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Public waterfront advocates look to boost lagging Buffalo parkland status

Western New York might have a string of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted more than 100 years ago, but when it comes to its contemporaries, the city of Buffalo lags behind other large 21st century cities when it comes to parkland.

This is according to “2014 City Park Facts,” by the Trust for Public Land. (Read the report here)

The report says that 7.5 percent of Buffalo’s land is in parks, compared to a median of 8.4 percent for medium- to high-density cities.

“It’s respectable but a little bit low,” said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence with the Trust for Public Land.

“There’s two ways of measuring parkland: one as a percentage of land in the city, the other is the acerage per 1,000 people per population. In Buffalo, that’s only 7.3 acres for every 1,000 people, so that’s a little bit low, too."

The median in that measure is 12.9 acres for every 1,000 daytime residents.

“There’s plenty of room to catch up to some of the other cities,” Harnik told me this week by phone from his office in Washington, D.C.

A citizen group believes it knows where the city should look next.

The 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor group advocates for a new waterfront park sandwiched between Fuhrmann Boulevard and the city harborfront, south of the Times Beach Nature Preserve.

Group members have asked Harnik to talk about the potential benefits of the idea during a free event, open to the public, at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State.

He’ll speak in a city that stands in the lower half of park rankings among the top 100 U.S. cities in several categories in last year’s City Park Facts report. Along with the two above, here are two others:

  • There are 2.4 year round park workers per 10,000 residents in Buffalo; the median in that category is 5.3.
  • Adjusted park spending reflecting the price of living is $76 per Buffalo resident; the median is $81. Detroit, at the bottom, spends $11. Washington D.C., St. Paul and Seattle top the list at $215 or more.

Some good news: When it comes to park plagrounds, there are 2.4 per 10,000 residents in Buffalo, compared to a median of 2.2 in the top U.S. cities.

When you step back and look at the overall park numbers landscape, would reclaiming some land along the city waterfront be a step in the right direction?

“Yup, definitely,” Harnik said.

Below are some other points he made during our interview. Read more Saturday, in the Healthy Response feature in WNY Refresh.

Q. What makes city parks successful and how can you measure that?

People think a park is easy, but a park and a park system are quite challenging. You have horticulture – keeping the plant life and trees beautiful – and then you have the dimension of making it attractive and safe and fun. There need to be things to do there. It needs to be well located so people ideally can walk to their park instead of drive. It’s not letting nature take its course; it’s designing it properly and maintaining it properly.

It’s very hard to come up with a measurement of quality. There’s so many different aspects of what makes for quality and it’s so hard to make a uniform counting mechanism. But some of the subcomponents that would come together that would lead to quality are:

  1. The park is well used. Even though most people don’t really think about that, that’s really important, especially from the health standpoint. You can’t really help people become healthy if they’re not out there running around and recreating, with your heart pounding and losing pounds, getting som mental relief. There are some beautiful, beautiful parks in this country that are very well maintained but nobody’s in them. That might be good for wildlife, for the lucky few who get to walk through them, but in terms of helping a broad population, it’s not really doing it.
  2. Related to that would be that it’s safe, from criminal activities and safe from things like tree branches falling on peoples’ heads, and sidewalks being properly maintained and roadways. That comes down to a city or some sort of conservancy spending enough money. We do pay attention to spending and we measure in terms of dollars of spending per resident.
  3. The other is access. What percentage of the population is within a half-mile – 10-minute walk – of their nearest park. We’re not talking about a little triangle or little circle, but how long do you have to walk to get to green space? We haven’t analyzed Buffalo yet for that. That’s a more expensive thing for us to do.

Q. Where do you start with a new park?

The model for people to think about in relation to Buffalo should be Chicago. It’s kind of the mirror image of Chicago. … A landscape architect named Ken Greenberg, up in Toronto, had this wonderful phrase, that I just love, where he talked about ‘the retreat of the industrial glacier.’ That is what we’re seeing in Buffalo and Toronto, and in New York City and Philadelphia and many other places – the retreat of the industrial glacier, where factories and storage mills and Army and Navy bases get retooled, reused or contracted – and citizens, and hopefully enlightened government and corporate leaders all say, ‘Let’s create a beautiful waterfront park system, and then put housing, primarily housing, behind it.’ Not too far behind it, so that they can look out over the park, look out over the water, so people have a built-in usership and don’t have drive a long way to get to a park. They can just walk out their door with their dog, with their children, by themselves, with their tennis rackets or their running shoes, and have a beautiful park system that adds value to their city.

And in the case of a place like Buffalo, this re-energizes the corporate sector and oves jobs back into the city because younger people like to live that way.

Q. How can local government, community groups, businesses and individuals support park development?

The best way to do this – particularly in a city that has had its challenges – is a joint cooperative public-private effort where everybody works together to raise the tide on this. You can’t put it totally on the shoulders of government because there’s not enough money there; there’s too many other conflicting claims on them. You can’t put it totally on the shoulders of the private sector because it’s too heavy a lift for them to do it without government assistance. It’s kind of a compact between all the different sectors.

Generally speaking, if the government makes the majority of the land available and takes the lead on the brownfield cleanup efforts – very often using federal and state monies that are available – and the government has a strong planning presence and basically draws a line in the sand, saying, ‘We want this to happen. We’re going to put all our planning efforts into this, we’re going to try to make sure all of our incentives and disincentives are all in alignment,’ things can work out.

There's getting the incentives right, and then having the developers and the foundations and the philanthropic citizenry start raising money for the specific attractions of the park  ... then it becomes kind of two hands clapping.

Citzen groups may or may not exist in that area yet, but the ones that do can be volunteers for plantings and trash removal, donating  benches – all kinds of manageable aspects. If and when there's  redevelopment with residential communities, those new neighbors right from the start can be enlisted to become stewards and activists that attracted them to an area in the first place.

You need a leader and then you need somebody to build the coalition. That’s the flow of things, and I don’t know enough yet about Buffalo about what that might look like. Sometimes that’s the city or the county or the state, and sometimes it’s the business community or a private citizen.

Q. Is it somehow unique to us in New York that you have politicians take the credit and someone else do most of the work?

No (with a laugh). That’s pretty standard.


Twitter: @BNrefresh

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