Buffalo Studio – Spring 2010

Downtown Buffalo in the 1980s - Photo by Aerial Photographer Alex MacLean

The Spring 2010 Shrinking Cities Buffalo studio is the first of a series of urban design studios taught by professor Brent Ryan at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning that will propose comprehensive spatial strategies for shrinking cities. The studio examines the paradigmatic shrinking city of Buffalo, NY (1950 population 580,000, current population 270,000.) The city is well known as a historic innovator in architectural and urban design, with extensive work from Olmsted, Wright, Sullivan, Richardson, Burnham, and SOM as well as the concrete grain elevators made famous in Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture of 1924. Buffalo has always been dependent on marine infrastructure: the Erie Canal of 1825 effectively started the city’s growth, and the St. Lawrence Seaway of 1959 categorically ended it.

Buffalo today is faced with a myriad of crises. The current housing bust is only the latest in a series of events that seem to have conspired against the city. Among these are long-term economic decline stemming from economic-infrastructural shifts such as the Seaway; the suburbanization of the middle class; the nationwide shift toward the warmer Sunbelt cities; racial polarization and segregation; and globalization. The negative effects of these forces are clear to any visitor. The city’s population has fallen dramatically and housing abandonment is a serious problem in the most distressed areas of the city.

Despite these problems, Buffalonians have retained a sense of optimism toward the future. The city has inherited an impressive legacy of institutions from its past, and its design heritage is particularly strong. Buffalo’s amenities are spectacular for its size, and costs of living are low. Residents are friendly, approachable, and eager to discuss new ideas. The city’s industrial character is gritty and appealing, giving it a unique local flavor in an increasingly homogenized, chain-dominated, auto-dependent nation. The city’s political and social leadership is dedicated to making Buffalo livable under difficult circumstances that will not ease up any time soon.

What is the role for urban design given this situation? The studio attempts to answer this question.

Photo by Alex MacLean.

  1. There is a great book out that compares two school districts: Syracuse and Raleigh. Hope and Despair by Gerald Grant outlines the obstacles that stand between Syracuse and Raleigh, and the historical moments that have developed to create the differences.

    1. The theory of the doughnut hole. Once thriving cities like Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo have had their wealth and populations redistributed to the outskirts, leaving low-income residents that do nothing to maintain or contribute to the cities. Am I generally speaking? Yes, but I also believe the fault falls partially to the cities who cannot seem to organize enough efforts to train the left over population, and drive out the cancers that seem to fill it. Grant claims that socio-economically balanced schools would, and have, cured such cancers.

    2. Socio-economically balanced schools vs. racially balanced schools. This just makes sense. From having grown up in a low-income neighborhood, and school district, I know that it was not the color of the skin that held some students back.

    You can pour as much money as you want to into schools or areas, but you aren’t saving the students. To save the neighborhoods, you must save the schools. Crack down on the drugs, institute a dress code, actually ENFORCE the rules, follow through with repercussions, and get the community involved. In order to save many, you have to risk a few, or else EVERYONE suffers (see also: Real Education by Murray). No amount of money poured into technology can help these causes (see also: the failure of the Niagara Falls laptop project).

    Then, put in programs to empower students to invest in the community. They can help fix up the housing, and are more likely to stick around to help it flourish.

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