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Refuge, recreation, gardens and the design philosophy behind Buffalo's Riverline Project

WNY Land Conservancy

As the Western New York Land Conservency begins to take public comments on Buffalo's Riverline Project, the 1.5 mile stretch of land connecting Solar City in Downtown Buffalo to the DL&W Terminal, the team behind the concept is eager to bring their ideas to life.
Paul Peters is Principal at Hood Design Studio, the group behind the project. He shared his insight on key elements that may be included, as well as the influence Frederick Law Olmsted continues to have on projects of this nature.
Nick Lippa: Tell me a little bit about your involvement with the Western New York Land Conservancy and your relationship so far with the Riverline Project.

PP: Yeah, we're the design team, which is led by W Architecture out of New York (Brooklyn). We are a landscape architecture and public art practice, based out of Oakland, California. And we work on projects all across the United States. And we are a social art and cultural landscape practice. And so W Architecture put together a team for The Riverline in Buffalo consisting of themselves as the lead, and architect, as the landscape architect, and then greenshield ecology as well as an ecologist. And we've just started the project. It's in the pre-design phase. So we've begun to work with the Land Conservancy, as well as began to do some initial community engagement and research and are beginning to develop a set of initial scenarios and ideas for the Riverline. And that's what we'll be presenting Wednesday, which are those initial ideas that we're looking to get feedback on as we move forward.

NL: And what are some of the core concepts you're looking to see on this project?

PP: So through the past four months, we've had a set of conversations with various community groups and stakeholders and residents. And through that, we've come up with three main ideas based around the notion of landscapes.


The first we're calling refuge. The notion of refuge. And this takes The Riverline and thinks about it as a place that you can come to. It's about healing, about health and wellness, it's about experiencing nature as one big thing. And so you can imagine that you would come, you can get on nature trails seeing wildlife. There could be quieter spaces and clearings within the forest for you to come in and relax. A place of sight. 


And the second idea is called recreation. And it's more about what you might think about a typical park where people recreate. And so thinking about places where you can have anything from an outdoor performance to a place you could come and do/have fitness-- you could do yoga, you can play sports, and go swimming, go ice skating in the winter... there might be farmers markets, so it's much more of an active use for the landscape.


And then the third idea we came up with came from the community is based on the idea of gardens. And so we have 10 parcels that make up The Riverline. And the idea with gardens are we have 10 different distinct garden spaces that are tied into the adjacent neighborhoods and adjacent community centers and homes. So these spaces of gardens can be anything from a butterfly garden to a beer garden and anywhere in between. So beginning to look at these distinct spaces as butterfly gardens that could be educational garden. It could be food gardens, for example. And as you design gardens you think about typically they have edges and gates and bridges. So each garden would have a distinct gate, as you kind of come in and out, out of those spaces. 

And so those are the three main ways that we're thinking about it. And so the process that we go through is presenting these three ideas, these three scenarios. And from that, we're looking to get feedback and understand what people would like to see. Some people might just want refuge. And some people might want all three, right? And so, for us moving ahead as a design team is to understand, what do people like or dislike from each of these three ideas? And how do we then begin to kind of merge and hybridize these ideas together to come up with something entirely new, a different type of landscape that's specific to what people in Buffalo are looking for?

Credit Western New York Land Conservancy

NL: Buffalo takes great pride in their Olmsted Parks. When working on a project like this, do you share design philosiphies with Olmsted?   

PP: Yeah, definitely. I mean, Buffalo has a rich history of the Olmsted landscape. And that definitely comes to mind. 


Olmsted is great figure in American landscape architecture. And so to a certain degree, when you begin projects of this scale, you always use him as a reference. And when we think about Olmsted landscapes, they're often really about infrastructure. And thinking about it very early on, he began to understand that you could develop these landscapes at this scale, when you began to tackle ideas related to people's health, right? Health and wellness are key and central to his landscape ideas. And the idea that you can come out of your home, you come out of your job, and you can go out into these landscapes of refuge, right? And you could experience these kind of the natural qualities of the landscape. And through biophilia, you're improving your health and wellness. 


The other that we often look to is the idea of using landscape for infrastructure. And so instead of using typical methods of engineering that hide the infrastructure of the city for stormwater, for example, or energy, Olmstead began to understand that you could use the landscape and its natural qualities to process and clean stormwater, and improve through that, the overall quality of water within the region, but also reduce the demands on city infrastructure. And so those are two things that we typically kind of go to. 

So when began thinking about The Riverline, and the Olmstead landscape, I think the idea of refuge is really kind of taking off the Olmsted idea that using landscapes and the idea of biophilia. By going out and experiencing nature, it improves your mental health and your physical health. So that's central to Olmstead, but also looking at the infrastructural opportunities that exist in the landscape. You may be familiar with the Solar Strand in Buffalo. It's a large solar array that integrates a kind of wildlife meadow. That's one way of thinking about infrastructure. Olmstead often used the kind of large water bodies, ponds and small creeks and also just open planted areas to capture stormwater. So that would be integrated into ideas to recreate the refuge, the gardens, thinking about how infrastructure could get laid into those. And so for example, in the gardens, you may have a solar garden, right? And thinking about how the landscape can be used for infrastructure, as well as a food garden. Or in refuge, can there be areas where we can create large areas to gather storm water, but also at the same time providing habitat and increasing biodiversity?

Credit Western New York Land Conservancy


NL: It will be interesting to see how the project evolves over time with community input.

PP: We're really excited to be working in Buffalo. The process so far, it's just been fantastic. Working with the community and all the various stakeholders. And this is just the start of the project. We're just getting started and we're excited to be working in Buffalo for the next few years. It's going to be a long term project.

Community members who wish to provide feedback and view some of the current designs do so here.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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