Buffalo Niagara faces serious challenges as a region: stagnant population, a long-struggling economy, urban sprawl without growth, a costly and inefficient urban infrastructure, a burdensome legacy of “brownfields,” vacant housing, and vacant land. Yet, we also have extraordinary assets in our land, water, buildings, infrastructure, and especially our people. If we work together, we can make our region far more sustainable in the years to come.
The challenges before us
Over the past half century, while the population of Buffalo Niagara grew only slightly, the built-up area of our region has nearly tripled in size. As our suburbs grew farther into the countryside, our central cities — Buffalo, Lackawanna, Niagara Falls, the Tonawandas, and Lockport — were hollowed out. Over the past few decades, even our older suburbs began to lose population, as sprawl continued.
The results are costly. As taxpayers, we bear the burden of maintaining a system of infrastructure — roads, utilities, public facilities — that is too big for our population. As things spread out, we drive more, and our public transit system becomes less effective. In the 15 years between 1984 and 1999 alone, vehicle miles traveled increased by half.
As the process continues, development consumes more farmland; residents consume more energy and emit more carbon into the atmosphere; we build new homes in the exurbs while other homes sit vacant or are demolished in the city. We continue on this course at our extreme peril.
Assets to build on
Even with these alarming trends, we have great assets on which to build in addition to many promising new initiatives in recent years which have prepared the ground for further work to come.
Long in the making, the shape of a new and more modern economy has begun to emerge with investments in health care, education, tourism, advanced manufacturing, and customer service.
We have work to do in connecting people with jobs in those industries and the education and training needed to qualify for those jobs. We need to better link the knowledge resources of higher education with the needs of industry and we need to foster a culture of entrepreneurship. Fortunately, we have new regional leadership to continue the economic restructuring.
Our cities have “great bones” — the legacy of 19th century urban planning and 20th century investments in both physical and institutional infrastructure — streets, parks, neighborhoods, schools, colleges and universities. Residents are reinvesting in great urban neighborhoods and traditional village centers.
Experiments in green energy, environmental repair, storm water management, urban agriculture, traffic calming, “complete streets,” brownfield redevelopment, alternative transportation, green zoning, and all forms of sustainable development are taking place all across our region.
A way to work together
What we need is a way to take what is experimental and make it standard operating procedure. We need a way to take what is successful and “scale it up.”
One Region Forward will provide a process through which we can learn from each other about the best ways to strengthen great neighborhoods, build a 21st century economy, create a more efficient transportation system, protect our air and water quality, repair and reinvest in our old industrial sites, and sustain our regional agricultural resources.
It will also provide a mechanism for coordinating our actions and leveraging our investments to reduce uncertainty and maximize the positive effects of everything we do. Working together, we can define and achieve a shared vision for a more sustainable future.