Last November, Buffalo Rising published a post on Terrains Vagues, an independently established thinktank whose objective is to address the issue of urban vacancy in post-industrial cities and to utilize non-conventional approaches to encourage redevelopment in these areas. Brooklyn-based architects David Lage’ and Andrea Salvini have developed an initiative to address urban vacancy here in Buffalo’s East Side and are working full-steam ahead to make that plan a reality. What they need to keep the project moving forward is awareness and involvement within the local community.
Let’s begin with the problem: an estimated 20 percent of Buffalo’s land lies vacant due to a loss of industry and population. The part of the city where this is most apparent is the East Side. Small areas such as those surrounding the medical corridor are showing signs of life, but the majority of the land still remains vacant. According to Lage’, this vacancy fuels negative perceptions, which in turn stunts redevelopment efforts.
Having witnessed the effectiveness of utilizing unconventional means to overcome urban vacancy in places like Germany, Lage’ believes that harnessing the power of culturally based approaches will lead to a significant transformation in the East Side. “I worked in Germany and there are places there that had much similar scale issues in urban areas,” he said. “I saw a lot of cities do different things, and all of the things that they did were unconventional. Seeing the city here and the scale of the urban vacancy in the East Side, I knew they had to do it differently and unconventionally.”
After doing a great deal of research about the extent of vacant land and starting the conversation with people here in Buffalo, Lage’ knew that a creative approach was the answer. “I didn’t see anything going on,” he said. “This project was quite interesting to me because there was no answer to it yet.”
His proposition: Artfarms–sculptures designed by local artists that will serve a dual purpose as agricultural grow structures. Urban farms at their most creative level. These above-ground, vertically designed sculptures will provide a means to produce fruits, vegetables and flowers for the surrounding community, but they will also provide a creative basis for expansion. In essence, the concept of Artfarms is to create and erect devices that are not just aesthetically appealing, but that will serve a greater purpose by triggering redevelopment. “I don’t have any idea what the other redevelopment will be yet–maybe the opening of a café or a small store,” said Lage’. “But that’s what begins to change the momentum. The goal is to create a destination that is like the spirit of the Buffalo region’s creative world, but also forms the backdrop for other things.”
Part of the appeal of this concept is that it will spark the interest of more than one demographic. “Farms are the start of the change, but any kind of authentic place that people want to visit needs to be appealing to more than one segment of people,” Lage’ said. “The people interested in urban agriculture are only one layer. The artists are adding the cultural dimension to this reuse, attracting another group of people. As more people come to see the art, maybe they’ll buy the farm produce. Then soon maybe the shops down the street will start to open.”
Lage’ also hopes that Artfarms will raise awareness of the role of urban farming and bring more of it into the East Side, noting Wilson Street Farm’s level of interaction with the surrounding community as a prime example of what urban farming should be. By incorporating artists into that equation and encouraging collaboration between multiple sectors, the outcome evolves into redeveloping the community and creating a new sense of place.
“I’m not saying that it will be the end use down the road, but it’s a step in escorting it towards whatever it will be in the future,” Lage’ said. “Artfarms is ultimately about providing a kind of background concept that the neighborhood can use to move forward on its own and develop its own new activities in the area.”
Currently, the project has conceptual sketches for five grow structures in the works. After meeting with Heather Pesanti, curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Lage’ was introduced to a handful of local artists (Millie Chen, Ethan Breckenridge, Kyle Butler, Michael Beitz, Joan Linder, and Megan Michalak). Those artists met with the farmers at Wilson Street Farms and Farmer Pirates, asked what they would ideally want for their location, and that became the departure point for the design phase.
Each of the grow sculptures will have a unique design and will support farming activity. For example, two will be designed to look like typical Buffalo houses, created out of repurposed metal and glass with holding tanks for retaining water. Another will be a “growing billboard.” The artfarm designed by Megan Michalak will support the idea of community events as art–it will consist of a wind turbine sculpture that will generate power for community events in the East Side (where one can go very long distances without power). All of the sculptures will have a vertical design to protect the crops yielded from contamination in the soil from demolition debris.
Having already met with the Office of Strategic Planning and the Buffalo Arts Commission, Lage’ reports that they have shown their support for the idea. Pending final review of the final design plans, Artfarms will begin moving into the development phase. The preliminary, tentative schedule for execution is to wrap up the approval process by late September, complete fabrication of the designs between October and January, and complete installation with a site dedication by May 2013. From there, Lage’ hopes the project will continue to expand. “Right now we’re looking at five sculptures,” he said. “I want to do 50.”
In order to make this happen, fundraising will be necessary to cover materials (each of the artists was given a budget of approximately $7,000-$10,000 per sculpture), current debts, and expansion of the project. Contributions to the project are being managed by the Matt Urban Center.