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Another Voice: Informed decision-making should guide Buffalo’s redevelopment

By Lisa Kenney

While I grew up in Western New York, like many others I moved away for better opportunities. But each return visit fills me with increasing optimism and excitement. I’m optimistic because new development can provide the region’s poorest residents with a way out of a seemingly intractable predicament. I’m optimistic because Buffalo has an opportunity to set an example of post-industrial development done right, whereby it meets linked economic, social and environmental goals and truly benefits all residents.

Yet alongside this optimism is caution, but not because of controversies surrounding the Buffalo Billion or SolarCity. Instead, it is my work as a decision scientist that makes me cautious. Research tells us that in complex decision-making situations – like Buffalo’s revitalization – we’re prone to a range of decision-making challenges that lead us astray from what we actually want to achieve. Things like emotions, past experiences and risk aversion affect our decisions.

But there are ways to help us overcome our decision-making challenges, like having a guiding framework using objectives-based decision-making. This means that we (residents, governments and others) are engaged in identifying what we want to achieve – an objective like “increase economic development” – and then work toward ways to achieve this. So, rather than brainstorming possible projects or using a list of initiatives that are already underway, actions should be chosen based on their estimated potential to meet objectives.

Most decision-making processes skip over any assessment of how well different options meet objectives. This means that people have to rely on gut instinct or best guesses. We see the results of decision-making without guidance nearly every day: in stalled decisions, plans or projects with little support and initiatives that quickly – and often very publicly – fail.

City of Buffalo staff, Common Council members, city residents, businesses and community organizations have worked hard to create plans for the region’s revitalization, which are a great foundation.

But back to my initial cautiousness: How can we ensure that these plans actually improve people’s lives? A guiding framework can help, and can better link different development plans. My concern is that without structure, these plans may not truly redevelop the region, leaving already marginalized residents further marginalized, the environment further degraded and the population in further decline.

Buffalo’s redevelopment presents a great opportunity to set an example of informed, stakeholder and community-driven decision-making.

Lisa Kenney, Ph.D., has worked on decision-making in energy planning, climate change mitigation and community development. She lives in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.