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Buffalo’s Outer Harbor Update: It’s Everybody’s Waterfront

Peter Harnik Presents in Buffalo on May 6
by Alan Oberst

Peter Harnik

Peter Harnik

Peter Harnik literally wrote the book about urban parks. Several books, in fact. As director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, Harnik has become the nation’s leading expert on urban parks—accidentally, and on purpose. After co-founding the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and growing it to an organization of national stature, Harnik joined the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to consult on urban parks. But when Harnik couldn’t find the answer the simple question, “what is the largest urban park in the United States?” he realized his first task was collecting data. The published results of that two-year research project made Harnik and TPL the go-to source on parks in cities.

Peter Harnik will be speaking in Buffalo at six o’clock on May 6, at the Burchfield-Penney Arts Center. The presentation will be free, and the public is invited. Harnik was invited by the 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor, an organization pursuing a modern realization of Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of a large park on Buffalo’s Lake Erie shoreline (that surprisingly forward-thinking vision, including wind-powered lighting, and access via electric water taxis, was put on hold by over a century of waterfront industrialization).

Harnik’s visit couldn’t come at a better time, for a city grappling with questions of what to do with, arguably, its most important public asset: its Great Lakes shoreline, located at a critical geographic and ecological crossroads. And in a city at a metaphorical crossroads, turning the page on decades of disinvestment that resulted in dilapidation and depredations in what was once a forward-thinking, world-leading parks system. Ominously, in Harnik’s latest book, Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities, Buffalo is literally the last word, in the last table, in the last appendix, of the book’s last page: Our Fair City is dead last among our nation’s large cities in per-capita parks spending—at half the spending of our nearest competitor for that dubious honor (based on 2007 data). Seeing that helped me understand what Patrick Whalen of the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus said to parks advocates: it can be a challenge to recruit top talent to Buffalo, in part because we don’t have the amenities of many large cities. Buffalo may be the only large city on the Great Lakes without a large park on its Great Lake.

Harnik should be well-positioned to give us insight on these matters, as his books are chock full of not only data, but examples and case studies of innovative park projects, and funding arrangements—some of which his organization has helped broker. He also speaks to the ever-broadening concept of “park,” from natural areas with little human presence other than hikers and birdwatchers, to “placemade” public spaces. All these are factors in what we do with Everybody’s Waterfront—our Outer Harbor. We can’t afford to get this wrong, and if Harnik has anything to do with it, we won’t.

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