With apologies to Katie Couric, Lawrence Brooks isn’t convinced metro Buffalo is in the midst of a full-fledged revival.
The resurgence is palpable, particularly in economic terms, but reporters like Couric at work on Buffalo boom stories tend to miss many of the red flags, said Brooks, 65, a lifelong Western New Yorker.
He argues in his new book – “Buffalo Niagara: Diagnosis & Prescription for Change” – that the region continues to lack in the human, social and environmental capital it needs to return to its heady days of the 1950s, much less the global significance it enjoyed roughly a century ago.
“Are we really on the comeback trail, or have we been down so long we set our sights low?,” asks Brooks, who worked in industrial construction for more than three decades, is the former Watershed Restoration Project Manager for Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, and is president of the board of the Western New York Land Conservancy.
Brooks grew up in the Southtowns. He and his wife, Carrie, have lived in North Buffalo for 40 years. The couple has two daughters, both physicians who live and work in Buffalo.
Brooks interviewed 16 experts in economics, the environment, and human and social capital for his book. He relied on several other resources, including the U.S. Census Bureau and health databases, as well as comprehensive planning documents that included One Region Forward, a University at Buffalo-led effort with contributions from many key regional planners. He pored over news stories. The Buffalo News “might be my most quoted source,” Brooks said.
The book is broken into parts that explore the status of the region’s human, social, economic and environmental capital and recommendations for its healthiest possible rebirth, as well as false narratives and real reasons for the region’s state of being. It focuses on Erie and Niagara counties.
Brooks sat down for an interview this week in the small conference room off The Buffalo News newsroom, kitty corner from Canalside, and shared his take on the new Buffalo Niagara region. Below are excerpts.
Q. You ask in your book preface, “Are we really on the comeback trail, or have we been down so long we set our sights low?” What’s the answer?
That’s a complex question and there’s no easy answer. An awful lot of people in Western New York who arrived here, or matured to the point where they became the age of awareness here in the 1970s or ‘80s, we were at rock bottom – so everything looks like up. The perception is real. Things are improving. But for those of us who have been around longer and can remember the heydays of the ‘50s, we’re not back to that yet, and we’re certainly not back to the point where we were at the turn of the last century, 1900, where this was a globally significant city. A visitor’s guide for the Pan-American Exhibition in 1901, edited by Mark Twain and excerpted in Lauren Belfer’s novel, “City of Light,” describes this exciting, cutting-edge, dynamic city.
Are we on the comeback trail? There’s definitely good news. There’s been a reversal in negative trends that have occurred over several decades and are now headed in a positive direction, and this is good ... but generally speaking, it’s too narrow a focus on jobs and the economy, and there’s much more to a healthy community than that. Much of the good news recently has been focused on economic news.
Q. Can you talk about how a region’s health is measured in more than that?
One of the most important aspects of our community is human capital. People say that all the time, “The best thing about Buffalo are its people.” When you look at human capital, particularly health, we’re not faring so well. This is where there’s some really bad news. I quote in the book the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s annual health report that ranks counties within a state. Their latest report ranks Erie County 54th and Niagara County 55th in New York State’s 62 counties. So we’re one of the unhealthiest places in the state in which to live.
If you look at the Erie County Health Department Community Health Assessment Report, they mention the prime reason is lifestyle choices. This means poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, drinking. We tend to have poorer habits in those areas than many other parts of the state. ... I think it’s ironic that our beautiful baseball park annually hosts a festival for a food item that’s nutritionally not healthy, not good for you, and it features a binge-eating contest, and we’re proud of that. The defenders of the (chicken wing) festival would say, “That’s only once in a while,” but they know as well as I do that’s Buffalo lifestyle. We love our chicken wings and pizza and sausages, but these aren’t healthy for us, and we’d rather sit and watch the Bills and Sabres than go outside and play a game ourselves.
Q. What are you thoughts on the Buffalo Medical Corridor?
It’s a mixed bag. There’s good stuff happening there. I firmly believe that. By aggregating a lot of different facilities in one spot, in a cluster, there’s a synergy developing. It’s going to be more effective. We’re going to have good results. But, and here’s a big but, I have in a section “Eds and Meds” in which some writers on the industry saying that the market for regional medical campuses is saturated now. We’re Johnny come lately to world-class clusters of medical institutions, so we’re not likely to benefit from greater competition from clustering in these cities. For instance, Cleveland and Cincinnati have had their clusters up and running for years now.
Another downside to the Buffalo-Niagara Medical Campus is that they’re focusing on capital, not on human capital. So there are shortages of nurses and physicians. They’re spending money on buildings, but they’re not spending money on physicians or nurses. My daughters work for ECMC and Children’s Hospital and their departments have openings for physicians they can’t fill. There is data in the book, and there are measures, that indicate we’re understaffed for certain specialities.
Dr. Trevor Hancock (pioneer of the Healthy Communities Concept) puts it all in perspective when he says, “We should be looking for contraction in our medical business because that would mean the population was getting healthier and needing fewer services.” That should be our ultimate goal.
Q. You also write, “The region lags so far behind other communities that there may be few other places in the country with a bigger gap between potential and reality?” How do you define that gap, why does it exist and what can be done about it?
Let’s look at the environment. We have a world-class geography on the edge of one-fifth of the earth’s surface of fresh water, with a natural wonder of the world. It sits in one of the most beautiful and magnificent places on earth, but we dump 4 billion gallons of raw sewage in it every year, and we’ve got the only active toxic waste landfill in the Northeast, which expands. We’ve got two active waste dumps in Western New York and we continue to consume our farmland at the rate of 500 acres per year to sprawl. (Page 85 of the book includes a graphic that says the region grows only 38 percent of the healthy fruits and vegetables it needs for all residents to follow U.S. Department of Agriculture healthy eating guidelines).
But there are few places on earth like this, so when it comes to environmental capital, this is a globally significant city. But we’re not ranked a globally significant city.
When you think in terms of regionalism, there’s this concept of Tor-Buff-Chester: this mega-region from Toronto to Rochester. But because we’re all working independently, we don’t realize the power that we have economically. This is a good example of potential versus reality. The reality is Toronto is the 14th most globally significant city in the world. Buffalo and Rochester are not on that radar. But if we were to combine our resources and act as one unified region, we’d be the 16th largest economy in the world.
Q. How can you measure the social engagement and overall health and wellness of a region?
My primary ones are these hard indicators of family and marriage that come from the U.S. Census Bureau. The federal government’s Volunteering and Civic Life (report) has many indicators. What I find interesting here is that Metro Buffalo donates to charity at a higher rate than the USA. That’s writing a check or handing a bill. But when it comes to taking physical action – attending meetings, active in neighborhood and volunteering – our rates are lower.
One of the most significant and shocking things I found out is that our rate of organ and tissue donation is this area is significantly below the national average: 33 percent for Western New York, 48 percent for the nation. Here’s a gift that costs nothing and it’s the gift of life.
Q. Where are we now in terms of the region as a whole?
There are good things happening in terms of environmental capital. The Niagara River Greenway is funding new parkland. The Western New York Land Conservancy recently created a gem of a public park at Stella Niagara in Lewiston thanks to Greenway funding and individual donors. In addition, the Buffalo Sewer Authority is working on a 10-year plan to stop dumping raw sewage into the water. There are good people there working on this with green infrastructure and that should improve the effects. So there’s a struggle going on right now to turn those things around. Who knows what it will be like in 10 years.
Q. What have we done right?
Environmentally there’s a growing community of environmentalists with achievements that are growing larger by the year. There’s brand new leadership ... young people who are creating their own nonprofits. A good example is Sam McGavern with Partnership for the Public Good. This is something we’re doing right. Buffalo Niagara River Keeper, the Land Conservancy and their growing successes. That’s a big part of it.
Q. What are your key prescriptions for change, particularly when it comes to improved health, social capital and quality of life?
For health, we need a campaign to get people to start walking. It begins with walking. Also in terms of human capital, we have to consolidate our school districts. By doing that, we will improve one of our key strengths: education. When it comes to social capital, we have to consolidate government to regional government, and we have to reduce segregation. In terms of economic capital, the best thing we can do is stop sprawl and densify the region. One of the densest communities in the nation is Kenmore, New York. It’s almost double the density of Buffalo and yet it’s a very livable community. Quality of life can come with density.
Environmentally, we’ve got to repair the damage and preserve what’s left.
Q. It took residents decades to build the Buffalo-Niagara region into the powerhouse it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and decades to plunge into its lowest points in the last quarter of the 20th century. How long should we reasonably expect a new prescription will take and what might we do to speed the process?
I believe that it would take only one generation to make this region globally significant, if we had the will. I’m shaky about that last part. I’m not certain we do. To speed the timeline, we’d have to stop sprawl and consolidate government.
Twitter: @BNrefresh; @ScottBScanlon