Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Resilient Communities

Last week I spent a few days in Buffalo, New York at the annual Congress for New Urbanism.  It was my first time in Buffalo (aside from a brief overnight stay a few years ago on the way home from Maine), and I was interested to see another Great Lakes city in the midst of its revitalization.  To be honest I knew very little about Buffalo other than its sports teams and the Anchor Bar (home of the Buffalo wing). 

We stayed at the Embassy Suites in downtown Buffalo a few blocks from the convention center. I must say the Buffalo convention center looks like a Soviet prison. It's concrete and scary, and it is not in any way a welcoming spot for out of town visitors. It seemed like an odd space for a conference with such forward thinking ideas. I work for an organization that hosts large events, so I understand that sometimes it's just a space issue. It was, however, an offputting venue. 

The Congress sessions are filled with information from world-renowned urbanism experts. As a lobbyist it's often difficult for me to handle so much optimism. My world is decidedly pessimistic. But it's these kinds of events that are what help fuel my love of places. They are the events that help me remain optimistic when the political world threatens to bring me down. 

Downtown Buffalo has some incredible buildings. It has light rail. It has a budding theater district with some amazing architectural features. There are some great new restaurants in downtown. It has all the bones to be a vibrant 21st century city. I felt hope there. On our first afternoon we walked through the gorgeous Market Arcade Building and browsed the shops there. One of the store owners asked where we were from. Upon hearing Detroit (one of my colleagues lives there), she said, "Oh wow. I hear Detroit is going through the same resurgence that Buffalo went through a few years ago." It was an interesting comment, and we all agreed that in our minds (maybe we're biased? But I doubt it.) it seems as though Detroit has already surpassed Buffalo in its revitalization. At any rate it was fascinating to hear that the rhetoric surrounding Detroit is extremely positive in other places. 

On our first night we sort of joined a group pub crawl that started at the Pan American Grill in the Lafayette Hotel. The presentation was crowded, and we had a few drinks with some friends we made at the conference. As the group headed to a new venue we begged off and headed to The Lodge near our hotel. It turns out The Lodge is a relatively new place that has a very chic decor AND my favorite bourbon behind the bar - Four Roses Single Barrel. It was a great finish to an insightful first day in Buffalo.

The second day had some amazing sessions including one on resilient city planning featuring Jennifer Keesmaat, the Chief Planner for the City of Toronto. I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I want to be a planning nerd. I use the word "nerd" in the most affectionate way possible, and I only use it because most people I know find urban planning a bit dull. In reality it's absolutely fascinating, and I love it. I am a lobbyist in real life and a wannabe planner the rest of the time. I loved Jennifer's presentation, and it was a perfect set up for the other sessions I'd see later in the week (many on street design).

That evening we headed to Anchor Bar, the renowned home of the original buffalo wing. We had wings (obviously) and cocktails before heading to an event in Buffalo's Silo City.  Buffalo was once the world's largest grain port before the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Now those silos are abandoned and tower over the Buffalo River. The event had presenters and food trucks, and it was a really cool, haunting space. My colleague and I decided we should climb a silo which was a great decision given 1) it was dark; 2) I was wearing wedges (hot pink patent ones - perfect for climbing); and 3) we'd both had a few cocktails. Unfortunately we were yelled at to come back down, and our silo climbing was foiled.

Following Silo City we hit up the Tudor Lounge, a spot that was clearly popular with locals (and not conference attendees). The people watching was clutch, and the jukebox was playing some of my favorite 90s hip hop hits. Given that and some Maker's Mark, what more does one need? We finished the night at The Lodge again (I loved it that much). 

Silo City

Friday was our last day in Buffalo, and I started it in the best possible way - with a group run through the City. A conference that includes a running tour? Yes, please.  The tour included about a dozen of us and ran through downtown and the transitioning Allentown neighborhood. We ran past quaint storefronts, beautiful old homes (some converted to businesses or multi-family units) along tree-lined streets. The running tour was my favorite event of the entire conference. It was hosted by Victor Dover (renowned planner at Dover, Kohl & Partners in Florida) and John Simmerman (President & CEO of Active Towns). In general I found myself being relatively intimidated by the urban planning community because I am not a planner. I loved running with the group and discussing street design and architecture. I may not be an urban planner, but I can fake it with the best of them.

My favorite sessions were on Friday. In particular I loved a presentation by Ben Hamilton-Bailie, an architect by training who specializes in improving streets and public spaces. He talks about the concept of shared space - how cars and bikes and pedestrians can all use the same space without signs or traffic signals. It's a fascinating presentation. I completed my street design filled afternoon by attending a session about a book written by the aforementioned Victor Dover and John Massengale called Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns. Michigan leads a LOT to be desired when it comes to street design. The session was fascinating, and we could use a good dose of Dover and Massengale here.

The Congress had its desired effect - I came home energized, excited, and with a brand new book on street design. I spent the weekend walking around my new neighborhood in downtown Lansing evaluating the sheer volume of traffic lanes. I have a new goal - a boulevard on Capitol Avenue in Downtown Lansing. It's the perfect spot, and all it takes is changing the conversation. I can be rather persuasive when I put my mind to it. And I love a good challenge. Wait until I get some street design reading under my belt. Capitol Avenue won't know what hit it!  

Capitol Avenue, Lansing, Michigan. Road diet anyone?

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