When the Western New York Land Conservancy last week unveiled the final concept design for Riverline, the urban nature trail that will extend along an abandoned DL&W railroad corridor in Buffalo, it served as a reminder that the city is on the verge of a golden era for green space.
LaSalle Park is headed toward a dramatic rebirth as Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park, thanks to a $50 million gift from the foundation established by the original owner of the Buffalo Bills.
It may be another decade until Centennial Park is completed. The Riverline will also take shape gradually, built in three stages. The completion of those and other projects will represent the greatest transformation of Buffalo’s parks since Frederick Law Olmsted worked his magic here in the 1860s and ’70s.
Olmsted, the country’s greatest landscape architect, worked with his design partner Calvert Vaux on what became six major parks, a few smaller ones, and a network of connecting parkways and greenways. Delaware Park is the crown jewel of the system that is now managed by the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which is arranging restoration work throughout its properties.
The Olmsted parks, Centennial, the Riverline and the Outer Harbor, which was revitalized after years of neglect and industrial pollution, will together give Buffalo a world-class collection of green space that will serve our region in myriad ways.
For one, parks are built to serve the many, not the few. From Martin Luther King Park on the East Side to Delaware Park uptown to Centennial Park on the West Side, Buffalonians of all colors, creeds, ages and ethnicities enjoy recreational pursuits together or in parallel. There’s no first-class section on the playground, meadow or basketball court.
Using green space to promote good health and community building was the thinking behind the $50 million that Wilson’s foundation awarded for the creation of Centennial Park. Wilson wanted proceeds from the sale of the football team used to fund public recreational opportunities here and in his hometown of Detroit. Wilson’s grant to Buffalo included $50 million for Centennial Park and another $50 million to complete and maintain an urban trail system.
A first step for Centennial Park will be construction of a new pedestrian bridge to connect to the adjacent West Side neighborhood. That is planned to start in the fall, but work on the major components of the park’s overhaul is not expected to start until 2024.
Plans for Centennial Park include adding a hill for taking in the view at sunset, sledding or enjoying concerts. A lagoon and state-of-the-art playground are also in the plans.
The 1.5-mile Riverline will be constructed in three stages, known as the Dell, the Junctures and the Basswoods. It will run from Moore and Miami streets to a half-bridge on the Buffalo River, near the Tesla factory. The Land Conservancy has considerable fundraising to do before the project comes to fruition.
A grant from the Wilson Foundation is also supporting the restoration work at the Olmsted Parks, which includes revamping the grand staircase at Hoyt Lake in Delaware Park, new paths, lighting and safety upgrades at Martin Luther King Park, and similar improvements at Cazenovia and Prospect parks.
One lesson from the coronavirus pandemic is to never again take for granted the value of outdoor green space. Walks in the park were good for mind, body and soul for anyone who suffered from cabin fever – and who didn’t? – during Covid-19 restrictions.
Olmsted knew that accessibility to green space “with sylvan beauty” was important to every citizen. In an 1868 notebook entry, Olmsted wrote of his Buffalo vision: “at no great distance from any point of the town, a pleasure ground will have been provided for, suitable for a short stroll, for a playground for children and an airing ground for invalids.”
In addition to the physical and psychic benefits that green space provides, the trees absorb carbon, a bonus in the battle to slow climate change.
There are few public and private investments with as much bang for the buck as creating a set of exceptional parks.
Thanks to the Wilson Foundation and other philanthropists, the Land Conservancy, Olmsted Parks Conservancy and the City of Buffalo, our city continues to shake off the rust and move toward greener pastures.