The Western New York Environmental Alliance is an umbrella group that is committed to the preservation and restoration of our regional environment. The work of the Alliance takes place in Working Groups focused on environmental topics.
To get involved with urban regeneration issues in Western New York, read on to learn more, join the Working Group listserv, and come to a meeting.
- Reclaiming vacant property; and
- Advancing public policy on building and zoning codes.
Working Group Chair
Anthony Armstrong, Buffalo LISC
OUR WESTERN NEW YORK HERITAGE
Our cities, towns and villages provide the basis of our community. They are the structure within which we live our lives: going to work, raising our children, attending school, and even just relaxing downtown or at a park. The structure of our urban environment contributes greatly to the quality and character of our lives.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the City of Buffalo was a vibrant and thriving community. The construction of the Erie Canal in 1825 brought one of the first surges in population to the region. This growth continued, through the construction of the first-ever steam-powered grain elevator in 1843, to the country’s first electricity powered street lights in 1881. Buffalo was soon dubbed the “City of Light.” In 1901, Buffalo was the location of the Pan-American Expedition, a 7-month World Fair, providing a light show and festival such had never been seen before. As Buffalo prospered, so did the surrounding counties of Western New York. The City of Niagara Falls thrived as well with the abundance of cheap power, and industrial development was the foremost cause for urban growth seen in and around the city.
How did the Queen City, the “City of Lights,” the 8th largest city in the country move to 70th largest today? In the late 1950s, many industrial companies closed their doors. The resulting deindustrialization led to large amounts of unemployment, and soon people began to leave the city. Migration to newly built suburbs also greatly compounded these issues in established communities, but in more recent times nearly all municipalities of WNY have seen decreasing population as well.
WHAT IS GOING ON TODAY?
Today, the City of Buffalo finds itself with the 3rd largest amount of vacant properties in the country, only falling behind the cities of Detroit and New Orleans, and Erie County is among the 10 most vacancy challenged counties in the country. Buffalo is also the third poorest city in the United States with over 250,000 residents. Despite these troubles, Buffalo has many factors that give the city – and thus the region – hope for a brighter future. Joseph Ellicott’s radial street pattern that permeates most of downtown Buffalo allows people easy access to the downtown area. In addition, the Olmsted Park system, also the first coordinated park system in the country, still provides a strong base for future greenery in the city. Nestled within this park system are National Historic Landmarks by Frank Lloyd Wright, H.H. Richardson and Louis Sullivan. It also is home to the Albright Knox and Burchfield-Penny art galleries, and Elmwood Village, which the American Planning Association hailed as one of the ten best neighborhoods in America in 2007. The New York Times, in 2009, named the City one of the Top 44 Places to Go.
Niagara Falls is also experiencing difficulty in sustaining its population: in 1970 there were 85,162 residents and in 2005 there were only 52,951 residents. As big industries closed, parallel to Buffalo, populace fled to other parts of NY and of the country to look elsewhere for employment, thus unemployment has risen to 12% as of May 2009. Niagara Falls is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, attracting many tourists to the city. Both Buffalo and Niagara Falls, among many others in the Western New York region are beginning to recognize they need to utilize their resources and build on where they are now. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that all 8 counties in WNY have lost populations between 2000 and 2007, with Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Orleans Counties seeing percentage declines above 4% - but this pattern can be reversed.
The City of Good Neighbors is also acquiring a reputation for its several hundred not-for-profits that are dedicated to seeing Buffalo restored to the vibrancy and vitality a healthy, diverse city possesses. In addition to these local volunteer and non-profits group, both city and county governments are working to fix the problem. Plans to capitalize on the region’s natural assets, such as the Buffalo waterfront, are underway and ongoing zoning code-changes aim to create a way for innovative new land uses such as urban agriculture to be implemented and build on the advantages of walkable communities.
Well established groups such as PUSH Buffalo and Grassroots Gardens continue to work on the streets to directly improve communities, one property at a time. PUSH Buffalo focuses on empowering low-income residents to fight back against entrenched and systemic disadvantages with the aim of improving entire neighborhoods. Grassroots Gardens has built over 50 community gardens throughout Buffalo since their creation in 1992. These gardens are owned by local block clubs, increasing community ownership of green spaces in the city.
LISC Buffalo has brought over $70 million in Urban Revitalization projects to the City of Buffalo and has also directly caused the creation of 845 new and rehabilitated housing units and over 250,000 square feet of commercial space. Meanwhile, a National Parks Service sponsored program called Groundwork Buffalo is focusing on Buffalo’s East Side, serving to convene and organize community groups in order to turn vacant lots from liabilities to assets. The Massachusetts Avenue Project, the Community Action Organization of Erie County and others are working on urban agriculture and food access.
Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper is focused on water quality and access, and Green Options Buffalo completes programs and advocacy for sustainable transportation choices. The Western New York Apollo Alliance has provided baseline weather sealing and energy efficiency measures for over 130 homes over the past three years in Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods. These efficiency improvements help home owner occupied residents save money and stabilize vulnerable neighborhoods with hundreds of volunteers providing services.
The city of Niagara Falls is seeing some revitalizing activity as well with the help of ReNu Niagara, a Community Partnership Outreach Center whose mission to better assist neighborhoods in the City of Niagara Falls, and the County's other urbanized areas. Surveys will be administered to collect data to allow nonprofit organizations as well as concerned citizens to voice their opinions and have a say in how the United Way will benefit and fund programs for the future in their area. Programs that involve the community will encourage not only people to stay in the area, but also to inspire the public to become more engaged and invested. The Niagara Tourism Advisory Board is also looking at ways to promote eco-tourism as a way of rejuvenating the city’s touristy appeal.
These are just some of many groups working to make a difference. Visit our Green Directory to learn more.
HOW CAN I MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Most organizations focused on Urban Regeneration, from housing to wildlife habitats, have volunteer opportunities often throughout the year. These organizations can benefit greatly from the help of hard-working volunteers. Check the shared environmental calendar, or visit their websites for details.
Whether or not you can make time to volunteer, sending your favorite groups a tax-deductible contribution, whether a little or a lot, helps further their missions and produce additional results on the ground. Many organizations also accept donations online.
At a farmers’ market or at a neighborhood business district, local merchants circulate more of their money back into the local economy and are more prone to be involved in the community. Visit Buffalo First and Field & Fork Network to find out more, including how buying local helps support the environment.
Get to Know your Neighbors Throughout the Region
Whether it’s at a community garden, a farmer’s market, a neighborhood clean up or at the park, getting to know your neighbors and your neighborhoods creates a better sense of community and creates opportunities to work together on the shared issues that matter most to you.
Speak Up for Changes You Want to See
Check back at GrowWNY.org often to stay informed on the issues of revitalizing the region. Attend public meetings at town halls, and voice your concerns about the things you care about. Let your elected officials know what matters to you by writing to them often telling them you want to see action to support the restoration of our neighborhoods across WNY. Don’t know who your officials are? The WNY League of Women Voters has links to many resources that can help you find out.