Going green / Providing tools for sustainable change
University Heights Tool Library
Photos by Stephen Gabris
Over the past seven years, the University Heights Tool Library has come a long way from “three rakes on a wall”; that’s how the nonprofit’s all-volunteer staff often describes its humble beginnings. These days, the bright lime and teal walls—and an upstairs storage space unseen by members and passersby—are jam-packed with thousands of tools, all available to rent for just twenty dollars a year. The goal: provide communities with the tools they need—literally and figuratively—to create the change they want.
In 2011, after struggling with an absentee landlord and working with his roommates to fix up their own apartment, then-University at Buffalo student Darren Cotton learned about the tool library concept that allows individuals, block clubs, and other organizations to rent tools and learn how to use them, all for a small annual fee. He opened the University Heights Tool Library on Main Street later that year, and, in 2012, it relocated to its current location on West Northrup Place in the heart of the walkable Heights neighborhood.
“The Tool Library gives people access to tools to fix up their home, start a garden. We centralize those resources in one spot, and make it affordable and accessible,” says Cotton, sitting in the organization’s adjacent CoLab space, where it hosts workshops, meetings, and other programs. “It’s not a new idea—tool libraries have been around for decades—but it seemed like a really good fit for the neighborhood, especially being a university neighborhood with a lot of transient renters who might not invest $200 in a chop saw but want to fix up their home.”
In this way, the Tool Library is an excellent example of the sharing economy, a sustainable economic model in which individuals share resources rather than owning them outright (see sidebar). “Does everyone on a block need to own their own lawnmower if their plot of land they need to mow is like thirty feet by thirty feet? Probably not,” Cotton points out. “That’s what a lot of members tell us—they’re happy to join because they realize it’s reducing their carbon footprint. When we’re buying less things, then less things have to be produced, and things that are being created are being used exponentially more over their lifetime than they would be sitting in someone’s basement or closet. Our goal is to get those tools out of basements, closets, and attics,” Cotton continues. “Instead of being used for twelve minutes [over their lifetime,] they’ll be used for 1,200 minutes or 12,000 minutes.”
Today, the Tool Library has more than 3,000 tools, more than half of which were donated, usually by individuals cleaning out garages or passing on items from loved ones who passed away. (If you’re interested in donating, call 716-510-1745 or visit thetoollibrary.org.) By the end of last year, almost 900 people from nearly seventy ZIP codes were represented in its membership, though about a third live within a twenty-minute walk of the organization.
Those tools, members, and volunteers are having a big impact. Throughout the year, the Tool Library is part of many community-driven, grassroots efforts to boost University Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods, whether the organization is simply providing tools to other groups or is initiating and leading a multi-year initiative.
Through ReTree the District, for example, the Tool Library has planted more than 1,200 trees across the neighborhood since 2015, helping to restore green spaces and bring the community together. About 1,900 volunteers have contributed more than 7,000 hours of their time to the project.
Meanwhile, the Tool Library collaborates with the Bailey Avenue Business Association and other organizations for Bailey Fights Blight, an initiative to improve and reimagine public spaces through street cleanups, community gardening, and public art. According to Cotton, the organization catalogued blighted properties along Bailey Avenue before starting their efforts and, two years later, and found a forty percent decline in blight, including many properties their team never touched, which demonstrates how dedication and investment beget further investment.
“One of my co-workers lives off Bailey Avenue on the street where we did our first mural, and she said, ‘Every time I drive down the street, it just makes me so happy to see that mural,’” Cotton says. “That’s not as flashy as investing five million dollars in the community, but you’re having an impact on people’s daily lives, and that’s really the story of the Tool Library. It’s these incremental improvements over the course of years—and over the course of hundreds and thousands of people—that really add up.”
Most recently, the Tool Library launched the Dare to Repair Café with the City of Buffalo Recycling Department. These periodic events, at which volunteers repair everything from clothing and small electronics to lamps and vacuums, encourage people to repair and repurpose what they already have, rather than run to a department store for replacement.
“So far, we’ve repaired 199 items, and that accounts for roughly 1,700 pounds of waste that’s been kept out of local landfills,” Cotton explains. “Stats are great, but it’s also [about] talking to the elderly woman who brought in this beautiful antique lamp that’s been sitting in her house not working for the past forty years. [She now sees] it functioning and [we] see how happy she is; those are the stories we like to share.”
Within the next two years, the organization hopes to move into a larger space and increase its revenue—without raising membership rates—so it can focus other funds on community projects. Meanwhile, Cotton, who grew up observing the impact PUSH Buffalo has on the West Side, says he’s proud to be a small cog in the city’s resurgence, helping transform the neighborhood in which he now owns his first home.
“I was probably the worst person to start a tool library because the last time I’d used a power tool was probably eighth grade shop class,” Cotton smiles. “But I just saw what the Tool Library could be to so many different people, and I’m happy to say my skills have improved.”