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Let’s green light New Urbanism in Buffalo

If you’re a Buffalo Rising aficionado, today’s article defining New Urbanism might be your personal mantra. The concept is repeatedly bubbled up in many articles by many of it’s writers. Not surprising, since it’s a very pro-urban publication. I’ve always aligned with the belief that we need a strong urban core in our city for Buffalo to be successful, and I agree with several of the tenets of New Urbanism. However, there are also many I don’t agree with, and frankly, rather than Buffalo being yet another follower of a solution developed elsewhere, I think Buffalo can do better. I think Buffalo has the potential of having the perfect balance of being pedestrian and vehicle friendly, and having dense and spare living. Let’s look at each one of these…

One of the pointiest thorns in the sides of many New Urbanists is the mere existence of the automobile. It’s right there in the Charter for the Congress of New Urbanism:

“The physical organization of the region should be supported by a framework of transportation alternatives. Transit, pedestrian, and bicycle systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region while reducing dependence upon the automobile.”

I would love for Buffalo to have a better subway infrastructure, and be pedestrian and bicycle friendly. However, Buffalo also has a great roadway system that’s already established, and should continue to be one of our strengths. Too many New Urbanists take the “car is bad” philosophy to the extreme and denounce the automobile as if it’s going to cause the world to end. It’s not. Cars are not going away. Personal long-range vehicles are going to keep improving over time, will become more energy efficient, and will continue to be the primary choice of transportation for individuals. The convenience simply cannot be beat, and people are willing to pay great amounts of money to have that convenience. This is compounded in Northern regions, such as the one Buffalo is in, where climatic conditions make walking and biking a secondary method of transportation for most, and point to point transportation the primary. In regards to Buffalo, I’m tired of hearing the calls for the Skyway, the 190, the 198, the 33, and basically every other major roadway to be demolished and turned into a park. Most of these roads provide key transit infrastructure to the Buffalo region, and should be considered assets, not detriments to the area. Certainly, many of them were designed for a much larger city than we are today, but rarely do I hear the call for Buffalo to continue shrinking. We are at the unique position of being already well positioned for population growth, a circumstance that many of the quickly growing cities in North Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada would love to have. Sure, I would be happy to see improved roadway design, be it sinking certain roadways below grade and adding pedestrian overpasses, turning certain roads into tunnels, or the possibility of eliminating certain roads while improving others nearby, but believing that cars are going to go away and everyone is going to live within a mile of where they work isn’t likely to happen anywhere, and Buffalo is already designed to be a commuter-friendly town. Instead of undoing that, let’s figure out how to build on it and make it a key advantage to living in this area.

Another key point in New Urbanism is the concept of the neighborhood. “Neighborhoods should be compact, pedestrian-friendly, and mixed-use.” The problem with this concept is that it’s only ideal for some people, not for all. Years ago, people were classified into two categories – city folk and country folk. You either loved the density of city life, or the sparsity of the country. You might have lived in one area or another due to economic circumstances, or just because of history. Out of those two extremes grew a middle ground that the majority of people now call home – the suburban lifestyle. It provides for more personal space and breathing room than dense urban housing provides, yet the convenience of not being miles away from the businesses and services that families need to access frequently. On the urban/rural scale, there are many subtle gradations of suburban – enough to fit almost every personal preference.

This is where I think many of the New Urbanist debates go awry when it comes to Buffalo. Urban, suburban, and rural can all coexist. Urbanists often want to make major changes to the existing landscape to further their preferred plans, when in fact their lifestyle preference is the easiest to implement in any built environment. You can implement mixed-use residential, commercial, and even industrial in a single building. Place several larger developments of this kind together and you could conceivably create an environment where the New Urbanist would never need to leave their own complex. It’s one step closer to creating arcologies, the extreme end of urbanism. The reality is that they want the best of both worlds, they want to live in a dense, “neighborhood” environment where others are there for them to rely on when they need them, not around to bug them when they don’t, yet still allow them to have access to every conceivable community resource and natural wonder without the need to ever drive anywhere. It’s an impossibility. No such panacea can ever exist. There’s a high degree of irony in New Urbanists looking to geographically expand their footprint, in a sense creating a type of “New Urban sprawl” when in a city like Buffalo, all the land they need to get started already exists within the existing geographic and transportation boundaries. I’d like to see the New Urbanists implement their philosophy on a micro scale and entice the masses into their perceived perfect lifestyle before trying to push it on the rest of any area’s population.

Many people talk about Buffalo’s overabundance of housing and the need to downsize our housing stock, so this is where I think the perfect solution exists. I’m sure we could find a few areas of the city where 10 adjoining blocks could be leveled to let the New Urbanists prove their concept, without needing to disrupt the surrounding transportation fabic of the area as a whole. I’m thinking something like the area east of Michigan Ave, south of the 190, bordered by the river. Close enough to be walking/biking distance of downtown, but enough space to develop as they see fit and not much in their way. If they’re successful, they’ll be hailed as geniuses and Buffalo will have a new place in history as giving birth to the future of global development. If not, they won’t have caused any major damage to the city. Just wall off that section and landbank it for the future, or use it as a major explosion site for our growing film industry. It could be Buffalo’s own Biosphere 2, and would probably even have it’s own hyper-hyper-local media outlets telling us how great life is in New East Buffalo and why everywhere should be just like it. I say, let them have at it. I have my doubts that New Urbanism is the future of the world, but I’m willing to let them have a shot at it right here in Buffalo – as long as they don’t screw up the rest of the city in the process.

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  1. I’ve done quite a bit of reading on New Urbanism. It doesn’t work because they are trying to use the government to regulate people’s lifestyles. You made very good points about automobile use and its value to this area. I recently wrote an article about how Buffalo could make the downtown area much more attractive to suburbanites, cut pollution, save time and decrease fuel consumption. All it would take is a modern, computerized traffic control system to time all the traffic lights. I’m sure that idea would be completely rebuffed by the new urbanists.

    The “footprint” approach was tried in Portland, Oregon and other areas. It has been a big failure, for the most part. Urban real estate prices skyrocketed, congestion became worse and businesses moved further from the city to escape the strangling regulations of the Urban Footprint Zone.

    My personal belief is that high taxes, too much government and too many regulations have created the current mess. New Urbanism just compounds the original problem. We need solutions that address the cause.

  2. Derek, very well written, even though I disagree with some of your arguments. You advance your argument well without resorting to any polarizing rhetoric.

    You’re right, as long as it remains economical for the average person to drive, cars are not going away any time soon. But we can design our environments to be friendlier to alternatives.

    Keep in mind, children (along with a lot of seniors and disabled) don’t drive, they should be able to navigate their neighborhoods safely on foot or bike without the threat of a 4,000 lb behemoth squishing them to death because the roads are only designed so these cars and trucks can effortlessly whizz by at 45 mph without drivers having to actually pay attention to their surroundings. Check out pics (sorry no link at the moment) of some newer Euro suburbs…comfortable lower densities, lots of green space, yet roads and road networks are designed to be friendly to bikes and pedestrians, along with still being conducive to efficient automobile access.

    Despite what Mike keeps blathering about, New Urbanists are not trying to regulate anyone’s lifestyles, or launch secret communist-utopian social control schemes. Most NU architects and planners merely want existing restrictive zoning codes (which is a fine example of excessive government regulation!) to be relaxed so alternatives to the standard-issue segregated-use automobile suburb can be built. They want to build something which they feel is a superior and healthier place for people to live (oh and also create a product which will sell for top dollar!) Competition and diversity in the marketplace is a good thing, Mike should know this. The roadbuilding/homebuilding/auto lobbies (representing industries who profit so well from the status quo) have infiltrated libertarian think tanks to try and make out smart-growth/NU as being some big, bad boogymen trying to tell people how to live, using skewed data out of context, along with a lot of red herrings and other twisted rhetoric.

    Most NU products have come in the form new exurban subdivisions built on former cornfields that attempt to capture the look and feel of a prewar village center or urban neighborhood. I personally find them contrived, pretentious and somewhat tacky. But that is just my opinion. Homes in NU “communities” tend to sell for top-shelf prices. This certainly defeats the idiotic argument that there is no demand for this sort of housing. The private market (at least in prosperous metro area) seem to indicate that there is room for more of this stuff.

    Back to the part about these places being fake/contrived….
    Remember that cities are products of their existing transportation systems, not the other way around; the cart can’t come before the horse. Like all other suburban developments, NU developments are almost always connected to the greater region by highways, therefore most residents still drive to get everywhere useful, like work and shopping, despite the existence a few quaint little shops (coffee, restaurants, antiques, ect.) in the “town center.” Almost none of these places fall under the definition the much-touted “Transit-oriented developments” which would only work if such development was built next to a rail line that actually led to somewhere important (i.e. a bustling downtown core with tons of jobs and shopping). Otherwise residents have no good reason to ditch their cars.

    So, the burning question is: “Should there be New Urbanism in the Buffalo area?”

    My answer would be be a calm “sure,” although I’d rather see our wonderful OLD URBANISM (which we have in abundance) refurbished into a much sought-after living environment. Otherwise, city and town governments could certainly relax zoning regulations in the rare event a developer wants to build a NU-style community. I think one wanted to do this in Cheektowaga, with much support from the town supervisor, but it died a slow death, due to the fact the development would have involved displacing an existing low-income housing complex.

    Oh well, this long-winded comment will probably make it onto my own blog soon (my new one, buffaloguardian.com).

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