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Improving Buffalo’s Frederick Law Olmsted Parks: Golf course redesign is key to promoting recreation, education

By Kevin Gaughan
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

“In life,” English philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote, “it is reserved only for God and angels to be lookers on.” And as our Buffalo region seeks to sustain its economic resurgence, each of us is summoned to do all we can to continue our city’s upward arc.

In this spirit, I conceived a plan for a $30 million private investment in Buffalo, one that expands recent waterfront development to two struggling neighborhoods – the South Buffalo/Lackawanna border near South Park, and the East Side community adjacent to Delaware Park. These areas share several traits: concentrated poverty, high unemployment, growing immigrant population and at-risk youth. And they have in common one attribute: a spectacular public park designed by the world’s finest landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted.

Rather than think of parks as merely recreation spaces, my plan challenges us to consider them catalysts for improving peoples’ lives. That is, in addition to their gift of nature – a gift to which Olmsted believed every human being has a right – we should draw from urban parks an even broader benefit: education. In a note Olmsted wrote to his son, John (which I found at the Olmsted National Archives), written as he was creating his “arboretum” in South Park, Olmsted expressed his wish that his “museum of trees” include some type of education component.

In this way, our project’s three elements came together. In effect, melding Olmsted’s genius with the beauty of the world’s leading golf course designer, Jack Nicklaus, to create public recreation and pastoral settings like no other in America.

Golf’s role in this endeavor results from decisions made more than 100 years ago to place golf courses in Olmsted lands. In every American city with a course in an Olmsted park, local leaders yearn to restore the master’s original design. But such restoration must be accomplished with consideration for those who depend on their public golf course for recreation. In Buffalo, that includes inner-city residents with neither access to nor resources for private clubs.

Which led me to Jack Nicklaus and Nicklaus Design. A more generous, civic-minded man and company do not exist. When they agreed to perform their services at cost, our project became plausible. When we crafted a financial plan by which Buffalo residents will play Nicklaus’ new courses at the same greens fees they pay today, it became exceptional.

Recreation

The plan is for Nicklaus to design a destination golf course in South Buffalo, on a parcel adjacent to South Park. Nicklaus’ design will be a public park with additional recreation amenities, and which, when built will permit removal of the existing South Park golf course.

In addition, Nicklaus will redesign the Delaware Park golf course, utilizing less space and thus permitting restoration of a portion of Olmsted’s original meadow. His design will include landscaped pathways for non-golf use, and features for winter sports and activities.

These beautiful new spaces will be aimed specifically at inner-city families and children who rely on public parks for their access to nature, and will furnish them with a caliber of golf experience equal to if not exceeding private facilities.

Adjoining the Nicklaus course, we also envision additional recreation spaces for “inclusion activities,” designed to accommodate children with special needs. These features will render our park among America’s first public spaces that all children can enjoy and be welcomed.

Restoration

In 1894, nearing the end of his storied career, Olmsted personally selected more than 2,300 species of trees, shrubs, flora and other ligneous growth and planted them in South Park amid a gently curving pathway. The effect was a soothing stroll through earth’s history of natural growth. Since its erasure by the insertion of a 9-hole golf course in 1916, Olmsted enthusiasts around the world have sought its restoration. Our project accomplishes this important cultural goal.

Working with Dr. Francis Kowsky, Buffalo’s leading Olmsted expert, as well as representatives of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, the Washington, D.C., advocacy group that has endorsed this project, our group will collaborate with and assist the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy in any arboretum restoration plan they choose.

Education

If recreation is the heart of our project, education is its soul. Binding Olmsted’s restored arboretum with Nicklaus’ new course will be an education center. This facility will provide inner-city youth with academic programs, hands-on training and certification in horticulture, landscape architecture, botany, agronomy and business management.

Each of these STEM-related courses will be woven into an individualized pathway for students to a college-level degree, as they are all surrounded by an Olmsted park and Nicklaus’ course that serve as outdoor classrooms like no other.
A growing movement of urban landscape architecture is sweeping America, creating an array of new professions. This movement asserts that ecological urban landscapes enhance the health, environment and culture of a city and its inhabitants. And those cities that train professionals for these new approaches will be among this century’s urban leaders.

Attracting workers to Buffalo

Our business community’s No. 1 priority today is attracting young, talented workers, especially in our burgeoning tech industry. And studies reveal that the public amenities our project provides are among the most alluring attractions for millennials as they choose where they will live and work.

A Harvard Institute of Economic Research survey examined the relationship between “high amenity” cities and population and workforce growth, concluding that urban centers with high numbers of public amenities are the nation’s fastest growing.

In a ground-breaking study of population density, an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City found that “consumption amenities” – those that increase life quality through culture and recreation – substantially determine where educated young people decide where to live.

Finally, an influential study published last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that “beautiful cities,” those that provide public leisure amenities, attract the most highly skilled, young employees, as well as their employers.

How we can make this happen

Our charitable endeavor requires no public or taxpayer funds. As well, we can obtain 80 percent of our budget from sources outside of Western New York. We need only raise $2 million locally to trigger outside donations to meet our $10 million Phase 1 budget.

Buffalo remains an impoverished community, with local charitable needs that exceed our philanthropic resources. As a result, there exists today understandable competition among many worthy causes as they strive to attract necessary funds. But the only way we break the constraints of our more-needs-than-capacities reality is to expand our sources of giving beyond our borders. And our project will do just that – if local donors do their part.

“Civic service,” the educator and politician Shirley Chisholm once said, “is the rent that you pay for room on this earth.” We believe that our project will render lasting, valuable service to Buffalo. And on behalf of our board of directors, who’ve worked diligently to make this plan a reality, we’re grateful for your tax deductible donation, which can be made by visiting www.buffaloreal.org.

Kevin Gaughan, a Buffalo attorney and civic leader, is chairman of Buffalo Real Inc. His email is kevin@kevingaughan.com.

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