1.1 The Region

Understanding Buffalo’s place in a regional context was fundamental to the development of this Comprehensive Plan. Urban regions, however, are often defined in different ways according to different purposes. Buffalo, too, has a place in several regions, variously defined. Each definition highlights particular challenges ahead, resources at hand and opportunities to come.

Buffalo is strategically located in a bi-national multi-polar urban region sometimes known as the “Golden Horseshoe” (see Figure 2). It is home to nearly ten million people and stretches from the Greater Toronto Area, around the western end of Lake Ontario, through the Niagara Peninsula and across Western New York, including the Buffalo and Rochester metropolitan areas.

The Golden Horseshoe is the fourth largest urban region in North America, and with a growth rate of 110,000 people per year, the region is the second fastest growing major urban region on the continent. Most of the growth is on the Canadian side of this binational region but the future potential for investment and economic growth in the U.S. parts of the region, because of our proximity to our Canadian economic partners, is substantial and should be exploited.

Buffalo’s region is also frequently defined in terms of five or eight Western New York counties, sometimes for political or administrative purposes, such as in the program of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). Their five-county region contains a population of 1,443,743 people. ESDC reports significant business investment and economic growth in this region, although mostly outside of core cities and older suburbs. This fact has important implications for regional planning and economic development.

Figure 2 The golden horseshoe is a region rapidly growing. One of the comprehensive plan objectives is to participate in this larger region’s growth and vitality.

Figure 2 The golden horseshoe is a region rapidly growing. One of the comprehensive plan objectives is to participate in this larger region’s growth and vitality. (Popup full image) 

The regional definition most relevant to this plan, however, is the two-county region comprising Erie and Niagara Counties, also known as the Buffalo-Niagara Falls Metropolitan Statistical Area. This region defines not only a U.S census unit, but the core of a regional labor market, a media market, a commuter-shed, a transportation planning area, and many other regional functions including ongoing efforts to improve metropolitan governance.

In all but the broadest definitions of this region, Buffalo has long been the dominant urban center, economically, politically, culturally and demographically. Over the past half century, however, Buffalo’s predominant position in the region has deteriorated as the urban core declined in population and the suburbs grew. In 1950 nearly two-thirds of the people in Erie County lived in the City of Buffalo. By the turn of the century, less than one-third of the population lived there.

Not only the core cities suffered, however. The combined population of Erie and Niagara counties peaked at about 1.35 million around 1970. By 2000 the population had declined to 1.17 million – a net loss of about 180,000. Yet, even as population leveled off and then dropped, the total area occupied by urbanization continued to grow – by 132 percent between 1950 and 2000. Even in the period of overall population decline, from 1970 to 2000, the urbanized area grew by a third (see Figure 3) Urban sprawl has brought huge economic, social, and environmental costs, particularly for the core cities. Operating expenditures for local governments in Erie and Niagara Counties have increased 65 percent in the last ten years – nearly triple the rate of inflation – with no appreciable increase in services. In Buffalo, taking inflation into account, local home prices have actually dropped 24 percent over that same period. As assessments have declined, municipalities have been forced to raise taxes to maintain current services. Today, the finances of the City of Buffalo are clearly under strain.

Despite all of this, the City of Buffalo, with only 41 square miles of land, remains the functional core of the region. No other community in the region can replicate this concentration of functions. Businesses and residents in suburbs throughout the region depend on these functions for their well being. They are what make Buffalo the region’s central place. Any plan must determine how the city can take best advantage of its regional position.
Buffalo is Western New York’s:

  • Government and institutional center;

  • Medical and life sciences research center;

  • Business center;

  • Service center;

  • Transportation hub;

  • Cultural and heritage center;

  • Sports and entertainment center; 

  • Restaurant and niche retail center; and

  • International trading center.

Given New York State's institutional and constitutional framework, there appears to be little prospect of expanding the city's boundaries to augment its population, obtain land for development, increase efficiency and enlarge its tax and revenue base. The Comprehensive Plan has been based on the assumption that the city's boundaries, which have scarcely changed over the past 150 years, will not change significantly over the next 20 years. Recent proposals for the possible merger of the City and Erie County may render this assumption obsolete. However, the Comprehensive Plan would still be valid if such structural change were to occur. 

Whatever else happens, Buffalo has assets to develop and use that are related directly to its position in its various regions. These include a strategic position in regional, continental and global trading networks; strong economic, administrative, cultural and other functions within the metropolitan area; and a potentially central political role in the regional institutions of what we now call Buffalo-Niagara.

Figure 3 Metropolitan Expansion in Buffalo and Erie County

Figure 3 Metropolitan Expansion in Buffalo and Erie County (Popup full image)