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CNU Visit Should Be A Wake Up Call For Buffalo

With The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in town this week I thought I would dig up an old related story and repost it. This post features a video by CNU founder Andres Duany, which speaks to the heart of what we do wrong in building our human habitat. It is an important lesson to absorb.

Many see this Congress as an oportunity to showcase how nice Buffalo is. But in truth, the people coming to the CNU convention are keenly aware fo the failures of modern American city design. They are going to be very focused on the blatant failures of Buffalo (see Bacon’s Rebellion). They are many and the critiques are already showing up on the internet. Sure they will see some of the good; they will recognizes the potential. But their takeaway is going to be, that Buffalo has a lot to do to make istelf whole again.

The real benefit that this CNU convention will bring to Buffalo is not as a showcase, but as an opportunity for local officials to get a dose of reality and hear what the top thinkers in urban design are saying about how cities need to be designed. The harsh reality is that Buffalo has been doing it wrong and still is. Before coming to the convention I emailed a few dozen top local elected and planning officials to see if any were going to be in attendence. While a majority have not yet responeded I was heartened to get a reply from a few important players. I hope to talk with them during and after the conference to get their take away. Take a look at this video and send it on to your local officials. Make the video below required viewing…


Some will pout that this is just another snobby city versus suburb post.  The kind of post they often claim BRO likes to favor, which pits so-called Elmwood urban “hipsters” against God fearing people who “choose” to live in the suburbs, clinging to their cars in fear that the city liberals will soon try to take them away. And there could be some of that here, I suppose, if you see this as a confrontation rather than a discussion on how our country needs to rethink itself.

Anyone reading my posts over the last 4 years or so knows I am no fan of suburbs. To be more accurate though, it is the sprawl that I am against.  To me sprawl is possibly the worst concept ever developed by mankind, and it is not exclusive to the suburbs. Land use within the city of Buffalo and its urban inner ring suburbs is increasingly sprawl based.  As development pushes further into the outer rural county, the inner county has thinned drastically.

photo-parkingThe built up area of 2009 metro Buffalo occupies more than 2 times the land it did in 1955 even though the population is approximately the same.

Even as Metro Buffalo decreases in population its built area continues to increase.

The result is a huge excess of infrastructure and a desperately poor city of Buffalo with an inner city East Side approaching the same extreme low density-land use as Clarence.  Parts of North Buffalo now house many giant car base big box stores mimicking Amherst and Cheektowaga. Even Kenmore, a quite “urban” suburban village has given in to sprawl, allowing car based development to eat away at its charming Delaware Avenue retail strip. The issue of sprawl and its destructive nature is not a city versus suburbs issue.

It is an issue of society in general.

I was spurred to write this story from comments posted in this recent BRO story about a new renovation/addition at a site on the near East Side. The building site was once a very densely built area with many mixed uses housed in a variety of buildings dating from the Civil War to the early 1900’s.

Over the last 40 years, the neighborhood has been mostly relocated to a garbage dump.  What remains are scattered buildings among parking lots and grassy fields.  Commerce and people are rare here.


I commented early in the thread that I felt sad that several of the images shown in the story looked like a construction site in Clarence, which it did.  Some readers jumped in quickly with comments that they were offended by my constant critical attitude toward Clarence, the architecture of the project, etc.

Actually, my comment had nothing to do with the architecture and was not so much about Clarence as it was about my sadness at the loss of urbanism in this part of the city.  Others fully understood what I meant, and resulted in a very long comment stream discussing urbanism and sprawl.   Commenter SinIill posted a link to the wonderful video below.  It provides a great explanation of the failures of suburban style sprawl development over the last 50 years and the benefits of tried and true urban development patterns developed over centuries.

The link is the first of 9 segments of a lecture by well-known “new urbanist” Andres Duany. Duany is an architect and planner who has made his career designing and promoting what has been dubbed “new Urbanism,” but is really old urbanism or a system of urban development and design which is geared toward the social needs and tendencies of the human animal rather than that of cars.

photo-build-noNew urbanism has become linked with the concept of designing buildings to mimic historic architectural styles.  This is a shallow interpretation of a system of thinking and designing that takes into account how people actually react to space and land use.  I encourage you to watch all nine segments of the lecture before you comment here.  Duany’s insights into human nature and how our built environment affects us is compelling.  I believe, along with a growing number of others more important than me, that we cannot sustain the wasteful and environmentally destructive pattern of sprawl that is the norm in America.  This lecture is a roadmap to how we can make a more sustainable, livable, and economically viable nation.  So far, most don’t understand that there is an alternative to sprawl.

Few realize that sprawl is built into our laws, and probably fewer can explain why.  Billions spent on highways wins out over billions on medical research, Destroy the environment rather than cut consumption of fossil fuels with logical land use policy.  Eliminate irreplaceable historic buildings in favor of cookiecutter corporate buildings designed with a 10-year life span.  Our society has locked itself in a dangerous downward spiral to protect a system of development that is hard to defend.

This lecture should be required viewing for everyone in our country–in my humble opinion.  Watch it, and see if you don’t agree.



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.

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