By Larry Brooks
Recently in this space, an urban planner argued that the plan by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and Perkins+Will for residential development on the Outer Harbor was sustainable. But that argument requires a response.
First of all, the writer seems to imply that Buffalo is a city of high density. This is incorrect. Dense cities such as New York, Chicago and Toronto have densities of more than 10,000 people per square mile. Buffalo’s density is less than 5,000. Even Kenmore, with more than 10,000 people per square mile, is more dense. In the 1950s, the city held a population more than twice what it is today, which means that its infrastructure can handle more than twice today’s population. This is a strong argument against building new infrastructure, since existing infrastructure is underutilized.
The writer is right to say that infill development contains sprawl, but creating a brand-new neighborhood where there isn’t one now is the very definition of sprawl, and sprawl, by its very definition, is unsustainable.
The writer also seems to argue that we have enough parkland. The statistics she cites are very misleading: the ratio of headcount to parks is misleading because we are half the population we used to be. More accurate is a survey compiled by the Trust for Public Land, which compares the parkland acreage of the top 100 cities in the United States. It lumps Buffalo with medium-sized cities in which the average percentage of acreage devoted to parkland is 8.9 percent. Buffalo is below average with 8.3 percent.
We have less than half the parkland percentage of cities such as New York, Minneapolis, Virginia Beach, El Paso, New Orleans, Austin and San Diego. Even worse, the tree cover in Buffalo is only 12 percent of the land area, which is less than half the national average of 27.1 percent.
The writer is right to say that sustainable development calls for reducing vehicle miles traveled. But she cannot simultaneously plead for reducing vehicle miles traveled while creating a new neighborhood for residents to commute from. To use her words, “here’s the rub”: While she complains about occasional recreational driving to the Outer Harbor, she ignores the fact that the residents of the Outer Harbor neighborhood would drive even more when commuting to work daily. That location would also require a new public transit line at a time when our public transit authority is cutting back routes.
In summary, creating a brand-new neighborhood with new infrastructure is sprawl. The sustainable choice is to infill vacant land and buildings where there are existing streets and existing water, sewer and power lines.
Larry Brooks retired from Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and is now on the board of the Western New York Land Conservancy. These views are his own.