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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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  • Lego1981

    FINE the city for every bad property. Maby they’ll get their act together.

  • JSmith

    So how does it end? A small city with a “green belt” around it and then miles of low-density sprawl that continues to spread itself more thinly outwards? This will become completely unsustainable, especially in a likely future of rapidly rising gasoline prices.
    I think the answer is not that “political leaders [must be] willing to accept the reality of a smaller Buffalo” but that of a geographically smaller Buffalo-Niagara metro region. The city could demolish every last one of its vacant houses and put a permanent moratorium on all new development tomorrow, but it won’t make a lick of difference as long as we continue to build new subdivisions in Clarence, Lancaster, Lockport, Wheatfield, etc.
    You write “the cancer is spreading”. I think that’s an apt metaphor, but the cancer is depopulation, in our region caused largely by sprawl (remember, Erie County’s population has not significantly changed since 1950). All of these solutions that involve “right-sizing” the city without addressing the regional issues are like amputating a cancerous limb when the cancer has already gone metastatic. The patient still has cancer, but is now missing an arm, making life harder if they eventually do recover.

  • bhorvath

    You could say, though, that since the pop of the county has not changed since 1950 that in real terms it has shrunk since most counties with cities in them the size of Buffalo (then or now) have grown in population. It’s like saying a dollar in 1950 is worth a dollar today which it is not.
    [waits to be called names and/or misanthropic]

  • JSmith

    I guess that’s perfectly true as far as it goes – relative to other metro areas, Buffalo-Niagara has fallen behind over the past 60 years. But I’m not sure that’s relevant at all to the question of having too much housing and infrastructure and not enough people to support it all, which is what this article is about.

  • bhorvath

    True. I’ve ranted on sprawl in Steel’s older post. This question is probably the hardest one to really deal with. Although I get Satanic at the notion of giving for-profit enterprises public money to rehab downtown, I think the best way is to rebuild from within out. This would create a better image for large employers to locate downtown. Personally I would not be worrying about these outer city blocks until the inner city / village areas were truly desirable for more than the 20 – 40 professional demographic.
    PS – I have seen the light and changed my icon appropriately.

  • grad94

    is our next growth industry visiting planners and scholars? they’ll want nice restaurant meals after a long day slogging through decay.
    hello, cvb? chuck your marketing plans. apparently our failures are more attractive than our successes. move over, architectural tourists, bring on the dysfunction tourists.

  • jimmy

    This is a simple case of a surplus of properties created by over supply and under demand. The simple fact is that most people will do whatever they can to avoid traveling to this area of the city and will definitely do what they can not to live there. Those who do live there are moving out as fast as they can. I often wonder if anyone measures the true rate of new vacancies per month.
    Let’s be honest, what is the draw to living in the East Side? Being closer to work and saving a few dollars a month on gasoline isn’t worth your safety. The few dollars you save on gasoline would be spent on increased insurance for your car. There was a bike rider who was knocked off his bike and mugged last week, this happens quite often in these neighborhoods. So what is the incentive to move there? Most of the houses are small, worn down, vandalized, and they sit on mostly vacant streets.
    So really, what is the draw? I agree with the author that we should just tear it all down and turn it into a reservation or something.

  • Verdan

    Help the urban prairie return to its natural state, which is a forest. Plow it up and plant some native trees (oak, hickory, willow, cottonwood, etc etc) and give up the idea that abandoned city lots are going to be prettily mowed lawns.
    I am NOT saying “turn it into a park”.

  • Black Rock Lifer

    Well said, the region needs to shrink back to the center, it is the only way to responsibly address the lack of growth in WNY. Continuing to sprawl outward damages not only the city but diminishes the character and environment of our rural areas.

  • The Kettle

    Jimmy, I thought you said you lived on the East Side (Emmerson pl?)
    Am i remembering that wrong or am I thinking of somebody else?

  • jimmy

    I did, but don’t anymore.

  • FredOak

    We lived on the East side for almost 10 years. We had a block club, summer street parties, neighborhood watch, it was a great neighborhood.
    Then as the older residents died and their houses went for peanuts, the neighborhood changed. And as it changed we all began to move out. We paid $54,000 for the house, it had a ton of room, it was by no means small. We sold it for $29,000.
    Since we moved out there have been several fires, several murders, arrests for drugs and weapons, etc. etc.
    And I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

  • flyguy

    And who in the burbs wants to move into the situation FredOak describes above? Until the violent street culture goes away I can’t see an inward push.

  • Chris

    It struck me as odd that they would refer to “the current housing bust”. It doesn’t take much research to show that WNY in general didn’t participate in either the boom or the bust. That note aside this presents a great opportunity to get ahead of the curve on what to do to right size the city.
    The MIT folks talk a lot about Youngstown, OH. Here is an article that talks about Youngstown’s progress –

  • benfranklin

    Would you mind saying what street you were on? Closer to the city, so much has been removed, and with the new builds, well… it’s looking a bit better (perhaps I’m niave).
    Almost looks like it’s time to invest in the very first few streets as you leave the inner city. I agree with you that that time may be far off in the neighborhood your speaking about.

  • Crisa

    As I have already previously stated, its all about the roofs now. And roofing all over WNY, not just within the city.

  • Crisa

    And it is also all about REITTs and REIGs gaining strength.

  • The Kettle

    Gotcha. You lived there so you would know better than I but from the outside looking in there are parts of the E Side prairie that don’t look all that bad. I prefer density but part of me wouldn’t mind living on a semi-rural block in the middle of a city as long as it was safe. I kinda envy the guy who is turning that vacant block off Fillmore into a veggie farm. Seems like a cool way to make a buck.

  • FredOak

    It was Eller, right near the Cheektowaga border, by Villa

  • queenie

    Absolutely astonishing aerial photographs, 1966 and 2006. Talk about a picture being worth a thousand words. Can’t say living that densely was so desirable in some ways, but in other ways it meant community, security, knowing your neighbors, being part of something other than the plastic pool in a suburban backyard.

  • grad94

    just as a critical mass of thugs can drive out decent people, a critical mass of decent people can drive out thugs. except some instances of the latter are considered a bad thing (“gentrification”).

  • queenie

    Nope, nor can anyone who thinks.

  • PoorPeopleSuck

    These area seems ripe for a rezoning measure from residential to farm.

  • The Kettle

    Its already happening on the West Side west of Richmond.

  • whatever

    WCP>”Buffalo officials should pay attention to what others are doing.”
    I’m not aware of any city similar to Buffalo that’s had much success with this problem.
    Youngstown gets a lot of praise for its downsizing ideas, but so far they haven’t shown much results. To make land banking feasible, they’ve tried for a few years now to convince residents of very declined streets and blocks to move to other parts of the city. They’ve even offered big cash incentives. Some people just won’t move though, so it hasn’t been possible for them to end city services on any blocks or neighborhoods as they’d hoped to.
    Time will tell if their approach can succeed more in the long run, but for now the praise Youngstown is getting seems much more for what they envision in theory than for what they’ve accomplished in practice.

  • whatever

    You guys can try blaming Clarence, Lancaster, Wheatfield, etc. for the East Side urban prairie. But it sounds pretty unlikely to think that if people who want to live in those kind of burbs were somehow prevented from doing so in WNY, that they’d instead move to the E.S.U.P.
    I’d bet most would instead just leave the region or state. Plenty do already, and that would just add to it.

  • The Kettle

    Whatever>”You guys can try blaming Clarence, Lancaster, Wheatfield, etc. for the East Side urban prairie. But it sounds pretty unlikely to think that if people who want to live in those kind of burbs were somehow prevented from doing so in WNY, that they’d instead move to the E.S.U.P.”
    The “somehow” in this case would be to block publicly funded projects (road construction-upgrades, Sheriff policing, utility expansion, etc)that encourage sprawl in these towns.
    As you have repeatedly pointed out, new housing construction simply reshuffles the deck of local residents. Spending public money to create new communities in the far reaches of the metro reduces the value of older housing in all of WNY including the ESUP.

  • The Kettle

    Whatever ” ‘d bet most would instead just leave the region or state. Plenty do already, and that would just add to it.”
    Yes Im sure a few people may take their ball and go elsewhere if they cant find their ideal place in one of our rural areas. However, encouraging sprawl has a negative impact on the region’s environment and tax burden which also drives people out.

  • Leah

    There is a great book out that compares two school districts: Syracuse and Raleigh. Hope and Despair outlines the obstacles that stand between Syracuse and Raleigh, and the historical moments that have developed to create the differences.
    1. The theory of the doughnut hole. Once thriving cities like Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo have had their wealth and populations redistributed to the outskirts, leaving low-income residents that do nothing to maintain or contribute to the cities. Am I generally speaking? Yes, but I also believe the fault falls partially to the cities who cannot seem to organize enough efforts to train the left over population, and drive out the cancers that seem to fill it. Grant claims that socio-economically balanced schools would, and have, cured such cancers.
    2. Socio-economically balanced schools vs. racially balanced schools. This just makes sense. From having grown up in a low-income neighborhood, and school district, I know that it was not the color of the skin that held some students back.
    You can pour as much money as you want to into schools or areas, but you aren’t saving the students. To save the neighborhoods, you must save the schools. Crack down on the drugs, institute a dress code, actually ENFORCE the rules, follow through with repercussions, and get the community involved. In order to save many, you have to risk a few, or else EVERYONE suffers (see also: Real Education by Murray). No amount of money poured into technology can help these causes (see also: the failure of the Niagara Falls laptop project).
    Then, put in programs to empower students to invest in the community. They can help fix up the housing, and are more likely to stick around to help it flourish.

  • whatever

    pitbill>”block publicly funded projects (road construction-upgrades, Sheriff policing, utility expansion, etc) that encourage sprawl”
    People and businesses in Clarence, Lancaster, Wheatfield, etc. should have to pay their fair share of taxes to fund all that stuff such as roads, etc.
    Despite you and a few others repeatedly claiming they don’t, I haven’t seen any real evidence that they don’t already contribute their fair share, considering all the taxes they pay.
    pitbull>”you have repeatedly pointed out, new housing construction simply reshuffles the deck of local residents”
    People and businesses should be free to construct any housing (or stores, hotels, offices, …) that they want to build – whether it’s downtown or anywhere. Those kind of things should have to pay their full fair share of taxes too.

  • whatever

    pitbull>”encouraging sprawl has a negative impact on the region’s environment and tax burden which also drives people out”
    Of the state and local spending which causes the nearly highest in U.S. tax burden around here, the percent spent on suburban roads is very trivial. Red herring. All public spending budgets can be easily found on the web.

  • whatever

    Very good thoughts about schools.
    People demanding less sprawl should keep in mind though, that even a school system like Raleigh’s doesn’t result in low sprawl.
    Buffalo and Raleigh each have metro population around 1 million, but Raleigh is ranked the 3rd worst of major U.S. metros for sprawl (even more sprawled than Atlanta). The Buffalo area, even with the school situation here, is much less sprawled.

  • Max

    Tough thing to do but I’ve thought if incentives could be provided to the remaining residents of those “prairie” – largely vacant blocks – to coax them to relocate to blocks which are relatively in tact but in danger of being vacated, the city would save operational $$ by shutting down services of the vacated areas.
    Access to those streets could be closed down, street lights shut off and they’d be basically “mothballed” until future uses are evident.

  • The Kettle

    Whatever “Despite you and a few others repeatedly claiming they don’t, I haven’t seen any real evidence that they don’t already contribute their fair share”
    Ill try once again to bust the myth of sprawl not being a drain on local resources. Take a look at the comprehensive plan of the Town of Wheatfield, a rapidly growing town in a shrinking metro area.
    A few items that will require substantial funds from outside the town:
    Item 4.7 Transportation:
    ” According to the most recent Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), Niagara Falls Boulevard
    between Nash Road and the North Tonawanda City line is scheduled for improvements in 2004,
    when the DOT will begin the actual design stages. The initial plans are to reconstruct this segment
    of the road, and perhaps add a center turn-lane.”
    NFB is a federal highway (US 62) so they will foot the bill for this and ongoing repair and expansion brought about by sprawl.
    Item 4.9 Public and cultural resources:
    ” Police service is provided through the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department and the New York State
    Doesn’t seem fair to have aging, shrinking communities in Niagara County such as Lockport, North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls pay for this expensive service for a growing, affluent, and low tax community.
    5.2 Maintain and preserve community character:
    “In practical terms, farmers stand to make more money selling the land as development lots than as
    open farmland. This presents a very real constraint to maintaining agricultural lands and farming as a
    viable economic enterprise in the Town of Wheatfield… Farming as an economic activity in Wheatfield is under pressure due to the increasing value
    of the land for development and conflicts with surrounding land uses.”
    Goods produced by these farms are consumed locally and are exported elsewhere generating wealth for the region. Infrastructure, IDA pirating, and other sprawl incentives are eroding this sector of the economy. Land that once produced goods to export is now being used to shuffle residences and businesses from other parts of the region.
    This also leads to…
    “Recommendations: The Town government should explore measures it can take to help farming (sponsor
    activities, help with grant applications, consider PDR’s– purchase of development
    rights program, etc.) The Town has begun to explore a Farmland Preservation
    Program and this should be continued until it is determined what the best strategy
    The Town could consider means of alleviating the property tax load on farmers,
    through either assessment policies or tax structure”
    To counter the damage to the agricultural sector, additional grants and tax incentives are required to level the playing field. More costs to taxpayers outside the town due to sprawl.

  • The Kettle

    You don’t see the hypocricy here? When tax incentives are proposed for adaptive re-use in the city you are the first to complain of taxpayer waste or lament that they just shuffle residents from elsewhere(even more odd when you consider the state and federal money spent on these projects often is comparable to what it would cost the local govt to tear the structure down). Yet when far more expensive projects moving residents further away from the central city, you trivialize the costs, pretend the costs do not exist, or make the bizarre claim that the glut of housing units keeps people from leaving town.

  • whatever

    “Ill try once again to bust the myth of sprawl not being a drain on local resources.”
    Over 75% of the metro area’s polulation has chosen to live beyond the city borders of Buffalo. That huge majority of taxpayers may be labeled a “drain” by some, but they’re where most of the money comes from.
    The IDA spending you mention should be abolished – all of it, everywhere. But it’s a pretty small part of state and local government spending, and so is suburban road work.

  • whatever

    Those incentives and ideas for consolidating neighborhoods are interesting and get national praise. But they’ve flopped in practice so far in Youngstown. Turning down $50K offers, some people want to keep living where politicians would prefer to land bank.
    Good article about it (mentions Buffalo too):
    “…Youngstown leaders hoped to redirect limited resources to parts of town that they felt had viable futures. Residents would be offered incentives to move into parts of town not yet overrun by vacant properties, reorganizing the city around the university and a long-neglected urban core. A new Youngstown, smaller but more vibrant, would grow amid the shell of the old, which would either be demolished or ignored.
    But Youngstown 2010 is faltering. Recession is challenging its plan. The city has little money to demolish vacant buildings; no one has taken the $50,000 incentive to move. …
    … The Campaign offering $50,000 to people to leave their homes largely failed, and local politics have meant that city funds are still apportioned to all neighborhoods – including the ones already deemed unsustainable.
    To the most vigorous supporters of Youngstown 2010, this is deeply troubling. “We’re just randomly assorting money as needed, and we see the results of this,” says Phil Kidd, a young community organizer …. “If we continue to do this, we stand to lose every viable neighborhood.” …”
    It’s easy for critics to say Buffalo ignores good ideas from elsewhere. Sometimes it’s true. Other times the ideas didn’t really succeed elsewhere. Youngstown at least is more aggressive in what they try even if it doesn’t work. It was really dumb here for example when Mayor Brown first opposed the little farm on William St. That was a good re-use of land that the city didn’t even have to make happen, and yet their first instinct was to try stopping it. To his credit though, he quickly changed his mind.

  • Max

    Thanks for the link…I’ll check it out.
    I suspect we’ll be in a “waiting game” while attrition and the forces which have depopulated those neighborhoods take their full effect. There’s also little doubt that a lot of those folks who remain surrounded by vacant parcels are trapped by economic conditions otherwise they would have checked out long ago.

  • whatever

    It doesn’t sound like hypocrisy to be against any tax incentives for all residential anywhere. What people build using their own money is up to them.
    I’m not against road work in the city the way you’re against it elsewhere. The city should spend more on road work using their share of gasoline sales taxes instead of some dumb spending they do. The state also spends on road work in the city and I don’t criticize that. The many millions of state money for a Canal Side parking garage and fishing store would be better spent on city streets. Many are in rough shape.

  • ranjekna

    Buffalo needs to look at the policies that have been implimented over the past 60 years and learn from the many mistakes. For example, remember busing students all over the city instead of fixing the few schools that needed help back in the 1970s? That caused a huge exodus from the city. Just look at when Williamsville and West Seneca exploded in the student population. All the new schools that had to be built. Many of my friends from South Buffalo just moved a few streets over to avoid having their children bused. Williamsville has office parks going up left and right and Cheektowaga and West Seneca have new industrial parks. We don’t want those here causing more traffic. But why can’t Buffalo entice businesses to go into the city? The suburbs would like Buffalo fix itself. Don’t blame the burbs, learn from them.

  • The Kettle

    Whatever> “It doesn’t sound like hypocrisy to be against any tax incentives for all residential anywhere. What people build using their own money is up to them.”
    But we are not talking about Wheatfield being built with its “own” money. Police services are paid for by taxpayers in the state and Niagara County, infrastructure needed to settle previously remote sections of this town are paid by the state and feds, as is the mitigation of the negative impact this process has on farmers. Without these and other outside subsidies the “growth” Wheatfield is experiencing would not be possible.
    Based on what you have posted here and in other discussions, you seem to be in favor of government spending to encourage development in the hinterlands but against it in the city. If you favor suburban development and want to see public resources dedicated to creating more of it that is your opinion. It isn’t fair though to go on about the ills of big government for tax breaks in the city and dismiss larger programs that stimulate development on the fringe.

  • The Kettle

    Whatever> “Over 75% of the metro area’s polulation has chosen to live beyond the city borders of Buffalo. That huge majority of taxpayers may be labeled a “drain” by some, but they’re where most of the money comes from.”
    But this isn’t a city vs suburbs thing anymore. Do you think it is fair for people in Buffalo, Amherst, or Lockport to finance “nation building” in a sparsely populated section of a shrinking region?

  • RPreskop

    What to do about the growing east side prairie? Prbably the same thing that Youngstown, Ohio has been doing by moving the remaining residents into the solid, vital neighborhoods and demolishing the remaining housing stock and cutting the public services to those abandoned areas. Detroit is also seriously considering pursuing the same strategy in order to reduce its 300 million dollar deficit by cutting back on the geographical area for its public services. Buffalo needs to seriously consider this idea as well. We cannot afford to provide public services to thinly populated, disinvested urban areas.

  • whatever

    “the same thing that Youngstown, Ohio has been doing by moving the remaining residents into the solid, vital neighborhoods and demolishing the remaining housing stock and cutting the public services to those abandoned areas.”
    RP – Youngstown has had very little, if any, real success relocating residents, cutting public services in abandoned areas, etc. They still get much praise for ideas, but in practice it hasn’t worked. As Max says, maybe it will some day. Nobody can know. So far it’s pretty much just hopes and talk.
    See 4 comments up for link and excerpt from CS Monitor’s 2009 report about it.