For many of us who live in and around Buffalo, it’s easy to take our system of parks and parkways for granted. First-time visitors to our city, bringing a fresh set of eyes, are dazzled by the sight of the six parks, seven parkways and eight landscaped traffic circles that are a legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted.
The great landscape architect made his first visit to Buffalo 150 years ago today – on Aug. 16, 1868. His contributions to Western New York are incalculable. One can scarcely imagine Buffalo without the crown jewel of the Olmsted system, Delaware Park, or the other recreational oases he and his design partner, Calvert Vaux, created here.
The prominent Buffalo lawyer and future politician William Dorsheimer asked Olmsted to stop here and assist a group of civic-minded businessmen in the planning of a public park. It was expected his design would take after New York’s Central Park, which he had created 10 years earlier. Olmsted surprised the group by instead submitting a plan for a major park outside the city, and two smaller ones in Buffalo, with a series of “park ways” connecting them. His concept became a model of planning for cities around the country.
The centerpiece, what Olmsted called The Park, is now Delaware Park. Though it was located on farmland outside the city’s population centers, Olmsted was drawn to the bucolic beauty of the rolling meadow. The roads he proposed would connect Buffalonians to The Park, as well as to his other two original creations: Front Park and The Parade (now Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the East Side).
Olmsted’s firm, which later included his son, eventually added South Park and Cazenovia in South Buffalo, as well as Riverside Park.
Olmsted’s seven parkways – Bidwell, Chapin, Lincoln, McKinley, Porter, Red Jacket and Richmond – were said to be inspired by the great boulevards of Paris, commissioned by Napoleon.
We can no sooner imagine our city without Olmsted’s works than we can picture Buffalo without the Philharmonic Orchestra, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, our theaters, sports teams and signature foods.
Mayor Byron W. Brown and the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy today will kick off a seven-day celebration of the great man’s legacy. Activities included a picnic, free movie nights in the parks, a community happy hour.
Buffalo is fortunate to have the conservancy, in partnership with the city and with Erie County, to advocate for the Olmsted park system and to preserve its integrity. Without that commitment, such valuable land could fall into the hands of commercial interests who don’t understand Olmsted’s commitment to the public good.
Olmsted was also involved in designing the Niagara Reservation in Niagara Falls, America’s oldest state park. And he left his mark in many great American cities. But it’s not a stretch to say that nowhere did he leave a deeper imprint on the fabric of daily life than he did here.
Olmsted was quoted as saying in 1876 that Buffalo was “the best planned city ... in the United States, if not the world.”
If he were around today and made that statement, some might find reason to argue or find his sentiments outdated. But no one can dispute that the park and parkway system that he left to Buffalo is a world-class achievement that has stood the test of time.