Independent Study

(Re)building a Shrinking City 

As a shrinking city, Buffalo is currently dealing with ways to “right-size” its built environment. Primarily, this is being accomplished through aggressive demolitions, to rid distressed communities of abandoned properties that pose a physical and psychological threat. Although the demolition strategy has improved from the time when the City demolished properties in chronological order of attainment, drastic changes need to be made. Justifications for selecting properties for demolitions are based on dated policies from the initial roll-out of the mayor’s “5 in 5” plan; a proposal that led to the destruction of 5,000 properties in 5 years. This approach resulted in the thinning-out of entire neighborhoods which occurred concurrently with a continual exodus of people. An analysis of the 233 properties slated for demolition shows that the city is continuing to engage in a scattered execution to alleviate the problem. Continuing this misguided approach without a strategic plan or afterthought of the land post-unit is just creating further disinvestment.

Amount of demolitions in the City of Buffalo by year.

Demolition Costs

Bid packages for demolitions.


  • Average cost $19,000 (up from $15,000 a few years ago)
  • State mandates asbestos fees have doubled since 2009 (minimum $2,000)


  • Structures chosen by the city’s OSP, which prioritized sites around places like schools, community centers and places of worship


  • Approved by Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency
  • Funded by the Community Development Block Grant program in addition to $500,000 in the City’s general fund and $2.7 million in the capital budget


  • C&R Housing of Buffalo, $412,004 (25)
  • Empire Dismantlement of Grand Island,  $392,800 (21), $269,000 (14), $238,000 (13) and $281,900 (15)
  • Metro Contracting of Niagara Falls, $349,300 (20) and $265,670 (16)
  • Niagara Environmental & Wrecking of Buffalo,  $308,831 (12) and $292,200 (14)
  • Regional Environmental Demolition of Niagara Falls,  $270,675 (15)
  • Contracts for 68 Additional Buildings unavailable

Visualizing Vacant Land

Using GIS data, I began to visualize vacant land to depict the different degrees of abandonment throughout the city. Taking the analysis one step further, I decided to assemble the vacant parcels by landuse for scale comparison. The results demonstrate the magnitude of unutilized land in Buffalo and suggests that if demolition strategies are not rethought, the amount of vacant land will continue to grow.

Map of all vacant land in Buffalo color coded by type.

Chart of all vacant land in Buffalo by type in comparison to recreational land (utilized open space). Central Park is used as a reference to demonstrate the extent of unutilized land.

The Economics of Demolitions

Below is a combined map with embedded information regarding each demoltion.

  • The red dots are from the list released in September with 108 structures totaling over $2 million.
  • The yellow dots are from the list released in January with 57 structures with a cost of nearly $1.08 million.
  • The blue dots are from the list released in February for 68 additional structures, however details are not currently available.

Montages and Collages

Site Selections

This image shows the location of the neighborhoods that were analyzed and their proximity to each other. Green parcels represent currently vacant land and red parcels are properties slated for demolition.

From left: Westside, Masten and Broadway-Fillmore



Broadway-Fillmore (Polonia)



Gibson Street Analysis

Visual analysis of Gibson Street in Buffalo, NY showing property values and location of houses slated for demolition (red) and properties that were on the inrem auction (orange).

Current Condition Analysis

  • Prominence and importance of existing community anchors. (Broadway Market, The Urban Habitat Project, The Central Terminal, Corpus Christi, Saint Stanislaus, among many others)
  • Occupied houses and properties exist on islands surrounded by vacant land
  • Connections between blocks can be established forming greenways connecting anchors
  • These greenways can frame areas for investment and stability through the incorporation of cultural assets and activity
  • Future demolitions and housing relocations can be used strategically to assemble continuous, developable lots


Islands: Existing residential lots are surrounded by vast amounts of unutilized, vacant land.

Current Condition: Lots on Gibson Street currently sit unutilized and are visibly connected to continuous lots in the adjacent blocks. These vast, unwelcoming plots of land dominate the streetscape.

Potential Intervention: Establish physical connections and corridors for investment by providing basic lot maintenance and incorporating cultural assets.

Precedent Research

Physical Displacement or Action

An unintended consequence of scattered demolition strategies is the wholesale thinning out of neighborhoods. Communities built to rapidly house workers and their families during the industrial age once exhibited the density and liveliness that urban designers struggle to create today. Overtime outward migration and disinvestment took its toll on the neighborhood leaving behind a scattered existence of structures, most sitting abandoned in the vast urban prairie. The lack of density and lack of foresight for plans to re-purpose land, permits for the discussion of the physical displacement of remaining structures. Should the house follow the exodus of people? Will the densification of certain blocks and neighborhoods allow for the creation of productive greenspaces on the blocks that were abandoned in the process?


Seventh City - Superstudio

Superstudio’s Seventh City (”Continuous Conveyor Belt City”) moves with its 8 million inhabitants. In front of the city is a factory that builds the new districts, and behind it, another factory that destructs the older ones. It is an image of the cyclic action of American urbanism, operating in a continuous process of growth and decay. Those who can afford to move, are able to occupy the newest buildings near the factory, whereas the less mobile occupy the aged and abandoned structures. The process ends with the production and consumption of waste that the modern city leaves behind.

24620 - Kyong Park

24620, a Kyong Park project, is an abandoned house from Detroit in search of a new home. The house was cut up so that it could be moved and re-assembled anywhere in the world. It is a “fugitive house,” running from the city of Detroit, which has destroyed or burned more than two hundred thousand homes in the last fifty years.

24620 desperately extends its existence by travelling. With its pieces misplaced and their incisions permanent, the house, when re-assembled, replicates the condition of a dysfunctional city in the violence of dismembered spaces. Wherever it may go, the house takes the ideals and failures of modernism with it, creating discourses on the cultural state and destiny of each community.


Devil’s Night - Citizens of Detroit

In Detroit, October 30th has become known as Devil’s Night or the day that it sets itself on fire. What began as a series of Halloween pranks quickly grew into a tradition to express civic unrest or to cover up criminal activities, such as insurance fraud. In 1984, the city experienced 297 arsons on Devil’s Night itself and 810 during a three-day period, earning the city the title of the “Arson Capital of the Nation.” In an effort to curb crime, the city has renamed the holiday “Angel’s Night,” stepped up police and fire patrols and imposed curfews; however, these acts of self-destruction still exist today.

Decamping Detroit - Waldheim and Santos-Munné

In 1990, Detroit authored a report for the decommissioning and abandonment of the most vacant areas of the city. This project looked at areas that were identified at least 70% vacant and proposes scenarios by which they may be reconstituted.  The project envisioned the decampment occurring in the following stages:

  • Dislocation: voluntary relocation of remaining residents and discontinuation of city services
  • Erasure: erasure of evacuated zones, included encouraged arson and aggressive demolitions
  • Absorption: ecological reconstitution of zones through tree-farming and inundation of the ground through selective flooding
  • Infiltration: speculation on the future reappropriation of the decommissioned zones.

Social Dress Buffalo - Takashi Horisaki

Imagined as a monument to the past that also serves as inspiration for the future. The structure was constructed as a meeting place for conversation and consideration. While the exterior reveals the history of Buffalo’s neighborhoods through the replicated surfaces of its homes, the interior becomes a cathedral-like space of contemplation by the virtue of the stained glass-like effect of the colorful cast latex skins.

Concentrated Abandonment and Regeneration

By addressing the issue at the neighborhood scale, it is possible to divert money devoted to traditional demolitions to a focused approach with implications of localized regeneration. Future demolitions that create continuous greenways and corridors can maintain or reinstate density and change the psychological and physical implications of traditional demolitions. The envisioning of a greenway establishes a spine for the regeneration of the community, allowing for the creation of recreational trails, urban farms, and cultural venues. As a result, the urban void becomes a place for interventions and investment that has the capability to draw people in to the neighborhood and generate a dialogue.

Downtown Detroit - Camilo Jose Vergara

In his proposal to turn portions of downtown Detroit into a “Ruin Park,” Camilo Jose Vergara argued that leveling skyscrapers, the monuments of industrial capitalism, in the hope that development will come is shortsighted and wasteful. The process of destruction and the creation of vast assemblages of empty, unused land has a huge psychological implication on a city. Instead he envisioned placing a moratorium on the demolition of the most sublime ruins and investing in the stabilization of these buildings to form a grand national historic park of play and wonder. The transformation of abandonment into a memorial of a disposable society, is by no means a solution to the problem but it is a key to understanding the past and allows for the potential of new life as visitors come to discover.


Walking the High Line - Joel Sternfeld

In an effort to outpace political and real estate desires to dismantle the High Line, Sternfeld assembled a portfolio of over two years worth of photographs. This series of images proved to be the pivotal force in turning the defunct rail corridor into the park it is today.

Improve Your Lot! - Interboro

As municipalities seek to address shrinking cities, naturally occurring habits and phenomenon emerge. Interboro, a New York City  based design and research group, recognizes the process of “New Suburbanism.” This is a process where homeowners take, borrow, or buy adjacent vacant lots. All over Detroit and other shrinking cities, homeowners are starting to spread out, expanding their property by gradually accumulating lots that others have abandoned. This action, which is referred to as blotting, is an unplanned and unacknowledged response to depopulation and investment.


Super Division Detroit - Free Land Buck

The stunning vacancy in Detroit’s urban center has transformed a once densely populated city of subdivided parcels into a collection of tiny lots surrounded by empty territory. Given that an infrastructure built for over 1.5 million will soon serve less than half that many, the project proposes a strategy of re-territorialization rather than construction.

The hedgerow, as a technique of rural landscape division may be able to stave off the city’s urban decay by defining new, super-scaled, and occupied territories. Rather than resisting the city’s inevitable depopulation over the next several decades, the superdivision channels and manages that depopulation, eventually stabilizing home ownership as an archipelago of dense neighborhoods.