It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Buffalo, NY that the city has lost 300,000 residents since 1950. With a population of less than half of its peak, the city has been left with a tremendous oversupply of housing units and, with it, a large-scale vacancy and abandonment problem. From 1990 to 2000, for major US cities, Buffalo went from number fifty-five in rankings of percentage of vacancies to number three (15.7% of all units), and the problem has only gotten worse since then. 2006 census estimates place the residential vacancy rate at 22.8%.
For those who formerly believed this was a ‘city issue’, however, new data is suggesting otherwise. Since 2000, the first-ring suburbs of Cheektowaga and Tonawanda have each lost population at a quicker rater than Buffalo, as have eight other municipalities further beyond the city’s edge. Recent Postal Service data and articles in the Buffalo News highlight the fact that vacancy is quickly becoming an issue in the inner-ring suburbs.
While planning and public works decisions made in the middle of the 20th century anticipated a region of two million people, Erie County has fallen well below 900,000 residents and these citizens are now saddled with maintaining an infrastructure footprint well beyond our needs and means. It is time for us to be realistic about both the current status and future development of our community. The Greater Buffalo Region must begin to base its investment decisions on the undeniable fact that we are a home to not just a shrinking city but a shrinking region. Though on its face it seems a paradox, we must embrace shrinkage if we expect to halt it. To do so, we must realize that for our City and region, just as with the hundreds of other cities across America, Europe, and Asia that are losing population, if we accept and plan for this shift in an honest and meaningful way, shrinking does not mean dying.
Though planning for less rather than more flies in the face of the historical pioneer spirit of America, in fact this earlier notion of continual outward expansion and growth has always come at a substantial cost – causing centuries of irreversible damage to native people and the native environment. However, as this damage has begun to exact an ever-present negative impact on the daily function of society, a broader ‘green’ movement is afoot. As society slowing begins trending from super-sized SUVs to bite-sized Mini-Coopers, the notion that bigger always equals better will hopefully soon become as dated as Hammer Pants.
Once we as a region refuse to equate being smaller with being lesser, we will be in a unique position to seize the current opportunity to remake our cities, towns, and villages into sustainable communities that create value for the long term. By reinvesting in our established neighborhoods, reexamining our infrastructure footprint, and evaluating our greenspace, water and land use, we can overcome the ingrained deficit thinking that has worn on our region for too long. When we do so, we will also begin to halt the cycle of disinvestment and decline that has held us back from achieving a better – though not necessarily bigger – Buffalo.