Buffalo is Still the Best Planned City in America

downtown buffalo.

Buffalo is one of three radial plan cities in the U.S. Modeled after L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C., defined in 1804 by Joseph Ellicott of the Holland Land Company. Photo by Douglas Levere (c) University at Buffalo


by Dean Robert G. Shibley, FAIA, AICP

Buffalo owes much of its history as a city with exceptional architecture, great city planning and industrial innovation to its very location at the western end of Lake Erie above Niagara Falls. But that advantage didn’t ensure a great city in perpetuity.  It needs more.

Some have argued that our greatest inspirational asset has always been the waterfronts of the Buffalo River, Lake Erie and the Niagara River. Others argue for the formative nature of the 1804 radial street plan defined by Joseph Ellicott of the Holland Land Company. Still others believe our coherence and beauty grew from the genius of our Olmsted park and parkway system. I suggest that Buffalo’s character is directly attributable to the fundamental relationships among our waters, our radial and grid plan and our park system, the combination resulting in what Olmsted called “the best planned city in America.”

Buffalo is one of three radial plan cities in the U.S. Modeled after L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C., Ellicott used the radials to reconcile settlement patterns coming up from the waterfronts, with streets from all directions ending at Niagara Square. Olmsted identified great parks and then used parkways to intersect both the grid and radial streets. These moves still serve the city well, making it coherent and filled with dynamic views as well as variable parcel geometries that invite strong architectural responses. Our legible and walkable city links neighborhood to neighborhood through the parks and parkway, neighborhoods to downtown through the radials, and neighborhoods to the water through the grid. 

Map of Buffalo's urban design legacy: Ellicott, Olmsted, Water.

The City of Buffalo is built on the structure of the Olmsted parks, Ellicott’s radial street plan and its location on the water. Map—From "Queen City in the 21st Century: Buffalo’s Comprehensive Plan," prepared for the City of Buffalo by The Urban Design Project

Certainly we have challenged the basic ideas of city-making in Buffalo through less thoughtful periods in our history. The magnificent industry that brought great wealth and significant architecture to the city took over the waterfront, followed by planning decisions that separated the city from its water with freeways. The vistas and access radials were broken in service of an urban mall, hotel atrium and a convention center. And some of our parkways and parkland have been lost to neglect or a failure to achieve their full potential.

But we seem back on track now with an aggressive return to a respect for the planning ideas and power of good urban infrastructure, parks and access to the water. Buffalo has a very good armature and is building on its greatness. Witness the new investments in our parks, new restorations of the architecture on our radials, revitalized commercial areas in our neighborhoods and residential units in our warehouses and in our Class C and B office buildings. We also have the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin house complex, Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty building and the Saarinen brothers’ Kleinhan’s Music Hall, and progress on H.H. Richardson’s and Frederick Law Olmsted’s landmark Buffalo Psychiatric Center. We have a newly minted Larkin District, as well, that is still building on the seminal history of that period of business innovation in the city.

And while we continue to be challenged with serious unemployment and poverty, we are building a new scaffold for our economic development. An award-winning regional economic development plan, created by the WNY Regional Economic Development Council with the support of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning with its UB Regional Institute Project, puts a premium on smart growth and investment in the region’s downtowns, neighborhoods and brownfields.

Consider also the UB 2020 plan. It recognizes the university’s role in generating wealth for the region through infrastructure, building and, more importantly, program improvements on the North and South Campus. And it’s reinforcing downtown with over $1 billion in planned, ongoing or recently completed capital construction projects on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, including a new UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the largest new building project in the City of Buffalo in decades.

This rebuilding is occurring within the context of a collaborative planning framework developed over the last few decades through three mayors. This series of plans developed by The Urban Design Project has received significant awards, including top honors from The Congress of New Urbanism and the national, state and local American Planning Association recognition programs. 

The “Queen City Hub” (2003) envisions downtown as a place where citizens of the city and the surrounding region choose to live, work and play. It calls for a strong urban core as a regional center for culture and entertainment, heritage, education, health care and life sciences research, commerce and residences. Downtown is the region’s center for government, finance, banking and legal services. Since its adoption, billions of public and private sector dollars have supported the proposition that downtown is the backbone of the regional economy. 

The “Queen City Waterfront” (2007) recognizes the city’s tie to the waterfront and how to redefine our relationship to it by making it accessible, ecologically sound and in service of water-dependent uses. The transformation has already begun with over 50% of the proposed projects completed or in process, and millions of dollars spent in cleaning up the legacy contamination.

The “Olmsted Plan,” completed in 2008, offers a blueprint for the future of this unique “cultural landscape.” The Olmsted Parks Conservancy, charged with the management and operations of these parks since 2004, is restoring the system, enhancing the parks and parkways in ways that respect their status as important neighborhood, regional, national and international resources.

All these plans cohere to “The Queen City of the 21st Century: Buffalo’s Comprehensive Plan.” Formally adopted in 2006, the plan envisions the Queen City of the Great Lakes as a stable urban center possessing the conditions that favor smart growth while building on its historic foundation. The planning is guided by the fundamental principles that connect the environment, our economy and our community equitably and accountably.

All of this planning and action will do for the Buffalo today what we saw it do in its history. It inspires us to be more creative citizens, to insist on beauty and to reposition ourselves in the regional, national and international economies. The plans also call on us to address contemporary challenges to live sustainably and well on a fragile planet.