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Build Places, Not Things

What has been going wrong with waterfront planning up to now, besides the knee-jerk, top-down, anchor-tenant approach, has much to do with how we think and talk about building. Specifically, we think and talk in terms of building things. Things such as aquariums, national retailers, museums, waterparks, ramp garages, casinos, theme parks, skating rinks, and the list goes on. The argument about which things to “put on the waterfront,” as if we’re merely ordering furniture from a catalog, reveals how shallow this thinking is.

What do we know about thriving urbanism? Let’s look at our strongest neighborhoods: Hertel, Elmwood, Allentown, Chippewa. They are mostly bereft of things: no aquariums, national retailers, museums, waterparks, ramp garages, casinos, theme parks, skating rinks, etc. One notable exception: Three fine museums cluster on Elmwood. Long may they live, but no fortunately single tenant determines the viability of Elmwood, Hertel, Allentown, or Chippewa.

Up-and-coming neighborhoods such as Grant Street are attracting investment and activity and energy. How can that be, if they lack all of the things that are supposedly essential ingredients for attracting investment and activity and energy to Buffalo’s waterfront?

The vitality of Hertel, Elmwood, Allentown, and Chippewa has everything to do with the fact that they have less need (not no need, just less need) of specific things because they are good places.

What if we stopped talking about what to “put on the waterfront” and starting talking about what kind of place it should be? A different and more productive conversation would emerge. We might agree that the waterfront should be a place where people can live, work, play, shop, visit, worship, dine, learn, contemplate, garden, parade, stroll, perform, bicycle, jog, flirt, schmooze, demonstrate, Google, barbecue, sunbathe, read, hang out, skateboard, and as many verbs as you can think of. Like they do on Allentown, Elmwood, Hertel, and Chippewa.

Places are about verbs, usually happening in the same time and space. Just walk down Elmwood on an average summer day and count how many different activities people engage in using simple urban amenities. Things are usually about one verb or activity occurring in isolation from all others.

We have too many experts in building things. If you want an aquarium or a big box store, it is easy to make these things happen. The architecture profession’s highest honors go to people who build things as though they are precious, isolated sculptures on gallery pedestals. A collection of nice, even dazzling, things does not necessarily up to a worthwhile place.

We have too few experts in making places. The city planning profession, which was concerned with quality of place when it began, got sidetracked by accommodating automobiles and robotically severing all human activities from all others. Recovering from its long coma, it finds itself straitjacketed by its demon offspring, car-centered and use-separating zoning codes.

A good place is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s take on pornography: We can’t define it but we know it when we see it. But this is not sufficient if we are to have appealing, meaningful places on purpose rather than just designating a developer, turning over the land, and crossing our fingers. We need people with precise and technical knowledge for making successful places, just like we have people with precise and technical knowledge for building successful big box stores, ramp garages, and other things.

If you think Buffalo never learns from its failures, try not to dwell on what we fail to learn from our successes, because that is even more discouraging. For a waterfront that Buffalo will actually own, use, inhabit, and cherish rather than visiting only when there are out-of-town guests to entertain, we must consciously study and learn from our finest urban places.

Cynthia Van Ness, Buffalo

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