Buffalo’s leaders at the time boldly embraced what would become the nation’s first and grandest park system. Sadly, nearly 100 years later, expressway building destroyed essential parts of that system that we could see restored in our day.

The Covid-19 pandemic, its economic destruction and health disparities along racial lines have exposed the fragility of American society and our health care system, including in our community. The decades-ago destruction of Humboldt Parkway, cutting off access to park air and light, undoubtedly contributed to the health disparities endemic in that community today.
We cannot bring back those lost to Covid-19, nor can we fully make recompense for the social injustices that hurt neighborhoods for expressway-building decades ago. What we can do is learn from those failures and work for a safer and healthier Buffalo for all our citizens. We can do that by restoring and rediscovering the healing power of parks that Olmsted gifted to us after another challenging time in the history of our city and nation.
Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, represents the 26th Congressional District. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, represents the 63rd State Senate District. Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, is the State Assembly Majority Leader and represents the 141st Assembly District. Other authors are Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, 149th Assembly District; and Mark Goldman, a Buffalo entrepreneur.