A university-city partnership plants the seeds of global change

Buffalo city skyline.

Buffalo’s shifting urban and social landscapes create openings for design and planning innovation as well as intensive community-engaged teaching and research at UB.

by Rachel Teaman

Published December 18, 2018 This content is archived.


The wave of post-industrial decline that swept over Rust Belt cities during the second half of the 20th century left in its wake a host of urban challenges: vacancy and blight, poverty, racial segregation and scarred industrial landscapes.

But a city in flux is also one with potential—and, in the case of Buffalo, N.Y., fertile ground for university-city investigations in urbanism.

Since its founding in 1969, in the throes of Buffalo’s decline, the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning has engaged the city’s transitioning economic, social and physical landscapes as spaces for experimentation and innovation.

The model is one of mutual exploration rather than intervention. Faculty and student experiments start small, in ways that both respond to community needs and speculate at the boundaries of practice and research. The engagements are sustained and iterative (several projects span decades), and intensively hands on. Ultimately, design concepts turn into built works, and plans are implemented at neighborhood and regional scales.

The work has not only fostered Buffalo’s renaissance but is also translating at the global scale, revealing new possibilities in community-engaged teaching and research.

“The questions our faculty and students are asking with the community of Buffalo are questions of profound global significance,” says Dean Robert G. Shibley, a professor of architecture and urban planning at UB since 1982. “How do we foster regeneration amid industrial and population decline? How can we assure food security, clean water and a net-zero-energy footprint in an era of significant climate change?”

The following sections reveal two examples of UB’s local-to-global endeavors.

From local urban farms to global food systems policy

When urban planning researcher Samina Raja arrived at UB in 2002, the field of food systems planning was just emerging within the discipline. Today, a grassroots-driven planning model cultivated by Raja and her community collaborators has put food systems front and center in the work of urban planners—in Buffalo and around the world.

Raja, now principal investigator of UB’s Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (the Food Lab), says it all began with the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), a small nonprofit on Buffalo’s West Side that engages neighborhood youth and families in urban agriculture to combat racial and economic injustice.

The urban gardens of Buffalo’s Massachusetts Avenue Project have germinated innovative local food policies now being implemented around the world by UB. © Massachusetts Avenue Project

In 2003, Raja and her students developed a groundbreaking master plan that put data and evidence behind MAP’s advocacy efforts with policymakers and funders. Through years of what Raja calls “complementary antagonism” among community members and city officials, Buffalo has emerged as a center for innovation in local food systems policy.

But the impacts of this work extend far beyond Buffalo. Raja and her Food Lab, along with several national collaborators, just completed a five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to launch Growing Food Connections, which helps “communities of opportunity” across the U.S. support small-scale farmers and connect consumers to healthy food. In 2017, UB was invited by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to develop a global framework on food systems planning. The Food Lab is also working on the ground in India, Jamaica and Ghana to extend the learnings from Buffalo around the world.

Meanwhile, Buffalo continues to incubate new research in the field, including a study of the city’s Burmese refugee population to better understand the relationship between local food systems and refugee health. That work also links to architectural research at UB on refugee shelter design and resettlement planning.

From local industry partnership to global design innovation

A seven-year research partnership between UB’s architecture program and Boston Valley Terra Cotta, a Buffalo-area company that manufactures terra-cotta facades for clients around the world, started with a single project. Today, the collaborative engages designers from around the world in the development of entirely new ways of working with the ancient building material.

The origins of the project lie within UB’s fabrication workshop. In 2011, Boston Valley wanted to see if UB’s digital routing tools could create molds for terra-cotta. Omar Khan, a faculty member and then-chair of UB’s architecture program, saw the opportunity to put students in the center of an area of practice emerging within the factory walls of industry. The scope of the project expanded rapidly. Boston Valley now has its own digital fabrication shop (and the largest digital routing machine in the U.S.). That facility is overseen by two UB graduates, both of whom were involved in the initial research.

UB architecture students in partnership with Boston Valley Terra Cotta join architects and engineers from around the world to prototype terra cotta facades. 

In 2016, Boston Valley and UB launched the Architectural Ceramic Assemblies Workshop (ACAW) to see what happens when design firms get involved. Companies come into the workshop with actual commissions in the first stages of development. Projects advance throughout the year in collaboration with experts at Boston Valley, UB and the nearby Alfred University College of Ceramics. The research culminates every August with a “maker faire” at UB, where students troubleshoot design, fabricate components and assemble full-scale prototypes.

Khan, who is part of a UB-led facade project advancing through ACAW, says the process is as innovative as the projects it creates. “We’re forming a new model of working, outside traditional realms of practice.”

Indeed, projects that may never have been built are coming to life at UB. One project developed by AECOM—a facade-integrated system of terra-cotta radiators—was in the concept stage for over a decade before the designer put his ideas to paper at the first ACAW event. Today the system is close to the patent stage.

Boston Valley CEO John Krouse says the partnership is about more than business. “We’re combining the models of academic research, artistic experimentation and industry expertise to generate ceramic facade solutions for today’s biggest architectural challenges.”

Meanwhile, the School of Architecture and Planning is germinating its next lines of inquiry. This fall, UB hosted the 2018 conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning in Buffalo. Community leaders and national planning experts came together to take a 50-year view into the future, addressing such mega-trends as artificial intelligence, climate change and worldwide urbanization.

Says Dean Shibley, “We can’t know exactly what these trends will bring, but we don’t have to be victims of them. We can actually, in a cultural way, decide where we want to go as a community and then take actions that lead us there.”