Buffalo's Outer Harbor and the Reclamation of Public Space in the Post-Industrial City

In the current climate of global urbanization the American post-industrial city reflects the face of one potential future of this burgeoning urban / industrial development. Many of these post industrial cities located in the Northeastern United States were at their inception vital centers of manufacturing, industry, commerce and invention.

Yet the emergence of globalization in the second half of the 20th century alongside increasing energy prices, new technologies for moving goods as well as the overreaching of unions gradually led many of those foundational industries to dissolve or relocate, leaving these cities with a decreasing tax base, bloated infrastructures, increased crime and a population flight from the urban core out to the suburbs. Perhaps the most damning fact exposed by the dissolvent of these industries was that without them the city lacked any ability to adapt, either economically or urbanistically. In the 1960s and 70s many of these cities began to crumble under their own weight, a decay which for many has continued to this day and has earned them the unpleasant title of “Rust Belt” cities.

The upstate NY city of Buffalo is perhaps one of the best examples of this American phenomenon simply by its shear transformation from regional dominance as a pivotal hub between the agriculturally producing central plains and the bustling east coast at the end of the 19th century, to its current marginalized station recognized now, more for its snowy winters and fried chicken wings than as a vital urban center. As population and industry retreated, large tracts of housing and manufacturing were abandoned, unsupervised and open to the steady encroachment by the natural landscape. Unoccupied now for decades the Outer Harbor area of the Buffalo waterfront, once an essential center of shipping, grain storage, steel production and railroad transport in the region, is a prime example of this urban transformation back to nature. This reclamation of the urban realm by the natural world was officially recognized in 1972 with the creation of the Tifft Nature Preserve, a 264-acre nature sanctuary dedicated to environmental conservation and education located on the site of the former Lejigh Valley Railroad and Republic Steel dump. This area in addition to another such site located at the western end of the Outer Harbor known as Times Beach, and not yet officially deemed a preserve, but equally reclaimed by nature, makeup one of the largest areas of natural preservation within a city limits in the entire country. By becoming the home of many otherwise marginalized flora, fauna and animals as well as serving as a vital stopping ground for many species of migratory birds traveling along the Atlantic Flyway from South America up into Canada, the impact of these thriving natural areas within the urban core may provide an opportunity for rethinking the city’s potential future development and identity well beyond its post-industrial past.

As ecological instability continues to be a primary public concern, alongside the realization that human industrial develop of the last 150 years continues to be the primary reason for this instability, there has developed among a certain segment of the global populace a renewed interest towards the preservation of the natural world through the development of ecotourism. Due to their close proximity to the Buffalo urban core as well as their bourgeoning reputation as a migratory bird stopping grounds both Times Beach and the Tifft preserve sites should be regarded as new resources for the city of Buffalo, effective opportunities for an architectural intervention to embrace the potential of ecotourism and the development of a new type of public space within the city. By adopting a strategy of architectural urbanism focused on “processes of formation and thus to issues of temporality, efficacy, and change” the city of Buffalo has a chance to reinvest in its future development through economic, political and urban reinvention.

What if an alternative approach to the development of the constructed urban fabric was proposed, able to potentially accommodate multiple functions and events? Might a more open approach to “the building” embrace change, working with the inevitable flows of economy, technology and regional realities regarding them as active motivators, not inhibitors? How might the integration and presence of landscape also help to buffer these changes and produce new urban activity and new public spaces for the city? How can architecture actively participate within an existing urban condition to provide new spaces for urban gathering and individual public participation? How might an architectural intervention address the history of a place in the city able to address current issues as well as future change?

The proposed architectural intervention will be located on a site situated between the historic downtown core of the city and the harbor itself. The intervention will be thought of as negotiating these two urban conditions through an understanding of the urban surface as an “active accelerant, staging and setting up new conditions for uncertain futures,” a mediator of both the object and the field. It is the expectation of the proposals that through a more flexible application of a specific material tectonic system, the proposed architectural interventions might cultivate a more flexible and strategic relationship with the larger urban construct, one that although highly specific has the potential to address current issues as well as future change through the creation of public space and diverse building spaces.

*This class was offered as a 2nd year design studio