Tonawanda News

October 6, 2013

BOOK NOOK: The genius behind a walk in the park

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — If you attended elementary school in Western New York you likely learned the development of Buffalo’s parks system was a trailblazer, a game-changer and a difference-maker. Urban environments, anywhere, simply did not have acres of pastoral space available to residents of every economic class until Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux laid out their plans for Buffalo in 1868. 

The result was, and remains, magnificent, with parks of varying size connected by streets heavy with greenery, towering trees lining the streets and what in Buffalo are called “islands” dividing the road’s lanes. The plan deserves a book, heavy with photographs and scholarly, informed commentary.

“The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux and the Buffalo Park System” is that book, essentially an art book about an encompassing work of art many in the area know well. Written by local art history professor Francis A. Kowsky, it has a comprehensive and intellectual heft to it, both in scholarship and in weight, a beautifully-produced volume on a topic that deserves something exactly like this.

The parks were installed in Buffalo’s most robust age, the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th — actually the plans were developed between 1868 and 1896 — and were essentially the first of their kind. 

Olmsted had recently designed New York’s Central Park, but his project for Buffalo was more than a large rectangle of verdant luxury in the middle of a city. This was a genuine park system, and the overwhelming majority of it remains in place and available today.

Delaware Park, Riverside Park, South Park and its botanical gardens, get a treatment here that make the reader think it’s Paris he’s studying. Buffalo was that significant; the parks were that attractive. Even the modern-day photographs here, of tree-lined Bidwell Parkway and other elements of the system, look like art photography.

The book is a stunner and those of us who think we know local history will be impressed with the way it presents the beauty of this city, then and now.

The narrative is as cohesive and methodical as the planning of Olmsted and Vaux. Consider the work involved in dropping a coordinated series of green spaces in a bustling city with an orientation toward heavy industry. The motivation, the inspiration and the step-by-step planning of Olmsted and Vaux are expertly explained here.

Their partnership ended and was reborn to straighten out Niagara Falls, taking the area near the waterfall back from industrial manufacturers and polluters and bringing the land to a manicured and harmonized sort of nature. Much of what they learned came from installing Buffalo’s parks.

The book is a triumph, and perhaps the first time a reader might consider an urban American park as an example of democracy in action — a crucial part of the plan was to ensure equal access to all; this was not a commission to build the grounds around Versailles, or some other rich guy’s lawn; Olmsted and Vaux were building people’s parks, walkable and available.

It feels, looks and reads like a scholarly book about an artist and about art. That’s because the Buffalo parks system, designed by the world’s first landscape architects, is precisely that; anyone who has looked out from the windows of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery onto Delaware Park knows it’s another work of art out there.

Buffalo has fallen from prominence since those days of the parks’ development, but these jewels in its crown remain. A few things, notably highways and elm disease, have damaged the plan somewhat, but a visitor can still walk through these art works and appreciate them. After the reading this sensational book, the visitor will better appreciate the complexity he or she is observing in the walk.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

• WHAT: "The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux and the Buffalo Parks System" • BY: Francis A. Kowsky • PUBLISHER: University of Massachusetts Press • GRADE: A plus; a triumph