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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 David Steele

David Steele

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.

View All Articles by David Steele
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