In 1993, Marvin Lunenfeld and Gail McCarthy attended an urban garden tour in Chicago and decided it was a concept that could work equally well for their block club in Buffalo.

Since then, the group has won regional and international garden tourism awards, beautified and rejuvenated neighborhoods, increased home values, and hosts tens of thousands of visitors from around the U.S. and abroad annually – for an estimated annual $4.5 million economic impact.

They presented the idea to the members of their Norwood/West Utica Neighborhood Association, which represented their West Side community, and by the summer of 1995 a group of volunteers from that organization had set up the basic structure for the first Buffalo Garden Walk, held on July 15 and 16, 1995.

Twenty-nine gardens were entered, most of them in the area enclosed by West Ferry Street, Richmond Avenue, Summer Street, and Elmwood Avenue. The front porch of Lunenfeld and McCarthy’s home at 231 Norwood was the headquarters for the event, as it was to be for five years.

The event was open to anyone in the area who wanted to participate, with no prior judging.

The main goal was to encourage neighborhood beautification and to promote community pride. No admission was charged for the first Garden Walk and no admission is charged today, but in every other way, Garden Walk has grown well beyond its original size and scope. The number of gardens participating in the Garden Walk has increased every year, growing to more than 400 in 2015, making the event the largest of its kind in the United States.

The boundaries now extend nearly five miles.

Garden Walk extends from the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Delaware Park to downtown Buffalo’s Canalside, and from the Niagara River to Buffalo’s Main Street. Most of the participating gardens are, of course, private ones, but from the beginning, an increasing number of community spaces, corporate gardens, and church gardens have taken part.

The work of organizing and managing the Walk has always been done by volunteers, while financial support comes primarily from contributions from participants and visitors, corporate sponsorships, and merchandise sales. A database has been built over the years, and maps are mailed to the individuals on the list before each year’s Garden Walk in return for a contribution.

Garden Walk Buffalo, Inc. became a 501(c)3 in 2007. Previously, it had used the Elmwood Village Association as a 501(c)3 pass-through.

Beautifying our neighborhoods

Starting in 2002, this voluntary contribution strategy has been so successful that Garden Walk was able to provide modest grants for beautification projects – community gardens, street-side planters, hanging baskets, public garden restoration, and more – for block clubs and community groups within the Garden Walk area – more than $100,000 has been awarded for more than 100 beautification projects since 2005 with what are now called the Marvin Lunenfeld Beautification Grants.

Garden Walk Buffalo had become a part of summer in Buffalo. The signature event now attracts 60-70 thousand visitors from around the U.S., Canada, and beyond. Garden Walk Buffalo, through its events and efforts to have its gardens published in dozens of national magazines, has helped take the chill out of Buffalo’s rustbelt/snowbelt image.

The National Garden Festival

In 2010, Interim Director of Visit Buffalo Niagara, Drew Cerza (Buffalo’s Wing King), pulled Garden Walk Buffalo president at the time, Jim Charlier, into a meeting with Ed Healy, VP of Marketing for Visit Buffalo Niagara. The intent was to gauge Garden Walk Buffalo’s ability to create more events to spread garden tourism events throughout the summer, as well as find ways to extend visitors’ hotel stays during the summer. At the time, Garden Walk Buffalo did not have the wherewithal to plan and host events beyond Garden Walk Buffalo. The all-volunteer group felt focusing on one quality event was the best use of their time and talents.

Drew, Jim, and Ed then quickly drafted Buffalo News columnist, and Channel 4 garden personality, Sally Cunningham to lead the effort of creating enticing horticultural events including a garden art sale, themed bus tours, a garden bike tour, a front yard garden competition between landscapers, garden art exhibitions, speaking events, and educational events, and a Tour of Open Gardens on Thursdays and Fridays (to extend those weekend visits!). In addition, the group charged itself with helping to promote ALL the regional neighborhood weekend garden tours (at the time there were 14 and had no communication or coordination between them. Sally’s network of professionals in the field, and teams of volunteers created these events, with unbelievable speed and enthusiasm.

Much support was provided through Visit Buffalo Niagara, the Professional Landscape and Nursery Trades of WNY (PLANT WNY), the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System, AAA/Horizon Club Tours, the Eighth District Federated Garden Clubs, the WNY Hosta Society, GObike Buffalo, Buffalo in Bloom, Citybration, Marianne Kresse, and the Cornell Cooperative Extension Erie Master Gardeners.

A Natural Merger

With no overseeing and underlying structure, the National Garden Festival was looking at long-term sustainability by merging with an established organization in 2014. It was better timing for Garden Walk Buffalo at that time. Dozens of National Garden Festival and Garden Walk Buffalo volunteers cautiously formed Gardens Buffalo Niagara in 2014 – what now could arguably be the largest garden tourism entity in the U.S.