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City atrophy: Taking the Buff out of Buffalo

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Buffalo's population is at 1890s levels.

Buffalo can always count on Detroit to feel better about itself.

That’s just one of the lessons I learned while attending a brownfield renewal summit yesterday in Buffalo. Remember, a brownfield is a chemical-soaked piece of land that has limited uses because of its contaminated state.

While Buffalo infamously sports more than 10,000 abandoned homes/ lots, Detroit is now nearly 40  percent vacant, according to Rebecca Salminen Witt. She runs the non-profit The Greening of Detroit. They spruce up vacant lots in the city (there are close to 90,000 to choose from).

Buffalo is also shriveling. With less than half of the population the city enjoyed in the 1950s, the city is like a newly skinny guy wearing Jared the Subway Guy’s big pants. For the sake of the simile, the guy lost the weight from an illness (the fall of manufacturing, globalization, etc.).

While those oversized pants fit Buffalo poorly, the upstate city isn’t as much of a fashion victim as Detroit.

So what’s the plan, Stan?

Shrink.

Yes, that’s right. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing controversially plans to write-off parts of his city and bring its population closer to the core. Reverse sprawl. “Right-sizing.”

Voices in Buffalo are clamoring for the same thing. Mayor Byron Brown (who is speaking at the same brownfield summit today) has supported efforts to transition some areas away from residential use into urban gardens, parks and open green space. But the city’s program to knock down abandoned homes (thus speeding up this transition) suffers from a lack of funding. Other things take priority.

For an atrophying city, what does it take to transition from a flabby former bodybuilder to a svelte distance runner?

If it was easy and do-able, wouldn’t someone have done it already?

Well, no. Work on abandoned lots should come from residents and volunteers. According to Salminen Witt, that’s the only way these things will get done in any real way.  And there’s a lot that can be done with an abandoned lot (this is from her speech):

  1. Put a sign up declaring that something better is coming.
  2. Urban farming: Detroit has more than 1,500 urban farms that produce more than 200 tons of food a year.
  3. Creatively mow it: lawnmowers can be an artistic tool – who knew? Helps with watching it grow as an activity. Downside: mowing an abandoned lot is a hassle.
  4. Plant flowers: Looks good, involves little to no mowing. Those flowers can be sold at farmer’s markets.
  5. Plant trees: A more permanent reclamation of a plot of land. Christmas trees can be sold come the holiday season! Neighborhood associations can regulate the sales and use the money for improvements.

There’s a catch. Many in these declining neighborhoods don’t necessarily want the attention, Salminen Witt says.
“It’s best not to go into a neighborhood unless invited,” Salminen Witt said. “Then, once you’re in, you have to listen to people in the neighborhood. See what they want.”

For cities like Detroit and Buffalo, with hundreds of crippled neighborhoods, no money, and non-binding long term plans for their improvement, grassroots efforts result in a palpable impact, according to Salminen Witt. Frustration-easing impact. Impact that creates momentum for more impact.

But this transition from dying city to a re-imagined past version of itself will take a long time even with herculean efforts from impassioned citizens. Multiple speakers at the summit echoed that line.

How long is a long time? Better yet, how long is the shortest scenario of a long-enough time to bring cities like Buffalo and Detroit more in line with their size, economies, and the wants of the people who choose to live there?

Don’t overestimate the power of government, Salminen Witt said. As community leaders get impatient waiting for change, they get frustrated to the point that they are inspired to undertake revitalization efforts on their own.