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What to do About the Expanding Urban Prairie

For anyone wanting a real-life lesson in supply and demand, and the impacts of disinvestment and population loss, a visit to the East Side is a must.  Buffalo’s expanding ‘urban prairie’ is an everyday reality for residents of Masten, Broadway/Fillmore, Cold Springs and other neighborhoods. 

The US Census counted 23,000 vacant housing units in 2000.  There are thousands more vacant lots, many of them City-owned.  It’s enough to keep a blogger busy.  David Torke has been documenting Buffalo’s expanding urban prairie on his blog Fix Buffalo since 2004.  His photos and blog posts are enlightening.

One has to wonder if political leaders are willing to accept the reality of a smaller Buffalo.   It is uncomfortable to face a shrinking community.  That requires vision and leadership.  Instead, we look for magic bullets that will help bring back our former grandeur.  Never mind pesky socio-economic and New York State realities.

To date, the City’s approach has been demolition of dilapidated structures, a sprinkling of rehab loans, and scattershot, mostly subsidized infill construction to rebuild neighborhoods and replace an aging housing stock.  Mayor Brown’s 5-in-5 demolition plan aims to remove 5,000 vacant structures over five years at an estimated cost of $100 million.  Which begs the question, at what point does a smaller tax base and fewer residents make it necessary to reduce nonessential infrastructure? 

Few politicians talk about the population decline and its fundamental causes such as job loss, poverty, poorly performing schools, crime, and high taxes.  They’re better at throwing money at the symptoms, but not nearly enough to deal with the problem or stop the exodus. 

There have been plenty of studies, but little implementation.  That was one of the findings of Blueprint Buffalo – Regional Strategies and Local Tools for Reclaiming Vacant Properties, released in 2006.  It said the “shifting fortunes of the Buffalo-Niagara region have made it one of the most-studied urban areas in the nation.”

MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning is using Buffalo’s epidemic of abandoned property as a learning lab.  Perhaps the students can suggest a new way of thinking that will catch on.

The Shrinking City Studio @ MIT will “propose comprehensive spatial strategies for shrinking cities at three scales: city, neighborhood, and dwelling.”  From the project’s web site:

The Spring 2010 Shrinking Cities Buffalo studio is the first of a series of urban design studios that will propose comprehensive spatial strategies for shrinking cities. The studio examines the paradigmatic shrinking city of Buffalo, NY (1950 population 580,000, current population 270,000.)

Buffalo today is faced with a myriad of crises. The current housing bust is only the latest in a series of events that seem to have conspired against the city. Among these are long-term economic decline stemming from economic-infrastructural shifts such as the Seaway; the suburbanization of the middle class; the nationwide shift toward the warmer Sunbelt cities; racial polarization and segregation; and globalization. The negative effects of these forces are clear to any visitor. The city’s population has fallen dramatically and housing abandonment is a serious problem in the most distressed areas of the city.

19-vacancy2.jpgSource: Shrinking City Studio @ MIT

The Studio will look at solutions that involve physical innovation (urban design) with social and economic considerations. 

Buffalo is far from alone.  Many cities in the northeast are losing population and it is happening in Europe and elsewhere.  Youngstown, Ohio has a non-Buffalo approach to population loss.  Since 1950, that city’s population has declined from over 170,000 to 73,000 today.  The community is embracing its new, smaller, well-planned and sustainable identity however. 

Its “shrinking city model” aims to shrink the community through strategic demolitions and land banking, converting abandoned buildings and houses into open space.  The idea is to match the city’s infrastructure, budget, and amenities to its size so it can regain a functioning economy and healthy neighborhoods. 

In 2008, Mayor Jay Williams told American City magazine:

“Our right-sizing plan came out of talks we were having internally acknowledging that although our population wouldn’t be going back to the hundreds of thousands, but that smaller didn’t mean inferior,” says Mayor Williams. “The question we asked was, because we were once so much larger how can we take the remnants of what made us large and build upon that?”

The  Youngstown 2010 Vision/Planning “right-sizing” initiative has been recognized and rewarded by a number of notable organizations including, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, the American Planning Association, and Governing Magazine to name a few.

Buffalo officials should pay attention to what others are doing.  Perhaps the abandonment already in progress should be encouraged in the more depopulated neighborhoods.  Leave the vacant land fallow, remove infrastructure, plant trees or solar farms, and encourage urban farming. 

Drive through some inner-city neighborhoods and observe.  Look beyond the vacant lots and vacant homes and check out the remaining homes’ roofs.  Many haven’t been reroofed in years or decades.  Many will soon be vacant and join the demo list.  The cancer is spreading and the surgeons are out to lunch.

Entry Image: 100 block of Coit St. by David Torke.  More of David’s ‘urban prairie’ pics here.


Corner of Peckham and Coit streets, by Historic Aerials

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