New Urban Love and Loathing in Buffalo: Jeff Speck Responds

Larkin Square's Food Truck Tuesdays are one example of Buffalo's recent successes in revitalizing its urban core. Photo: ##http://www.larkinsquare.com/##Larkin Square##
Larkin Square’s Food Truck Tuesdays are one example of Buffalo’s recent successes in revitalizing its urban core. Photo: ##http://www.larkinsquare.com/##Larkin Square##

As a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, I’ve now attended twenty of the organization’s annual conferences. This month’s event may have been my favorite yet, mostly thanks to its location in downtown Buffalo, a place that reminds us so poignantly of both the successes and failures of city planning, as first lovingly practiced and later ruthlessly perpetrated across America.

Most of the local residents in attendance — and there were many — seemed to enthusiastically embrace New Urbanism’s ethos of redesigning our cities around people rather than cars, recognizing how the auto age had perhaps done as much damage to downtown Buffalo as its devastating loss of industry.

But there are always exceptions. In the Buffalo News’ only prominent review of the event, art critic Colin Dabkowski wrote an “open letter to the New Urbanist movement,” that centered upon a damning critique of my community lecture there and also of my book, Walkable City, which he seems to have read in part.

The thoughts that follow are my response to Dabkowski’s review. The Buffalo News worked with me to craft this article as an Op-Ed for Sunday’s paper. Then, three hours from press time, they demanded that I remove most of my references to  Mr. Dabkowski’s error-loaded text. Not excited by that prospect, I am sharing my comments here instead.

I suppose that my biggest surprise in reading the Buffalo News article came from the fact that I had been expecting to hear such a critique sooner. In the eighteen months since Walkable City came out — and over more than 100 reviews — all but the most sympathetic critics seem to have been largely silent. I was waiting for comments like these, but eventually gave up.

The reason I was waiting is because two of the book’s central arguments — “Downtowns First” and “Urban Triage” — imply winners and losers, and I have seen at least the first argument anger people in the past. Folks who don’t live in downtown are often resentful seeing money spent there, whether they find their homes in cash-strapped slums or wealthy suburbs.

I have come to this Downtowns First strategy not as a social critic or even as a social scientist, but as a professional planner who learned from Jane Jacobs to think of cities as ecosystems that thrive or decline holistically. With some difficulty, and along with many of my colleagues, I have reached the conclusion that a healthy metropolis requires a vibrant center city to hold it together. Our experience suggests that, without a strong downtown core, investments in non-downtown areas are likely to provide only fleeting benefits. Both are important, but the downtown more so.

Urban Triage, on the other hand, is a complex concept, and one that is easily misunderstood. But I can’t begin to fathom how Mr. Dabkowski came to think that Urban Triage suggests “infrastructure investment should go largely to a city’s densest and most-prosperous neighborhoods at the expense of outlying areas.” That could not be further from anything that we New Urbanists have ever said or written.

Urban Triage is not a technique for choosing among neighborhoods for investment. It is a technique for, within any given neighborhood, discerning among more walkable and more automotive environments, so that walkability investments may be made in those corridors where walking has a chance of taking root. Urban Triage says that the road between the mall and the office park, lined by auto dealers, is a worse place for new streetscapes than the street between the bus station and the stadium, lined by struggling storefronts. It aims investment not at prosperity, but at possibility.

Ultimately, what I think has happened is that Mr. Dabkowski has confused the two different arguments in his mind. Downtowns First is a macro argument.  Urban Triage is a micro one. Downtowns First favors walkable, urban areas, whatever their demographics, because we believe that cities depend on them for long-term success. Urban Triage forces us to be realistic about where such walkability is possible, again, within neighborhoods, not among them. If he had finished my book, I think this confusion would not have occurred.

How do I know that Mr. Dabkowski didn’t finish my book? Well, he says that I am an “outspoken critic of… any structures that lack traditional details of the kind you see in buildings by H.H. Richardson or Louis Sullivan.” Where in the world did he get that idea?  Has he seen my modernist house? In any case, I would direct him to the second-to-last chapter of Walkable City, where I celebrate the high tech Pompidou Center in Paris, and note: “What matters is not whether the details were crafted by a stone carver or a cold extruder, but whether they exist at all.” I believe that architecture needs small-scale details to engage the pedestrian. Beyond that, style is irrelevant.

There are too many other errors in the piece to address them all, and I fear annoying readers with inside baseball, but let me just mention one. Mr. Dabkowski’s statement, almost libelous, that I blithely suggest “a city’s most intractable problems” should be put off for “another decade,” bears no relation to what he would have read in Walkable City. What I suggested putting off was, again, streetscape improvements in “the auto zone,” roadways “lined by muffler shops and fast-food drive-throughs.” The automotive commercial strip is rarely the location of a city’s toughest problems — indeed, they are usually zoned out of it.

When I am brought to a city, it is often by the Office of Human Rights or some other group that understands that our nation’s poor and disabled are disproportionately represented among the ranks of pedestrians and cyclists. They walk, bike, roll, and take transit, often because they have no choice in the matter. They rely on walkable downtowns and neighborhood centers because they are largely incapable of entering the auto zone.

I find it troubling that my experience advancing the interests of these disenfranchised communities could somehow be considered “trickle-down,” “dismissive,” or “exclusive” by a critic, but the work of revitalizing our cities is a complex business, and prone to misunderstanding. I guess I can take some solace in the fact that it took so long for this particular misunderstanding to occur.

Jeff Speck, AICP, CNU-A, LEED-AP, Honorary ASLA, is the Principal of Speck & Associates, a city-planning firm based in Washington, DC, and the author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

  • Padriac Steinschneider

    Thank you Jeff for a great response, as well as a clear reinforcement of the issues at hand. The triage concept in particular needs that clarification, since it could be too easy to simply assume that the tools developed by people associated with CNU should be applied anywhere that a municipality is inspired to take action. We cannot afford misapplied efforts. The idea that someone would come to the conclusion that the answer is to create better sidewalks connecting along the arterial to make it easier to walk from muffler shop to fast food restaurant, while leaving a challenged neighborhood of multi-family homes without sidewalks connecting to the nearby schools, is a very real risk. A challenge that I am having at the moment is coordinating how to get the developer’s willingness to invest in complete streets to be applied first to the streets with the greatest need, instead of the streets within the development. The streets within the mixed use development will be complete by the interests of the developer, but getting the sidewalks on the streets that lead to the development is the opportunity that cannot be squandered.

    The fact that your book makes this thinking crystal clear is no doubt the reason that you found Colin’s “Letter” so objectionable. But there is a silver lining: without Colin’s “Letter” this discussion would not be taking place. We need the discussion as the means to get this in front of more people, particularly those decision makers whose natural inclination would not be to wander into the CNU sessions. Buffalo was a great Congress and my hope is that we are finding the ways to bring the message, tools, and efforts to those precise neighborhoods with which Colin is most concerned. My hope is that by Detroit CNU 24, we be able to promote the wonderful ideas in your book even more.

  • Don Arambula

    I’d suggest that you are leading with your chin when you use the term ‘urban triage’. Too combative. Too many battlefield/violence connotations for neighborhoods where this may be a reality.

  • nibbler

    Jeff. Thank you for not loading this anticipated response with “inside baseball.” The last thing we need is a long-winded Shoup vs. O’Toole spectacle that goes nowhere.

  • Ben Ross

    I don’t think it’s right to ignore the high-speed arterial roads & superblocks of the last half-century’s subdivisions. As these suburbs age and decline economically, growing numbers of people are walking. They are where a large proportion of pedestrian fatalities now occur. These areas generate the sort of attitudes that convicted Raquel Nelson of a crime when a driver killed her son crossing the street in the only practical way she could.

    We need to try to make pedestrian conditions at least minimally decent everywhere that people are walking. And those minimally decent conditions will bring more people walking and taking buses, and make further improvements possible.

  • betty barcode

    Thanks, Jeff. I am sorry that the Buffalo News placed such self-serving limits on your response. When my comments at Colin’s column died in “Awaiting moderation” limbo, I responded via Twitter (@bettybarc0de) and at Alan Bedenko’s endorsement of Colin at our alternative weekly, here. I admit that I got a little combative.

    http://blogs.artvoice.com/avdaily/2014/06/09/new-suburbanism/

  • Oregon Mamacita

    Colin Dabkowski nails it. New Urbanists pick the low-hanging fruit and avoid the difficult neighborhoods. Trickle down development is a joke.

  • JKR

    I’m from Buffalo as The Buffalo News doesn’t want “outsiders” snooping around the East Side looking for answers to what went wrong because it only a matter of time before gentrification reviles generational housing discrimination across various urban centers like Buffalo. They say Chicago invented the type of redlining and blockbusting that ravaged neighborhoods like the East Side of Buffalo. I want the new urbanist to come and see the world that our grandparents have been working on so well with urban renewal.

    The 20th century leaders of Western New York failed miserably trying to recreate the successes of the sun belt cities however the writers and readership of the Buffalo News could care less about “new urbanism” as they see urban centers as “Disneyland.” Most of “original Buffalo” is living well in the various suburbs across WNY and I don’t blame them.

  • JKR

    The east side is far from ignored however many people really don’t know what they are looking at… Even the so called professionals

  • JKR

    The Buffalo News speaks to the Upstate New York Suburban Sprawl Lobby that is fierce with there antiquated visions for Upstate New York urban centers that only leads to suburban growth via urban madness. The next day the same Buffalo News will gin up the locals on a waterfront football stadium that will never happen. You start digging up planning for the East Side of yesteryear and all you’ll find is plans for freeways and expressways to the suburbs. The western New York wizards of smarts threw away the Broadway-Fillmore section of East Side to sell homes in Cheektowaga and Lancaster thus the Buffalo News wishes everybody just looks the other way while Black Churches turn whatever left of the East Side into suburban Birmingham, Alabama.

    P.S. Just do a bigger areal shot of larkinville and you’ll see new builds as old as 1990. I know I live here too.

  • Stephen Paskey

    Jeff … I attended both of your talks on walkability: the long session & the shorter lunchtime version. There’s no question Colin misunderstood you, but to some degree you have only yourself to blame. Beyond the fact that you didn’t clearly explain “urban triage,” you also did not talk about your efforts on behalf of a city’s poor and disenfranchised communities, nor did you give detailed examples of that work. Instead, as examples of what you (and New Urbanism) have to offer, you spoke at some length about Kentlands and Rosemary Beach, two places that have little relevance to the challenges faced by a city like Buffalo. To be blunt, Rosemary Beach in particular has more in common with Disneyland’s Main Street USA than with Buffalo. When you speak in a racially diverse city with many people at or below the poverty level, you’ll be more effective if you tailor your remarks to the city and give them something more relevant.

    Beyond that, whatever you have done personally, you’re not necessarily representative of your colleagues. According to Jeff Olson of Alta Planning + Design, as recently as 2005 Andres Duany did not include bicycle infrastructure in his plans because, in Duany’s opinion, “bicycles are for poor people.” Never mind that Duany was wrong about bicycles — the anecdote suggests that Duany did not think poor people were worthy of his attention as a planner.

    Finally, I was astonished by how many of the CNU22 attendees were white and how few were not. Several friends who work as architects or planners tell me that both professions are much more racially and ethnically diverse than CNU’s membership. If they’re right, you should figure out why and try to do something about it.

  • Ah, nothing like the wisdom of anonymous commenters on the internet. Such courage and intellectual honesty! Such nuance of argument!

  • dlw

    Here Here! Come back to Buffalo any time. It was a pleasure to have you at CNU22. Keep up the good work and the education of our Buffalo News commentators.

  • Jeff Speck

    A quick response, Steven. It is clear from your remarks that I should have been more explicit. You will recall that I presented those developments you describe specifically as quick examples of New Urban GREENFIELD development, after spending almost all my allotted time on urban revitalization. Perhaps I should have included a Trigger Alert before showing such things in Buffalo?

    I concur that this CNU seemed to attract less diversity than most. . . perhaps a function of its location’s demographics? I know that the CNU leadership (of which I am not part) is deeply concerned about attracting more diversity, not to say that they lag behind as you suggest. It sure is a lot more diverse than my architecture school was!

    In terms of Bike lanes, I too was slow to warm to them, but I challenge you to substantiate that “poor people” attribution to Andres. Our resistance was generally due to the road widening (and speed enticing to cars) that they represented. But NU has come a long way in that regard, and I know andres has too. But, again, most of the elitist words people put in his mouth are not his, and you should check your sources before repeating slander.

  • Having been a kid on the east side of Buffalo (Johnson Street between Genesee and Sycamore), I bless anyone who wants to work to put some real life (not just profits for exploiters) back into parts of that city. My grandparent’s house, where I lived until my parents fled to the burbs (Lancaster) burned to the ground when much of the east side was falling apart and being carved up for things like the Kensington Espressway.

    Good luck.

  • Robert Bielaski

    This conversation is worth having, but Jeff Speck is the wrong man to represent New Urbanism in it’s fight to distance itself from accusations of elitism. Honestly, I didn’t finish Speck’s book either mostly because I found his tone to be condescending and elitest. Although I had a twitter exchange with him where he states that he was only using humor, an excerpt from his Step 4 chapter reads like this:

    “If I had to pick one
    word that best describes why good public transportation is a vital part of
    walkable cities, it would be this: dating.
    When I lived in Miami in my thirties, it would have been possible for me
    to live, work and play all in the same neighborhood………….But I was single and
    looking to meet someone, and I wasn’t willing to limit the gene pool to a
    neighborhood the size of a small town when an entire city was theoretically at
    my disposal. Given the sorry state of
    public transit in Miami, this meant buying a car.”

    Joking or not, Speck has put into writing that accommodating the dating life of upper middle class folks is more important than making sure that transit dependent folks can get to work.

    I’m certain Speck has done some great work, is very talented, and has had a successful career. But he’s the wrong voice to be defending the New Urbanists in their pursuit of shedding their elitism tag.

  • Bill Banas

    Well said, sir. You expressed my thoughts exactly and eloquently.

  • Wait, what? He’s saying he chose his own personal transportation options based on dating. He wasn’t setting urban policy.

  • danielrsack

    The
    “downtown first” argument is interesting. Buffalo has, since the 1970s,
    been giving large developers millions of dollars to build their
    developments. Adams Mark, Hyatt, GoldDome, Norstar, Fountain Plaza,
    Pilot Field… Always it was said that we must strengthen the urban core and the dollars will trickle down to the neighborhoods. Of course “trickle down” does not work.

    But
    it could be that it didn’t work because of the large scale of the awful
    developments Mayors Griffin, Masiello, and Brown bought in to. Had the City
    invested in smaller projects, like private developers (Rocco) have,
    there could be ten times more people living downtown than we have.

  • Alex

    First, I thought Collin is an ‘art critic”.

    When did he become an urban planning analyst?

    When did he become an architectural critic?

    And when the hell did he become the person the Buffalo News is relying on to write anything related to either of these issues?

    Buffalo News: There are MANY PROFESSIONAL PLANNERS IN BUFFALO who could have written well balanced articles. Perhaps a bit of fact checking, such thorough knowledge of your writers credentials/abilities would be helpful moving forward.

    On another note, the most ironic thing about “planners” is they are usually incredibly conveluded speakers and have a hard time articulating theory in an organized, linear manner that helps all people (including non-professionals) comprehend proposed plans.

  • Eric

    That’s not what the excerpt sounds like. I don’t know Speck’s work, and I think I agree with all of his policy and design prescriptions, but he does indeed come off as somewhat tony. And boy does he live in a precious house!

  • I’m still chewing through this “I believe that architecture needs small-scale details to engage the pedestrian. Beyond that, style is irrelevant.” But largely I think this is well thought-through and explained.

    Sad Buffalo didn’t post this.

    Wish I could’ve attended CNU22.

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