If you’ve talked with me in the last few months, you know that I’ve taken an interest in Urban Planning, and more specifically those characteristics that make a good neighborhood and city. I don’t know why this subject has peaked my interest, considering I used to be in awe of places like Epcot and I grew up not far from strip-malls. But, I am deeply concerned about that place where I grew up, because the city of Buffalo is rotting at it’s core, while the endless development of pharmacy mini-malls, parking lots, and cul-de-sacs pushes farther out into the countryside.
It used to be that Transit Road was a marker or sorts—suburban development fell off notably in the town of Clarence. But now, Clarence and Lancaster are becoming the newest sprawl suburbs. Housing development is getting less and less dense, taking up more and more land, and as a result, weakening community ties. The goal in the Buffalo area these days, is to earn enough to “get yours”—which means a big house in the middle of nowhere, with lousy architecture, a big front yard, and curving streets that don’t connect to other developments. You can’t walk to a corner store, much less to work or school.
This, of course, means that cars must be used for anything and everything in Buffalo’s suburbs, and increasingly so in these new suburbs. Growing up, I could walk or ride my bike to a corner store, a supermarket, a pizzeria, a k-mart and a bagel shop. For kids growing up in Loch Lea and other developments further out, this is simply not an option—a ride from mom or dad is required, and an (unhealthy) dependence is born. Also, you spend much of your early teenage years looking for older friends, or pining for that 16th birthday, when mom and dad will provide you with a car. There is a sense of entitlement that comes in such a place.
Buffalo, however, wasn’t always so bleak. The Buffalo of my Grandmother’s youth was a vibrant and busy city. Look at some of these photographs… Streetcars zipped up and down major avenues, automobiles co-existed with pedestrians, commercial streets had first-floor storefronts with apartments above, and you knew your neighbor, butcher and neighborhood cop. I don’t want to sentimentalize what was, but I think people understood that there was an art to building neighborhoods—an art that seems to have been lost in post-war, post-industrial Buffalo. The powerful suburban developers like Ciminelli, don’t build permanent places to live. They think that there is no money to be made in traditional (that is to say, mixed-use) neighborhoods. Everything is this set-back-from-the-street, bastardized modernist, flat-roof, single-floor, horizontal monstrosity, with 5 parking spots out front for every 1 customer.
I know I’m taking hyperbolic license here, but I do it only because the prevailing assumptions are so ingrained and accepted that you almost need to shock people to wake them up.
We’ve been living in the age of the automobile. Traffic engineers say we need to widen roads and intersections to decrease traffic and increase traffic volume. Every major study of roadway “improvements” shows that more lanes = more cars. By widening a road like Transit, you are actually creating more traffic in the long-run. Even Robert Moses realized this in 1939, when traffic congestion cropped up on his highways where there was previously no problem. You induce traffic, by building more lanes. And, these wide intersections you see on Transit and other roads, are less safe than narrower, more traditional intersections. Here in Boston, despite our reputation for crazy driving, there are rarely any accidents at all, due to our small blocks, odd intersections and lack of sprawl.
Still, there is hope. I think the economic pressures that 50 years of this kind of development has wrought on Buffalo is starting to change people’s minds about living and working in close proximity. I hope environmental, and economic realities force the city and it’s county of suburbs to draw a line in the sand (and the geography), and say enough is enough. It’s not about Growth vs. anti-Growth. It’s about Smart Growth. Banks, developers and city & town officials need to be shown that it is preferable to ditch this fast-decaying suburban strip-mall way of doing things. If we are going to do this, the state needs to step in and set up stronger regional government. Many people fear this, as being ‘more government’, when in actuality it could save money by eliminating redundant services.
But there is powerful resistance to any kind of regional planning.