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If Our Water Could Talk
Action Planning for the Queen City Waterfront

If water could talk in Buffalo, it would say, “keep planning and implementing with great vision.” Our story on the settlement of Buffalo includes a brilliant radial plan plotted by Joseph Ellicott in1804 that assured we would grow up from the water south and west centered on the Lake Erie Waterfront. Another powerful vision 15 years later was for what was then called “The Grand Canal,” a barge canal to assist in the transshipment of grain and goods east and people west. Planners were looking for the best site for its western terminus. In response, Buffalo re-engineered the mouth of the river to allow calm water for large ships to offload goods, establishing the port and the successful designation of the city as the terminus of the Erie Canal. By 1841, Buffalo was the largest grain handling port in the world.

Our economic history and health has been tied to the history of our water as we moved from frontier outpost to center of trade and experienced a powerful burst of industrialization in grain and then steel. In 1846, Buffalo was the 12th largest city in America; by 1901 we were the eighth largest city. Buffalo remained prosperous through World War II and then declined, losing population from about 580,000 people to now about 265,000. Along the way we polluted our waters, moving from drinkable, swimmable and fishable to none of the above. We built a system of highways that cut us off from the Niagara River, Lake Erie and the Buffalo River.

Today, economic restructuring has been occurring, pollution issues are being incrementally addressed and, for the first time in 30 years, good planning is again a source of vision-based engagements of the water. In 2007, the City of Buffalo released The Queen City Waterfront plan, which is based on the clear and simple vision that Buffalo, once a waterfront city, will be a waterfront city once again. As a community, Buffalo is committed to making our waterfronts accessible and environmentally healthy; reconnected to our neighborhoods, economically resourceful, and efficient as transportation corridors. This plan is based on a great legacy of more than 120 plans for more than 80 sites, all aimed at achieving the full potential of our waterfronts. It incorporates detailed analytical and creative effort – the work of thousands of citizens active in planning.

As put forth in this plan, achieving the full potential of Buffalo’s waterfronts is dependent on the quality of the transportation connections from the neighborhoods to the water. Examples of this include an integrated Peace Bridge Plaza, Porter Avenue and Erie Street. It may also be dependent on addressing the negative impacts on waterfront access and development created by Interstate 190, the Route 5 “Skyway,” the West Side rail corridor and Buffalo’s outer harbor. Buffalo is at work on all of these efforts, at varying stages of planning.

The Queen City Waterfront plan also suggests a framework for accounting for the implementation of priority projects selected by the community. The current multiagency cooperation on waterfront implementation – across local, regional, state and federal participants – includes a process of information sharing, coordination, problem solving and mutual accountability. It builds on the ongoing activities of organizations like the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and their continuing success in the transformation of Buffalo’s inner harbor.

Buffalonians know what they want for their waterfronts. They have expressed it time and time again. The Queen City Waterfront expresses these aspirations through vision, policy, projects, designs and a simple but powerful framework for setting priorities and managing implementation. Following this strategic plan for transportation improvements, Buffalo will be a waterfront city again.

 Portions of the text above are abstracted and updated from the introduction to the Queen City Waterfront (2007) prepared by the Urban Design Project (now part of the UB Regional Institute) at the School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Robert Shibley, Lynda Schneekloth and Bradshaw Hovey took the lead for UB on the effort, working with Wendel Duscherere (now the Wendel Group), The Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, and the City of Buffalo. The plan is available for download at

Funding for If Our Water Could Talk is provided by HSBC and Honeywell. With additional funding from The Joy Family Foundation, Lawley Insurance and The Baird Foundation.