Shaping a city: how an architecture and planning school has been with Buffalo every step of the way

Photo of railroad tracks separating two warehouse type buildings.

As a mid-sized city still navigating its post-industrial transition, Buffalo is fertile ground for innovation in design and planning – an opportunity the school has embraced since its founding in 1969.

Release Date: March 15, 2019

UB School of Architecture and Planning Dean Robert G. Shibley.
“The school has been fully embedded in the decline and promise of Buffalo. ”
Robert G. Shibley, dean, School of Architecture and Planning
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Matthew Straub is an implementer, a maker, a leader, a conceptualist. You have to be if you’re a student in the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, where opportunities abound to create projects that have a life outside the classroom — and that make an impact in the surrounding community.

For many architecture students, the projects they design and build in class remain confined within the classroom walls. That’s not the case for students at UB, whose work is deeply rooted — and utilized — in the community.

“The city needs creative design. There are so many projects to be found around the city that can directly enhance the everyday lives of our neighbors,” says Straub, a senior architecture major who has collaborated on projects with several local organizations.

The world has taken notice of the school’s community involvement via its participation in the Time Space Existence exhibition that ran alongside the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Later this month, the school will bring its story to New York City for a conversation on the role of architecture and planning education in urban regeneration.

The event features a screening of “See It Through Buffalo,” the film UB exhibited at Time Space Existence, and which tells the story — across a series of images — of the varied urban landscapes of Buffalo and the school's work within them over 50 years.

The program is being presented in collaboration with Van Alen Institute and will take place in the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice.

Event participants include Cathleen McGuigan, editor-in-chief of the Architectural Record, who will serve as moderator; Deborah Berke, dean, Yale School of Architecture; Diane Davis, chair, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design; Robert Shibley, dean, UB School of Architecture and Planning; “See It Through Buffalo” director and producer Greg Delaney and John Paget, respectively; and Korydon Smith, chair, Department of Architecture at UB.

“The school has been fully embedded in the decline and promise of Buffalo,” says Shibley. “The recruiting pitch for faculty and students has been, ‘Come to Buffalo. It has every problem and opportunity in the world you ever wanted to study, and it is small enough to actually participate in the problem solving and make a difference.’”

As a mid-sized city still navigating its post-industrial transition, Buffalo is fertile ground for innovation in design and planning – an opportunity the school has embraced since its founding in 1969.

Its model is one of mutual exploration rather than intervention. Faculty and student experiments start small, in ways that both respond to community needs and speculate at the boundaries of practice and research. The engagements are sustained and iterative (several projects span decades), and intensively hands on.

As a result, faculty and students play an active role in Buffalo’s renaissance and its continued navigation of questions facing cities around the world. Consider that the school’s current efforts span the issues of climate change, food access, affordable housing, sustainable manufacturing, zero-energy building design, and refugee health.

The work plays out in all corners of the region, from Buffalo’s downtown, to its distressed neighborhoods, to the region’s suburban centers and rural towns and villages.

“UB’s School of Architecture and Planning recognizes both the challenges and opportunities in a city like Buffalo, and devotes countless resources to create alternatives for government, neighborhoods and commercial districts,” says Bob Skerker, a business and cultural leader in Buffalo and major sponsor of “See It Through Buffalo.”

“The film captures the city and its challenges that exist today and the opportunities for tomorrow,” Skerker adds.

Building on nearly 30 years of planning and design work for the city’s waterfront, the school is guiding development of a $50 million urban park along Lake Erie.

Working with the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation and the UB Regional Institute — the school’s research center on regions — faculty and dozens of students are making sure the design aspirations for the park are high, and that the community has a voice in the project.  This is all designed to transform an existing park into a signature public space that draws visitors from around the world.

In the outer ring suburb of Clarence, a real estate development studio is taking on the national challenge of the “dying mall.” Working with a local developer, and Gensler — the world’s largest design firm — students came up with redevelopment concepts for the 100-acre Eastern Hills Mall. The project has the potential to transform a site dominated by parking lots into a walkable town center with residential, retail and dining, with public space for recreation.

On Buffalo’s up-and-coming East Side, faculty and students have tackled questions of gentrification, social justice and public health.

The school’s Center for Urban Studies engaged with a neighborhood nonprofit and other local stakeholders to transform vacant lots and abandoned homes into a welcoming new environment, and to develop a master plan for a historic neighborhood in the community. A faculty-designed expansion to a theatre has brought design innovation and new access to the arts to the community.

The city’s incubation of a global movement in food systems planning, a decade-long project led by urban planner Samina Raja, continues today with plans to support small farms in rural Chautauqua County and better understand the connection between food access and health for Buffalo’s growing refugee populations.

Students have embraced this spirit of activism and entrepreneurship. Take, for example, the initiative of Straub to find a community use for a seemingly mundane project for his environmental systems course: a 4x4x4-foot enclosure that tests passive design for heating, cooling and natural ventilation. Working with Grassroots Gardens of WNY, Straub helped extend the project into a class-wide venture to design seed huts for use in community gardens across the region.

“Working in the community has given me a lot of experience I couldn’t find elsewhere,” says Straub. “It is tough for me to separate my work with community groups and my education — they have really influenced each other and made my whole education much stronger.”

After graduating, Straub plans to work for a community development organization, “lending my skills and expertise to projects and ideas that may go unnoticed by most designers and architects.”

According to Shibley, it’s students like Straub who demonstrate the potential for universities to shape the practice of architecture and planning, and the future of cities. Later this month, the school extends the conversation to a global center for the profession, with educators from the likes of Harvard and Yale.

New York is the first of many such public forums, says Shibley. The school plans to take the film and dialogue to cities across the U.S.

“Architecture, urban planning and development find themselves today within critical spheres of influence as we address grand global challenges like climate change and rapid urbanization,” Shibley said. “Buffalo and UB demonstrate that universities and their host cities can push innovation in this space. We are eager to sharpen the conversation, and learn from others.”

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