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Editorial: Urban trailblazing creates a High Line for Buffalo

Buffalo may be late to the High Line party, but we’re not about to turn down the invitation.

The Western New York Land Conservancy is advancing plans to create a 1.5-mile nature trail along an elevated rail line running from Canalside to RiverBend. A design contest to generate ideas is wrapping up; the conservancy hopes to have a draft of the design plan in place by fall 2020.

Buffalo is no longer the place where big ideas – or artist’s renderings – go to die. We are now a city that makes things happen, and creating our own version of New York City’s High Line will further establish us as a destination city.

More than creating a tourist draw, the elevated rail line will be a public space that fosters connections, among neighborhoods and individuals. Organizers are soliciting public input on how to best build the rail line, linking it to various neighborhoods and to other trails.

The hope is to have it ready for use within three years.

“It’s not about how fast. It’s about how good,” Robert Shibley, a design contest juror and dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, told The News.

Nature has already done much of the job of transforming the landscape of the elevated railway, pushing its way into the former DL&W line that’s been out of use for decades. A design adviser to the project says that only “delicate touches” are needed to finish the job.

There are at least 19 other such High Line-type projects in cities around the world, including Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia and London. Albany has also been planning a similar endeavor called the Skyway project, using a highway exit ramp.

New York’s High Line is still a must see for those visiting Manhattan, but in some ways it has been a victim of its own success, becoming crowded during nice weather and being situated amid a series of glass and steel towers that increasingly obscure some of the views that visitors are meant to see. (A New York Magazine article this year described the High Line as a cattle chute for tourists.)

We don’t expect skyscrapers to take over Buffalo anytime soon. An investment in our own High Line would no doubt enhance our region for decades to come.

Buffalo’s transformation in the past decade has been driven by an influx of public dollars, particularly the Buffalo Billion, which created opportunity for private developers to launch new projects. The splashiest ones have been clustered in or near downtown, raising Buffalo’s national profile but not touching all corners of one of the nation’s five poorest cities.

Now there is a focus on building up public spaces that can be enjoyed by every resident, along with every visitor. In addition to the DL&W trail project, there was the tremendous $100 million gift from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, announced last October, to remake LaSalle Park and to complete a regional system of biking and walking trails that will connect Buffalo and Niagara Falls, among other destinations.

The public trails are an invitation to exercise and to lead a more active lifestyle. They also provide the chance to interact with neighbors and new friends who we might not otherwise meet.

In an era characterized by the popular 2000 book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” which described our society’s increasing sense of isolation, outdoor trails can promote physical and mental health, spurring us to spend more time in nature.

It is high time that Buffalo had its own High Line.

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