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The 19th Century’s “Best Planned City” Tries Again

Mid-sized cities around the country are hoping to attract businesses and residents that can no longer afford the big cities. Will a “mobility revolution” help? Buffalo wants to find out.

by Aaron Gordon
May 21 2020, 2:01pm

Illustration: Cathryn Virginia

In late February in an auditorium in Buffalo’s tallest building, the city’s mayor, Byron Brown, presented a vision of a “renaissance of Buffalo” spurred by “new technologies” at the forefront of the “mobility revolution.” It’s a buzzword salad of a speech read straight off the paper, the kind of speech mayors of midsize cities across the country have been making in recent decades about attracting “talent” and jobs and businesses to grow the tax base and make their cities prosperous again. It’s a speech big on aspirations and light on specifics. It’s exactly the type of thing David Dixon has been invited to Buffalo to put an end to.

Buffalo may be doing better than the nadir of the 1980s, but it still has a population of approximately 257,000, about half of its peak in the 1950s. The median household income is just $35,900, a little more than half the U.S. median household income of $62,000. Almost one in three of its residents are under the federal poverty line. Almost one in five people do not have a high school diploma.

How exactly all the buzzwords connect to a plan that will improve those figures and the lives of the people they represent is what Dixon, a vice president for the international design firm Stantec, and about two dozen other urban planners have been brought to Buffalo to figure out. The goal is to actually do all the things most cities just talk about.

Dixon, whose distinguishing physical characteristic is a thick and bushy gray mustache, has heard a lot of these same buzzword-laden talks over the years. The speakers predict a future with autonomous cars, widespread scooters, connected vehicles, and the demise of the single-occupancy gas-powered car. But what will that future look like in practice? What does that mean for the way street space is used? Can all of these things coexist at the same time? About two years ago, Dixon decided to find a city that would let him answer those questions, which is how we all ended up in this auditorium.

Buffalo is not trying to get with the Hyperloop craze or build the next Maglev train. It’s trying to find out if these technologies—stuff which operates on American roads right now like autonomous vehicles and electric scooters—can actually provide real solutions to real people while supporting pleasant neighborhoods where people actually want to live. In partnership with the non-profit the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which describes its mission as “to champion walkable urbanism,” Buffalo hired Dixon and the other planners to spend three days in a crash course planning session. The goal was to re-imagine a portion of the city’s downtown called Lower Main—named after the lower part of Main Street which serves as the project area’s spine—in an effort to spur this mobility revolution/development cycle.

First, the planners met with community members, neighborhood groups, government offices, and other stakeholders. Then they spent two long days of drawing up a better Lower Main. On the final day, a Saturday morning, the group would present their vision back to the city. The CNU project manager, Ben Crowther, invited me to shadow the entire event.

I didn’t know what to expect from this crash course urban planning process. Revitalizing a downtown neighborhood in a midsize American city didn’t strike me as something that could be mapped out over a few days, particularly on the basis of a mobility revolution. But I got to see the messiness of it all in full view, and learn why the things that sound so easy in community meetings, when pointing at maps, or giving speeches get a lot harder when you actually have to do them.

And I saw there are different types of mobility revolutions. Some are about fixing the little things to make our current systems more pleasant and useful. Others are about big, new ideas that may or may not happen but sound ambitious, innovative, and exciting. The two revolutions accomplish different goals for different people. In American cities, at least, one tends to win out over the other.

“During the automobile age, we didn’t plan the technology, we let the technology plan us,” Dixon said. “I don’t want us to make the same mistake twice.”

*

At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo didn’t need a renaissance; it was the renaissance. The city on the lake was incredibly prosperous, with the most millionaires per capita of any city in the country. Thanks to the Erie Canal and a major rail hub, Buffalo acted as a key shipping hub, and therefore was a preferred location for American industry. It was also on the forefront of new technologies. The ultra-luxurious car manufacturer Pierce Arrow was based in Buffalo, at a time when it was far from clear Detroit would emerge as the region’s—much less the world’s—car capital.

The millionaires used part of their wealth to build a city that matched their ambitions. Some of that wealth went towards stunning architecture, much of which still survives, including the breathtaking art deco triumph city hall that, when I visited, was doubling as a movie set for Guillermo Del Toro’s newest film. From the observation deck which looks upon the city, one can see the streets radiating outwards from Niagara Square in a neat spoke system designed by Andrew Ellicott, who also mapped out a similar system for Washington, D.C.

Buffalo also boasts a world-class parks system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 19th Century, the same landscape architect who designed Central and Prospect Parks in New York City. In fact, Olmsted was so impressed by Buffalo that he called it (with a hefty dose of self-congratulation) “the best planned city, as to its streets, public places and grounds in the United States, if not the world.”

Buffalo parks system sketch
Olmsted's sketch map of Buffalo showing the relation of the park system to the general plan of the city, 1881. Image via the New York Public Library.

This made Buffalo special among American cities, which tend to not be planned so much as developed according to the laws of supply and demand, real estate speculation, and resource extraction. The end product is all too often cities that are built to make money rather than to be pleasant places to live. A plaque with Olmsted’s quote reminds visitors to the city hall observation deck that they are gazing upon what was once the best American urban planning had to offer.

These attributes—wide, evenly spaced boulevards, attractive architecture, rich history, substantial and accessible parkland to name a few—are what urban planners refer to as “good bones.” They are keys to what make cities special, but also difficult to retrofit into existing developed areas. Much like living organisms, cities either have good bones or they don’t. And for all its other problems, Buffalo most certainly has them.

Buffalo aerial photograph
Aerial view of Buffalo taken in 1945 by the Army Air Force. Image: National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons

But after World War II, the bones started to lose their flesh. Buffalo became a prototypical Rust Belt city as suburbanization and deindustrialization decimated its economy. Residents fled for the suburbs or the Sun Belt cities that proved more attractive to both commerce and people sick of Buffalo winters (the development and affordability of residential air conditioners is perhaps an under-appreciated factor in this population shift). Today, Buffalo’s downtown, once constructed for a much more prosperous and populous city, rarely experiences traffic jams.

Yet, because good bones in American cities are relatively rare, Buffalo’s serve as urban planner catnip. And at least some planners are stepping up to fill a gap in how our cities are built.

Until the 1960s, urban planners were the horticulturists managing the organisms that were our cities. But, under their watch, cities got very sick indeed with generally well-intentioned but failed policies called the Urban Renewal program. This program, broadly speaking, called for demolishing “blighted” neighborhoods and replacing them with brand new ones. Urban Renewal took different forms in different cities—some built mostly new housing, others cultural centers, hospitals, and university buildings, and many used the cleared land to construct urban highways—but the end goal was fundamentally to keep fleeing suburbanites tied to the city center. The legacy of urban renewal is complicated, but the common perception of the generations that followed is urban renewal was a legacy of destruction and made cities worse places to live. Certainly, it did little to reverse flight from American cities and may have even exacerbated it.

Over time, urban renewal came to be regarded as a horrible failure of government overreach and a prime example of how planners cannot build a better city from the top down. In fact, planners started to question the very validity of their profession. As a result, a new generation of urban planners willingly embraced a grassroots process, born out of the Jane Jacobs revolution—whose landmark 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities launched the backlash—that called for a neighborhood by neighborhood approach, putting planners on an even level with members of the community.

As Cornell University urban planning professor Thomas Campanella wrote, this made urban planners one of the only professions where experts willingly relinquished authority to quite literally whoever shows up. “Imagine economists at the Federal Reserve holding community meetings to decide the direction of fiscal policy. Imagine public health officials giving equal weight to the nutritional wisdom of teenagers,” Campanella wrote in 2012, at a time when it was perhaps more difficult to imagine random failsons determining public health policy.

The imbalance that so characterized mid-century American urban planning has now reversed itself. Planners have vanishingly little input whereas ordinary citizens, especially wealthy property-owning boomers, have immense power to block desperately needed housing and infrastructure projects indefinitely. As a result, America’s most prosperous cities also have deeply unaffordable housing, soul-crushingly long commutes, and no real plans to fix either other than engaging in a Sisyphean task of gaining house by house, block by block consensus.

Buffalo City Hall aerial
Aerial photo of Buffalo City Hall taken in 1971. Notice all the parking that didn't exist before. Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NY-6033

Just in case any of the planners in Buffalo needed a refresher on what the average person thinks of their profession, they got one the morning we were given a tour of Lower Main. A man with a round face in a gray Columbia jacket and leather gloves ran into someone in our group from the city’s office that he knew. He asked us what we were doing walking around downtown Buffalo in the middle of the day, something that—ironically for the purposes of the workshop—few do in winter.

When someone explained to him the group’s purpose, the man, without missing a beat, had a question. “What are you going to do with the cars?”

“No driving,” one of the planners replied, in a tone that was equally likely to be interpreted as seriousness or jest.

“To hell with you!” he crowed. “Do you all have cars? I want to see your bus passes. I want to see your passes. Do you live in the city? Or did you move to the suburbs? I’ve lived in the city. I didn’t leave.”

He wasn’t through. “I hate experts,” he spat. “You can’t just talk the talk.” He clapped along with his parting words: “Walk the walk!”

After the man turned away in disgust, one of the only planners in the group who lived in Buffalo sheepishly reached into his wallet. He did, in fact, have his bus pass. But it was too late. The man, having already made his point, was on his way into the warmth of his office.

“I hate experts” is the type of mentality that got American cities into the mess they’re in. And now, some planners are willing to get shouted at on the street in order to help them get out of it. “We have a really important job,” Dixon told the planners the morning they got to work in a sort of pre-planning pep talk. That job, he explained, is to make Buffalo a nice place to be, so it can attract talent and jobs. And, it has to do it in a way that makes Buffalo more equitable and affordable. He envisions a city where, for example, “minorities with tough jobs but good ideas” can start a business in a location that enables success.

The way Dixon hopes to do this is by replacing parking with places people actually want to be. Overall, downtown Buffalo has something like 25,000 parking spaces—depending on how one defines the area—most of which sit unused any given day. It is such an oversupply of parking that a motorist can easily park all day in the downtown district for only a few dollars.

Around 2016, Buffalo sold a 380-space downtown parking lot to a private developer under the condition the developer build 30 percent affordable housing and a grocery store, something downtown Buffalo sorely lacks. Brendan Mehaffy, Executive Director of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning, told me that got the city thinking it’s in the cards to flip parking lots into better uses. So when they sold another municipally-owned parking lot for $20 million, the city set the money aside for a “Mobility Fund,” which is how it paid for the workshop and plans to fund whatever the workshop recommends.

“What’s going to happen is, some regions are going to succeed and some regions are going to fail,” Dixon warned. This workshop is “a chance to get Buffalo on the right trajectory to succeed.”

*

“Fix the stupid stuff.”

That was the first step a smaller group of planners came up with after meeting with community activists who have been trying to “activate” downtown Buffalo for a long time. Paint crosswalks, the activists recommended. Plant trees. Eliminate “beg buttons” that require pedestrians to press a button to get the signal.

It sounded so simple. The easier and more pleasant it is to walk around, the more people will do it.

But the practicality of doing the “stupid stuff” is not so simple. Over the course of the planning sessions, Julie Fetzer, an engineer with Buffalo’s Department of Public Works which manages the street space, played the role of gently informing the planners why their ideas are harder than they seem. At one point, the policy team had “look at sidewalks” as one of its core goals, meaning to fix and improve the sidewalks. That’s all well and good, Fetzer said, but the planners would be going home in a few days, leaving some other agency holding the bag on a broad mandate like “look at sidewalks” with just that vague directive and no additional resources.

Later, the transportation team wanted to put bike lanes down the center of a road along with a landscaped median to make cycling and scooting safer, quicker, and more pleasant. Unfortunately, Fetzer told them, doing so would require modifying the traffic signals, significantly slowing down the project.

It went on like this (not always from Fetzer, who, it should be noted, was widely regarded as a beneficial presence at the workshop for her hefty doses of reality). Trees are great, and some will be planted, but to plant a tree you need to dig a tree pit, and to dig a tree pit you need to make sure you won’t hit any utilities underground and get the necessary permits to do the work. To remove beg buttons also requires extensive signal modifications. It’s not that these things are particularly expensive or time consuming individually, but without a clear mandate from above to make it happen, it’s work that can very easily not get done, and taken together can be expensive.

After the meeting, Ryan Westrom of Ford Mobility, a sponsor of the workshop, told me that it’s quite common for local governments to skip the “stupid stuff,” something to which most American city dwellers can attest. Westrom, who used to work for Washington D.C.’s Department of Transportation, said fixing the “stupid stuff” can, paradoxically, be politically controversial, because they’re not sexy projects or ones most people will base their votes on. But projects that are future-focused sound good to everyone, while making political operatives sound innovative and forward thinking, adjectives they can use in campaign speeches.

One of the things the Jane Jacobs revolution got right is it is often the little stuff that matters most to people, and it is the people who live on the block who will notice it. Unfortunately, it is the paradoxical state of local government that, although the people who show up to city council meetings and community boards almost always complain about the little stuff, it is the big ideas that win elections.

This tension between the big ideas and little stuff was very much in play at the Buffalo mobility workshop. “Permit me to be a maverick for a moment,” said Glenn Barr, a partner of the planning firm Better Neighbourhoods in Canada the next morning as the planners discussed their angle of attack. “But I didn’t learn a lot last night [at the community workshop]. Quite frankly this conversation could take place in any city in North America. I thought we were going to talk about the new technology instead of what we’re talking about now.”

“We can talk about that,” replied Tom Yardley, a principal at Stantec. “But there are some very basic things we have to talk about first. If you can’t walk to the AV [autonomous vehicle] drop-off point, then will people use it?”

*

The next morning, after the teams spent the full day sketching out how they wanted to fix the stupid stuff, Brendan Mehaffy from Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning took the floor. He thanked everyone for their hard work, especially those on the policy team which recognized that not all of the identified proposals are within the City of Buffalo’s control (some, for example, are the domain of the state Department of Transportation or the regional transit authority).

Instead, Mehaffy latched onto one specific proposal from the transportation team, which called for a “micromobility corridor” along Washington Street, a north-south route one block over from Main Street. This street, the planners envisioned, would accommodate all the forms of the mobility revolution around the corner, as well as expand walking and green space.

By branding this corridor and being “compelling enough with a vision,” Mehaffy said, the city could attract corporations and philanthropies to be a part of the project. Barr, who had previously been worried about technology being left out of the plan, was on board, asserting this corridor would be “the coolest spot in Western New York.”

Project area
Maps and annotations of the project area. Photo: Aaron Gordon

For the next 15 hours, the teams busied themselves with making sketches and the PowerPoint presentation for the community meeting the following day. It was mostly heads-down work, but popping around I heard some murmurs questioning how this corridor fit with what was already in place.

That morning, Nadine Chalmers from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which runs the buses and light rail system, joined the group. She asked what would happen to the more than a dozen bus routes that currently run along Washington Street. And the next block over, Main Street, is where the light rail runs through downtown.

Bill Price, the designer who was working on the street sketch, said he hadn’t planned for buses.

“I’m not saying we need buses on every street,” Chalmers said, “I’m just saying, don’t forget about buses.”

Ben Herring, an urban architect from Ohio who was leading the design team, had been listening to the conversation and chimed in.

“I’m just very concerned with addressing the concerns Brendan expressed,” referring to the need to incorporate new technology elements on Washington Street.

Later in the day, Chalmers started working with the transportation team. She noticed that the shared autonomous vehicle and micromobility pilot corridor is just a block over from and runs parallel to the light rail, which is free in downtown and always has been. She worried this corridor would cannibalize light rail ridership, which the NFTA uses to help justify local and federal funding for projects and operations. If they lose riders—even free ones—she worried funding might decline.

Julie Chizmas, a planner for the city of Nashua, New Hampshire, assured Chalmers this was on her radar. But, she added, “this is a demonstration that brings together all of the concepts” and that “during construction this will support light rail, not negate it.”

When I ran these concerns by Mehaffy recently, he said the light rail runs every ten minutes, so if people are only traveling within a 10-minute radius in the Lower Main area, a shared scooter or bike makes more sense. He also said it was an intentional choice to host the workshop in the winter, which is notoriously unpleasant in Buffalo, as opposed to its beautiful summers, so everyone remembered the options they were discussing were not year-round ones. On this front, Mehaffy’s planning worked. Two of the days were so windy it was difficult to even stand in downtown Buffalo, much less ride any kind of two-wheeled device. On days like that, Mehaffy said, everyone will still need the light rail even for short trips.

“We want to support our light rail system,” Mehaffy added. “I don’t know how much it would necessarily be a competition.”

*

The next day, the planners, led by Dixon, presented their plan for Washington Street. It was, without a doubt, a better version of Washington Street. It featured protected bicycle lanes, regular loading zones, bus bulbs for boarding, and space for tree plantings. There was one travel lane in each direction for buses, cars, and, yes, autonomous vehicles. It took space away from single occupancy cars and gave it to pedestrians, cyclists, and mass transit. A classic win for urbanists.

Since then, Dixon, CNU, and Mehaffy have been working on a final report based on those designs, going block by block to figure out the nitty gritty details. Mehaffy said the report will be done in May or June, at which point the community engagement process would continue. He couldn’t peg a specific timeline for when shovels will hit the ground on Washington Street. First, they have to hold more public meetings and meet with the plannings and zoning boards. But, he emphasized the pandemic has not changed their plans.

Still, I couldn’t help looking at the drawings and thinking to myself: was this not just a typical street redesign that, to use Barr’s phrase, could occur in any North American city? A similar project is happening not far away on Niagara Street, which took years to get approval for. Was plopping AVs into the regular travel lane solving any of the difficult questions about how they fit into the urban landscape? Mehaffy assured me the final report will be more elaborate than the drawings and demonstrate the project is significantly different than the Niagara Street refurbishment.

For their part, many of the planners emphasized to me on the final day that it is just a pilot, and they can expand this design city wide in about three years if all goes well.

At the public feedback tables set up outside the auditorium, Buffalonians reiterated the points they had made three days prior. Who needs an AV shuttle when the free light rail is just a block over? Was this an effort to privatize public transit? It only takes about ten minutes to walk the pilot area. Was a shuttle really even necessary? And what about all the stuff they asked for in the first meeting, the bus shelters, getting rid of the beg buttons, and the painted crosswalks?

Aaron Zimmerman, one of the planners from D.C.’s Department of Transportation, said he was a little disappointed that all of that “tactical urbanism” stuff got dumped. Talking near the tables before the event started, Zimmerman recalled walking across Niagara Square a few days prior, which is a sea of pavement. He wondered aloud how cool it would be to get some paint out there, to narrow the lanes a bit to slow traffic down, to make it a nicer place to walk around and admire Buffalo’s architecture. After all, those are the good bones.

I took a sip of my coffee, which I had walked to purchase from one of the only coffee shops open in downtown Buffalo on a Saturday. The coffee was from a shop called Public Espresso and Coffee in the lobby of the Lafayette Hotel, a renovated landmark with a lobby decor in retro 60s charm. Both the hotel lobby and the coffee shop are classic examples of "third places," a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg referring to where people spend time between work and home. They're exactly the types of businesses Buffalo wants more of. But the coffee shop was mostly empty.

When I left, I saw a few people huddled by a pole on the other side of Washington Street waiting for a bus, holding their hoods over their faces as the wind whipped across the square.

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