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Moving one region forward

Informational displays were held throughout Western New York at various venues and events, including City of Night, Juneteenth, and the Elmwood Festival of the Arts.

Photos courtesy of One Region Forward

What do we want the Buffalo-Niagara region to look like in forty years?

How would you create a more sustainable future?

These are the questions posed by One Region Forward, a broad-based effort that brings together thousands of citizens, more than a hundred experts, and dozens of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, business leaders, and more, in order to establish a shared vision for the future of Erie and Niagara counties.

As they prepare the final draft of a comprehensive regional plan, set to be released this month, the organizers pose one more question: What if we imagined our future differently?


Each graph represents a different possible scenario. The one above brings more density to the city.


Coming together

From beginning to end, the hallmark of One Region Forward is collaboration. The initiative was among thirty projects funded in November 2011 by the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program, a joint program of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.


Locally, the One Region Forward effort is directed by a steering committee composed of representatives from more than twenty government, nonprofit, and academic organizations; it is led by the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Transportation Council, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, and Buffalo Niagara Partnership.


The primary output from the effort will be the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development, a federally recognized, comprehensive planning document that will give the region priority status for funding opportunities and serve as a roadmap for local leaders. A final draft will be released soon, with an opportunity online for comments before the plan is finalized
early next year.


Robert Shibley, dean of the UB School of Architecture and Planning, emphasizes that the plan is meant to guide and empower both local leaders and residents to learn from our past mistakes and consider how choices made today can impact our entire region in the future.


“The difference between this plan and other plans is that other plans are prescriptive—they tell you what to do—but this plan is performance-based,” Shibley says. “It informs you about the implications of actions we’ve been taking and presents alternative ways that deliver different kinds of results that are sustainable and resilient and contribute to the quality of life in the region.”


To start, the steering committee examined more than 160 plans that have been created in the past, from neighborhood and comprehensive regional plans to documents regarding transportation or watersheds. After synthesizing their findings, a number of core value statements emerged that guided these past efforts, including: manage infrastructure strategically, investing in existing areas and maintaining, removing, or extending urban systems to lower costs, improve efficiency, and enhance quality of place; restore and protect our water, air, soil, wildlife habitat, and other natural resources to promote a healthy ecology, economy, and community; expand transportation options to improve access to jobs, services, and recreation; and more.


“Tens of thousands of people participated in those local planning processes over many years, and that was a starting place [for One Region Forward],” says Bart Roberts, research assistant professor in the UB Regional Institute.


“But we also knew that wasn’t enough,” Roberts continues. “Things have changed, so we went out and asked people if these values reflect where we are now. Through that process, we tabled at over thirty farmers markets, fairs, and festivals,
and talked to hundreds and hundreds of people.”


This graph displays the region if it is left as is.


Community engagement

Throughout this two-year process, One Region Forward has engaged the public in person, online, and even over text
message. Through the Text It Forward campaign, people could weigh in by answering texted survey questions, while PhotoVoices asked participants to submit photos or videos online of places they wanted to keep or wished to change in
the future.


Meanwhile, the initiative hosted twenty-seven scenario-planning workshops across Erie and Niagara counties to engage a cross-section of residents. Participants were asked to map out areas in which they would invest, places they would protect, and where they would locate homes, jobs, and other attractions. In the end, nearly 800 citizens created 115 maps.


“We tried to establish a conversation through these various tools that creates an environment for an informed choice—not just choice—and, in so doing, establish a network of informed action-takers,” says Shibley. “We never assumed, as most plans do, that this plan has a single source of authority and power to make things happen, but rather it recognizes that powers and authority are broadly distributed across our counties and through our citizenship.”


When all of the maps were combined, three general scenarios emerged. In “Sprawling Smarter,” there is some outward
growth of new homes, but in a somewhat denser, mixed-use form that loses less farmland and open space to development
than in past years. “A Region of Villages” concentrates new homes and jobs in city, town, and village centers, creating more walkable, transit-connected neighborhoods. And lastly, as its name suggests, “Back to the City” has nearly all new homes and jobs concentrated in the core cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, with existing homes rehabbed and former industrial sites reused rather than abandoned.


Over the past few months, local residents have been able to comment on the scenarios in order to find the best aspects
of each. According to Shibley, the idea isn’t to find one scenario that encompasses every municipality, but rather to clearly show how various factors affect tax revenues and infrastructure costs.


“The notion here is that you can have what you want, but you’ve got to figure out how to pay for it,” he says. “Right
now, the baseline that we’ve seen the last twenty-five years essentially results in the ruination of the municipal tax base. It can’t deliver services based on that sprawl. So, you can choose, but there’s a different cost for each choice.”


This graph presents a scenario where sprawl could be modified.


Five big ideas

From previous plans, community input, and data from hundreds of publicly available sources, five main topics of interest emerged: land use and development, transportation and mobility, housing and neighborhoods, food access and justice, and climate change action. Though all five are inextricably intertwined, working teams of experts formed around each individual idea to develop practical strategies and actions for future change, which will form the basis of the final Regional Plan for Sustainable Development.


“At the end, we brought all five teams together, and it was dramatic to see the interconnectedness of these issues,” says Kelly Dixon, transportation analyst at the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council. “[The GBNRTC] is responsible for the long-range transportation plan for the region, and we have the benefit of this very integrated process. Having better information on housing and these other key areas will certainly affect our regular transportation planning process that comes after One Region Forward.”


Under land use, the data reveals that, despite population loss over the past forty years, the area of urbanized land has increased by 166 square miles, and more than 180,000 new homes and 525 miles of new roads have been built. The new
roads alone cost $26 million per year to maintain, according to analysis by the UB Regional Institute, to say nothing of
the rise in vacancies and the increased pollution to regional waterways from this sprawl.


The mapping exercises indicated that the public largely recognizes these problems and wants to address them: ninety
percent of maps focused revitalization efforts on the existing downtowns of Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and eighty-seven
percent of participants placed new homes in existing communities to curb sprawl and better use our existing resources.
Among its recommendations, the working team called for the redevelopment of brownfields for job creation; the protection
of farmland, watersheds, and natural areas; concentrated development within urban areas; the expansion of historic
preservation tax credits; and the strategic location of public services along transit routes.


“We can’t have effective public transportation in our region when we have a land use that’s very spread out and doesn’t have dense nodes where public transportation can connect,” says Roberts, who served as project manager for community engagement activities during the process. “Food and our ability to grow food locally is very much dependent on land use. How we prepare for climate change and how we reduce the impact that our region contributes to climate change—a lot of that is driven by how we build our communities and our transportation systems.”


In terms of transportation, the data showed that we drive more than twice as much today as we did in 1970, and that
only 28 percent of the regional population lives within half a mile of public transportation. According to the US Census
Bureau, more than 108,000 workers in the region spend more than an hour commuting every day—and most are driving


“When you roll that [statistic] up to how many people live here, it comes out to an additional $2 million a day that we
spend just on gasoline,” says Hal Morse, executive director of the GBNRTC. “What else could we do with $2 million a day
in terms of sending our kids to college or funding our retirement or the kinds of services we want?”


As such, the plan advocates for transit-oriented development, investment in infrastructure to make bicycling safe
and convenient, and “complete streets” with ample sidewalks, on-street parking, and greenery.


Moving through the remaining three key areas, the plan places importance on, among other things, helping to link local growers with local retailers, encouraging food trucks, developing a “Healthy Corner Store” program, promoting urban farming and community gardens, ensuring fair wages for farm workers, and making community-supported agriculture arrangements more affordable for low-income residents—all to strengthen our regional food system, grow the economy, and improve health in all populations.


“As we enjoy the growth and emergent prosperity and begin to get excited about the possibilities, we have to remember that that doesn’t necessarily equate to a just city,” Shibley says. “We need a consistent due diligence to make sure that the rising tide really does lift all boats.”


This graph illustrates what would happen if we continue doing what we've been doing.

Future directives

As One Region Forward approaches the completion of the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development, the organizers are quick to emphasize: The work does not stop here. After all, planning without action is fruitless.


As such, One Region Forward plans to build on the current steering committee to create the Buffalo Niagara Regional
Planning Network, a voluntary association of governments, state and local agencies, and advocacy groups that collaborate
to solve problems, monitor results, and hold each other accountable to the plan—our shared vision for a sustainable
future. In addition, current and future data will contribute to a repository of best practices on a multitude of issues.


“There’s a whole lot of place-based institutions that aren’t going home when this planning effort is over,” says Shibley.

“The [Buffalo Niagara] Partnership is here. There are increasingly mature not-for-profit capacities. Look at how PUSH has
emerged; look at the embodied strength of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy or [Buffalo Niagara] Riverkeeper. We’re all here
for the long haul.”


Moreover, organizers say the public outreach and education that began during One Region Forward is far from complete.
This year, the initiative launched a Citizen Planning School that taught planning basics through issue-based lectures
by panels of experts—all free of charge. Videos of the sessions and PowerPoint presentations are still available at
www.oneregionforward.org, and a new class will launch in 2015 through the UB School of Architecture and Planning.


Beyond education, the Champions for Change program, which helps people take their ideas for improving their community
and turn them into viable projects, will continue.


“The thing that has been so exciting as we’ve gone out and done all this community engagement has been how savvy and
smart the public is, ranging from a kindergartner who can talk about the importance of being green to someone who
can very eloquently talk about the sustainability of her community but the disappointment that it’s being neglected,”
says Roberts. “It’s a very powerful thing to have an informed public that feels empowered to make change.”


Meanwhile, like many of us in the region, the organizers of One Region Forward also feel a strong sense of hope—that
the idea of Buffalo’s renaissance is on its way to reality.


“It’s like the old quote from Peter Drucker: ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it,’” says Morse. “Where you
previously would hear a tone of ‘Why don’t they do something about that?’ the tone now is ‘What are we going to do
and when can we do it?’ People now feel that they own this. It’s no longer about somebody else doing something for me,
but what we collectively are going to do to make [the region] the way we want it—and that’s just refreshing.”


For more information about One Region Forward, visit www.oneregionforward.org.



Matthew Biddle is a regular Spree contributor.

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