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Buffalo: The Best Planned City in the World

Buffalo-designed-city-Buffalo-best-NYReally?  In the world?  That is the heading title of a new book by Francis R. Kowsky on the history making landscape design work of Olmsted and Vaux in Buffalo.  The entire title reads “Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System.  The book is the first in a series from the University of Massachusetts Press and the Library of American Landscape History .   The book series will focus on design of the American Park.  From the press release:

The definitive account of the creation and development of the country’s first urban park system

Beginning in 1868, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux created a series of parks and parkways for Buffalo, New York, that drew national and international attention. The improvements carefully augmented the city’s original plan with urban design features inspired by Second Empire Paris, including the first system of “parkways” to grace an American city. Displaying the plan at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Olmsted declared Buffalo “the best planned city, as to streets, public places, and grounds, in the United States, if not in the world.”

Olmsted and Vaux dissolved their historic partnership in 1872, but Olmsted continued his association with the Queen City of the Lakes, designing additional parks and laying out important sites within the growing metropolis. When Niagara Falls was threatened by industrial development, he led a campaign to protect the site and in 1885 succeeded in persuading New York to create the Niagara Reservation, the present Niagara Falls State Park. Two years later, Olmsted and Vaux teamed up again, this time to create a plan for the area around the Falls, a project the two grand masters regarded as “the most difficult problem in landscape architecture to do justice to.”

In this book Francis R. Kowsky illuminates this remarkable constellation of projects. Utilizing original plans, drawings, photographs, and copious numbers of reports and letters, he brings new perspective to this vast undertaking, analyzing it as a cohesive expression of the visionary landscape and planning principles that Olmsted and Vaux pioneered.

Now, about that bombastic book title.  Certainly, Buffalo has its moments but, best planned in the world?  That is a bit outrageous, even from the proudest Buffalonian.  It would be a tough argument to make with so many gorgeous well planned cities dotting the globe. You may have heard this utterance in the past and maybe you thought it came from some over zealous Buffalo booster.  Maybe when you heard it the phrase was actually coming from a Buffalo booster’s mouth or pen or keyboard.    The phrase was not first coined by the original planners of Buffalo, as the tiny village with its radial streets was first cut out of the virgin forests of Western New York.

The first person to call Buffalo the best planned city was none other than Frederick Law Olmsted upon completion of his parks and parkways in Buffalo.  He may have said this in excitement at such a historical accomplishment or perhaps as a marketing schtick. In any event Buffalo did have a magnificent new civic asset that, at the time, no other city had.  Time has not been kind to this investment.  Only one Vaux park building remains and even that one is in danger.  The parks and parkways have been maligned with loss of trees, the addition of highways for easy access to the suburbs, and one whole east side park has disappeared all together.  Perhaps reading this book will awaken an appreciation for the importance of these parks and build a will to bring them back to what they should be. Let’s hope.

The book has over 300 pages with 200 illustrations in color and black and white.  It sells for just under $40.00.  You can order from the publisher or Amazon, etc.  But I suggest you support your local book stores.  I am sure that Talking Leaves, The Albright-Knox Gallery, Martin House gift shop and the Buffalo Historical Museum will have it in stock. Amazon has an extensive look inside the book on their website.

Written by STEEL


Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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  • Ivan putski jr

    That sounds about right but I always wondered what Olmsted was thinking trying to jam the Zoo, golf course and three ball diamonds into his signature design, Delaware Park…..

  • DSD240

    Friends and acquaintances of Frank have been excitedly waiting to see this in its finished form, myself included. Fine work from a man who is among the most respectable gentlemen I know.

  • that is an audacious title but if olmsted really said it, why not claim it?
    we are very lucky to have a scholar of kowsky’s stature in buffalo.

  • elmdog

    Spend a day in multiple European cities and you realize that this guy is a lunatic…Although if they city of Buffalo was to get funding from historic, federal and state and return the city and parks to Olmsteads original plan and cleaning up some of the gross parks that have been left for dead , it would be a nice city…but …

    • DSD240

      elmdog An unintelligibly composed reply based on abysmal reading comprehension and a fundamental lack of understanding. An ad hominem ego-pruning would be wasted on you, so I shan’t further the effort.

      • SoBuff

        DSD240 elmdog I think it’s clear what he’s saying, that the system was designed well but we pooped all over it. 198, golf, excessive roads, poor irrigation, etc. We were given a wonderful gift and let it slip away, now we are left with a sliver of what was intended.

        • funwow

          Golf is the best thing to ever happen to these parks you elitist snob.

      • elmdog

        DSD240 elmdog Thank you for using shan’t…I now know that you are a goof

    • micahh64

      elmdog “Spend a day in multiple European cities and you realize that this guy is a lunatic…”
      Hm — somebody missed the part that read: 
      “The improvements carefully augmented the city’s original plan with urban
      design features inspired by Second Empire Paris, including the first
      system of “parkways” to grace an American city.”

    • No_Illusions

      Depends on the city. Also at this point in history European cities were seen as dirty, crowded, and often unsuitable for human life.
      While many of the cities had great layouts, it really did not solve the problem of overcrowding.

    • Rand503

      elmdog I take exception that Buffalo isn’t a “nice city” already.  Sure, there are parts that are terrible, but there are entire neighborhoods that are simply beautiful.  Even downtown is really very striking. 
      Nonetheless, I agree that Buffalo prior to circa 1960 was an amazing city.  Prior to circa 1920, it was one of the most beautiful cities in America.
      We did a great job of destroying much of that.

  • Rand503

    Sure, it’s quite possible that Buffalo is the best planned city.  (Which is quite different from saying it’s the most  beautiful city — those are two very different qualifies).
    First, Buffalo benefited from the Jos. Ellicott spoke and grid format.  Pierre L’Enfant liked the plan so much he adapted it for the new federal city located on the banks of the Potomac River.  Ever since, many people have claimed that Washington is one of the best planned cities in the world.  Buffalo would therefore rank in that top tier just for the Ellicott plan alone.
    Second, Olmstead was able to formulate and implement his plan for Buffalo just at the perfect time we needed it for the growth of the city.  Olmstead came to Washington, but he was a bit late to the game and could not undo a lot of the city’s growth.  For other cities, he was able to put together a comprehensive plan, but none of them fully implemented it.  Only Buffalo did.  
    So when you take the basic bones of the brilliant Ellicott plan and then extend it with the brilliance of the Olmstead plan, you have a unique two-fold plan that few other cities can boast about.  Among them, I think it would be hard pressed to find a better combination.
    Sure, there are other well planned cities, such as New Delhi or Brasilia, but I haven’t seen them personally.  Paris was redeveloped significantly in the 19th century by Baron Housseman, but even he didn’t redo much of the medieval street plans, focusing mostly on creating a few grand boulevards.  
    Since most cities around the world were never planned at all — I’m looking at you, London and Rome — and the few that have been are often pretty awful — I’m looking at you, cities of China — Buffalo can rightly say it is one of the very best planned cities in the world.  
    Is it the best in the world?  That depends.  Name a few that anyone thinks is as well planned or even better, and we can start a debate.   Got any ideas?

    • No_Illusions

      Rand503 Actually many of the modern streets of London still follow the original Roman roads, which were in fact planned. So while none of the grand schemes for London were not enacted upon, I wouldn’t say that the city was totally unplanned, especially from the point of the Great Fire onward.

      • Rand503

        No_Illusions Rand503 Although I agree that many cities had some degree of planning in their lives, it is quite a stretch to say that any of these were planned in whole or in part.  Yes, even ancient Rome was planned after it was burned to the ground, but virtually none of that is relevant to modern Rome.  Same with London — a great city, of course, but following a handful of roads hardly qualifies it as a planned city.
        Buffalo’s streetscape was all planned out well before any development of any kind was instituted.  It was planned from the getgo.  (So was Charleston, BTW, and everyone agrees that is one beautifully planned city, even though the plan was rather unimaginative). Yes, New York was similarly planned from the getgo, and I’ll even wager it’s a good plan.  But Olmstead was quite familiar with New York, and if he thought Buffalo was better planned than NY, I say I’m simply not qualified to argue with the man.

  • Rand503

    I just ordered my copy.  Can’t wait to read it.  BTW, the book about Mark Twain’s time in Buffalo is terrific.  Go read it.

  • JohnnyCbulldog

    Best Planned city…. Did we (short sighted politicians) do something to totally screw it up?  Are growing, booming city’s not well planned?

  • Buffalo is one of the most interesting and entertaining place to visit which is known for its spectacular places and commercial factors. So, I agreed that Buffalo is the best planned city in the whole world.