1.5 Environment

Buffalo, like most cities, faces a wide range of challenges in protecting and restoring the quality of the air, water, land, flora and fauna on which healthy lives for residents depend. These challenges include reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality, conserving energy, responding to impacts of global warming, reclaiming polluted industrial lands, improving sanitary sewage handling, cleaning up toxic Buffalo River sediments, preserving wildlife habitat, and many others. 

In the face of such a daunting agenda, the city is fortunate to have both strong political leadership and active citizens engaged in this work. Organized environmentalists have helped identify the city’s problems, inventory its assets and shape the environmental agenda. Political leaders have explicitly acknowledged the City’s obligation to lead the work for environmental improvement. 

The City administration and the Common Council, as well as numerous citizen groups, have cast their environmental policy in terms of an idea of “sustainability.” The concept has gained enormous currency worldwide, especially since the publication of “Our Common Future,” the 1987 report of the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development. Former Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Bruntland, the leader of the panel, defined sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” 

The idea of sustainability has also been embraced in our region. The Buffalo Niagara Sustainability Council was formed in December 2001 to promote community dialogue on sustainability and focus attention on the links among the environment, the economy and society. Since then, the Council has worked at formulating sustainable development principles, increasing public awareness of these principles and their importance, applying sustainable development concepts in the region, and creating indicators to measure regional progress toward sustainability. The Council also intends to put in place a “Regional Sustainability Plan” by 2010. 

The Buffalo Comprehensive Plan should be a step towards that goal, explicitly integrating considerations of environment, economy and community. Smart growth principles, which should also be incorporated into the plan, are fully consistent with basic concepts of sustainability. In general, initiatives to be undertaken in the name of sustainability must work to reduce the consumption of energy, land and other non-renewable resources; minimize the waste of materials, water and other limited resources; create livable, healthy and productive environments; and reduce greenhouse gases in order to assist in alleviating the impact of global climate change.

The imperative to make sustainability real operates at two levels. The competitiveness of cities in the 21st century will depend heavily on how they deal with these common environmental challenges. Meeting them effectively will promote the quality of life which successful cities must manage. But we must make sustainability real because the quality of life on the planet depends on it. It is our global obligation. 

1.5.1 Climate Change and Air Quality

The gradual warming of earth’s atmosphere is one of the most serious environmental issues we face worldwide. Like many such issues, however, the global problem has both local causes and remedies. Therefore, the issue of global climate change deserves consideration in Buffalo’s Comprehensive Plan. 

Although there remains much political debate in the United States over the causes of global warming, there is a broad scientific consensus that ongoing climate change is caused by the trapping of solar energy beneath a growing blanket of “greenhouse gases” – carbon dioxide and others – generated by the burning of fossil fuels. 

Action in the United States, led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has focused mainly on the consequences of global climate change and remedial actions to counter them. The Great Lakes regional report of the U.S. National Assessment Climate Change Research Program (2000) concluded there may be drastic changes in store for Buffalo including significant variations in Lake Erie water levels, erratic weather patterns, changes in vegetation and wildlife, and a wide range of other impacts on human health, economy, society and environment. 

Work through the United Nations has focused more on addressing the causes of global climate change. The 1992 UN Declaration on the Environment and “Agenda 21” acknowledged the link between atmospheric warming, “greenhouse” gases and the burning of oil, gas and coal. It also identified an important role to be played by local communities and regions in curtailing these emissions. 

In that spirit, the City of Buffalo has joined with 143 other U.S. cities and hundreds of cities in other nations in support of the Climate Protection Campaign, organized by the UN’s International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives. The campaign involves a five-step program by which localities inventory current emissions, set targets for reduction, establish action plans and carry them out. 

Buffalo has completed the emissions inventory. Using 1996 as a baseline year, it showed that residential energy use is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Buffalo (34 percent), followed by industrial uses (24 percent), commercial establishments (20 percent) and personal vehicles (14 percent). A separate inventory for fiscal year 1997-1998 showed that the City’s municipal operations contribute about 15 percent of total emissions in Buffalo. Further steps in the program remain to be taken.   

1.5.2 Water Quality and the Great Lakes

Buffalo has an obligation to help safeguard both the quality and quantity of Great Lakes water and the health of the whole ecosystem, for the sake of all those living in the bi-national basin (See Figure 29) as well as for the good of the city. 

The Great Lakes contain 20 percent of the world's total fresh water supply. This is a resource of immense and increasing global value. It is vital to the quality of life of more than 40 million people – ten percent of Americans and 30 percent of Canadians. It is also vital to the wide range of flora and fauna living in the basin. The wise use of water is important for maintaining biodiversity, for food production and drinking water, hydroelectric energy generation, marine transportation, economic enterprise, and recreation. 

A 1998 Common Council resolution entitled “Buffalo as a Sustainable Great Lakes Community” committed the City to this effort. It identified the need for a watershed approach as a framework for local and regional action (See Figure 30). Among the initiatives to be taken were improvements in water management, upgrades in storm and sanitary sewers, clean-up of contaminated river sediments, and expanded protection of urban wildlife habitat building on the success of Tifft Nature Preserve. 

Figure 29 The Great Lakes represent some twenty percent of the world’s supply of fresh water. Buffalo occupies a strategic position on the Great Lakes basin and ecosystem. (Image Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District)

Figure 29 The Great Lakes represent some twenty percent of the world’s supply of fresh water. Buffalo occupies a strategic position on the Great Lakes basin and ecosystem. (Image Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District) (Popup full image) 

Figure 30 The watershed of the Niagara River (Source: Rethinking the Niagara Frontier, 2001).

Figure 30 The watershed of the Niagara River (Source: Rethinking the Niagara Frontier, 2001). (Popup full image) 

Slow progress has been made in cleaning up Great Lakes waterways. The U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1985 that committed them to support Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) in 43 “areas of concern” – contamination “hot spots” – around the Lakes. This included the Niagara River and much of its watershed. Despite acceptance of the RAP process by governments at all levels, few of the areas of concern, including the Niagara River, have been addressed to the point where they could be "de-listed." Work continues, and while there have been technical problems, the main obstacle to further progress continues to be a lack of resources for implementing agreed upon solutions.

Buffalo, however, is well-positioned to take a leadership role in issues of Great Lakes basin sustainability. Great Lakes United, a bi-national coalition of organizations dedicated to conserving the Great Lakes, well-represented in this region, has pushed the City of Buffalo to take part in the Great Lakes Mayors' Initiative to advocate for funding from Congress and the states to clean up and protect the Lakes. 

The location of key research and policy development organizations here also supports Buffalo’s leadership potential on Great Lakes issues. These include the Great Lakes Research Center at Buffalo State College, the Great Lakes Program at the University at Buffalo, the Great Lakes Education Center of Erie County, the Buffalo Niagara Sustainability Council and the Friends of the Buffalo Niagara Rivers. All are making important contributions to our understanding of these issues and promoting sensible policies to protect the Lakes. 

The City of Buffalo and its agencies, however, should play a larger role in promoting the continuing protection and restoration of the Great Lakes. In so doing, the City can show it has earned its title Queen City of the Great Lakes. 

1.5.3 The Waterfront

Buffalo’s waterfront resources are enormous, encompassing a wide variety of landscapes and uses not only along Lake Erie and the Niagara River, but also on the Buffalo River, Cazenovia Creek, Scajaquada Creek and the Erie Canal. Its continuing redevelopment can be a leading quality-of-life factor in Buffalo’s economic resurgence. It can also play a small but important part in the regeneration of the Great Lakes basin. 

The characteristics of waterfront land and its uses vary widely from site to site. The waterfront includes re-naturalized areas like the Tifft Nature Preserve, architectural marvels such as the Buffalo River grain elevators, heritage sites like the Erie Canal Harbor and Underground Railway commemoration at Broderick Park, great public spaces like LaSalle Park and the Olmsted jewels, Riverside Park and Front Park, active industrial sites, recreational boating facilities, and many successful urban neighborhoods. 

Nevertheless, citizens lament the loss of access to their waterfront over the years, cut off from neighborhoods and Downtown by the Niagara Section of the Thruway, blocked by industrial uses active and dormant, or frustrated by lack of appropriate facilities – pathways, docks, boat launches, parking and amenities. The single clear demand from the public is to restore full access to Buffalo’s waterfront. 

But if citizens are frustrated by a perceived lack of action on waterfront development, an inventory of plans and action suggests much has been – and is being – accomplished. Construction of the Riverwalk, creation of the Erie Basin Marina, new housing in Waterfront Village, expansion of the Small Boat Harbor, clean-up of Hoyt Lake, preservation of Tifft Nature Preserve and others have all been accomplished in the last three decades. 

Many other projects are now coming to fruition, including the Erie Canal Harbor, Times Beach Nature Preserve, further expansion of the Small Boat Harbor, construction of Gallagher Beach, preservation of Buffalo River habitats, creation of the Outer Harbor Greenway Trail, restoration of LaSalle Park, construction of a Frank Lloyd Wright Boathouse and a Great Lakes Research Center at Cotter Point, development of a new Squaw Island Park and many others. 

Citizens are more engaged than ever in enunciating a clear waterfront agenda and giving it active support. Work on Buffalo’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program (LWRP), the Buffalo Waterfront Corridor Initiative (WCI), the Peace Bridge Expansion Project, the Erie Canal Harbor development and many others have provided an opportunity for citizens to speak, over and over again, about what they want. This Comprehensive Plan, among other actions, is evidence that officials are listening. 

The LWRP and WCI will become part of the Comprehensive Plan and they are discussed at greater length in part two of this document. The clear opportunity is to apply the basic principle of sustainability to waterfront redevelopment. That means integrating environmental, social and economic factors in one strategy to develop the waterfront for our use – and make it better for the generations to follow. 

Figure 31 Waterfront analysis illustrating distinct access points to public lands on the water from Niagara Street and west to the adjacent neighborhoods. Source:

Figure 31 Waterfront analysis illustrating distinct access points to public lands on the water from Niagara Street and west to the adjacent neighborhoods. Source: (Popup full image) 


Reading from the left we see:

a. Land owned by the public on our waterfront is substantial.

b. Points of access to the public land through the I-190 Thruway.

c. Access to the water from Niagara Street

d. Access extends to the water from points east of Niagara Street.

e. The neighborhoods adjacent to the water have distinct land uses and characters beginning from the Residential to the north, the industrial and heavy commercial uses in the middle, and the gateway and commercial strip character of lower Niagara Street. All three areas include substantial neighborhood populations.

1.5.4 Public Parks

Buffalo’s parks, playgrounds and public spaces are important both to sustaining the quality of the urban environment and the quality of life in the city. They provide not only recreational opportunities and public amenities but they also improve the physical environment and promote investment. In short, great parks in good order will be a crucial element in any strategy to turn the city around. 

The city parks system represents an enormous resource for Buffalo. It includes 120 parks of all types and sizes and a large number of other green spaces. They range in size from 350 acres to less than one. They include 16 “destination parks” that are relatively large and draw users from around the city and the whole region for a wide variety of recreational uses. There are 50 neighborhood parks and playgrounds that support passive and active recreation and are used locally. Thirty more neighborhood parks support mainly passive recreation. Two dozen other facilities – community centers, pools, and ice rinks – support both local and regional activities (See Figure 32). 

Figure 32 Key destination parks, facilities, neighborhood parks and playgrounds.

Figure 32 Key destination parks, facilities, neighborhood parks and playgrounds. (Popup full image) 

If the parks are a great resource, they are also a great user of resources. They require intensive management and maintenance, which are increasingly difficult to provide in a highly constrained municipal budget. Not surprisingly, the condition of these parks and facilities varies a great deal depending on intensity of use, availability of City staff, and the frequency of capital reinvestment. 

A survey of 117 parks showed that four (about four percent) were rated in excellent condition; 36 parks (about 29 percent) were rated good; 49 parks (42 percent) were rated fair and 28 parks (25 percent) were rated in poor condition. A total of 15 park facilities, including three destination parks, ten neighborhood parks and playgrounds, and two passive parks, were reported to have health and safety issues. 

Buffalo residents are substantially underserved by public parks. A 1999 study of 30 upstate New York cities showed Buffalo had 5.1 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents – well below the upstate average of 9.2 acres. Work on a new waterfront State Park on the Outer Harbor announced in 2003 and proposals for a new east side park will address the deficit only in part.   

1.5.5 Olmstead's Historic Park and Parkway System

On the other hand, Buffalo residents can enjoy an extraordinary system of Frederick Law Olmsted parks and parkways. Designed by Olmsted, his partner Calvert Vaux and Olmsted’s son John, and constructed between 1867 and 1903, it was the first attempt in the nation to create a truly city-wide system of parks. With six major parks – Delaware, Riverside, The Front, Martin Luther King Jr. (originally Humboldt), Cazenovia and South – connected by broad, tree-lined residential parkways, the system is a profoundly important element in the city’s form and structure. 

The true value of the historic Olmsted Park System is often misunderstood or overlooked. It is special on its own account, but also provides the setting for some of the city’s most important cultural institutions, including the Museum of Science, the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The system was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. 

These parks and parkways are well-loved and fiercely protected by the citizens of Buffalo. Proposals to use the parks for new purposes – for Peace Bridge access through Front Park, facilities for the Buffalo Zoo in Delaware Park, or for schools in Martin Luther King Park – have drawn staunch opposition. Likewise, there has been frequent tension between passive recreation, the historically intended purpose of the parks, and contemporary demands to accommodate active sports such as golf, tennis, soccer, softball and others. 

City government, along with park advocacy groups, including the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, park and parkway system citizen steering committees, and block clubs are working to find solutions to these issues. In any case, there is seldom any doubt about the commitment of Buffalo residents to their parks. 

1.5.6 Parks Management

Good parks are a consistent priority among citizens. Due to its ongoing fiscal crisis, however, the City of Buffalo has lost the wherewithal to maintain its parks, parkways, playgrounds and public spaces to an acceptable standard. The City has been forced to consider a range of options for meeting the public demand, going well beyond internal reform and downsizing to evaluate the potential for regional consolidation. The County of Erie has taken over management of the City Park system and is using the Olmsted Conservancy to manage the Olmsted Parks. 

Many of Buffalo’s parks are regional assets and it makes sense to manage them as such. People from all over Erie County and beyond visit many of Buffalo’s “destination parks” for a wide range of activities. Delaware Park and the Buffalo Zoo are truly regional attractions. Waterfront parks like Riverside, LaSalle and the Erie Basin Marina also attract users from far and wide. When Buffalo cannot carry the weight of maintaining these assets on its own, it makes sense for the burden to be shared more broadly. 

There is also plentiful precedent for parks management to be conducted on a regional basis. County management of Grover Cleveland Golf Course and the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens in South Park are both well-established examples. Two new waterfront parks, Towpath and Squaw Island, will likely draw users from beyond the city line. Their management by Erie County also makes sense. 

One of the new-found resources that should be considered in any solution to parks management problems is the growing cadre of committed parks volunteers. Groups like the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, the Buffalo Green Fund, Rose Buddies, the Japanese Garden Committee, the AmeriCorps Program, Buffalo in Bloom, Keep Western New York Beautiful, and numerous park steering committees are ready to commit whatever time, effort, money and imagination they have to help maintain, protect and improve Buffalo’s parks. 

While the City struggles to maintain the parks that it already owns, there is continuing pressure to expand the system of greenways that connect parks to one another and to the Buffalo waterfront. Supporters of the Buffalo Greenways Implementation Plan, approved by Common Council several years ago, are pushing for development of a Greenways Ordinance that would provide predictable funding for long-term development. Such an effort to link our park assets makes sense, but the demand for resources for new facilities must be balanced with the need to take care of what we already have. 

Further study of overall parks management should remain a priority, even in light of he June 2004 agreement for the County to assume management for all City parks. Likewise, much parks planning work accomplished in recent years should be carried forward under the new management structure.   

1.5.7 Urban Forestry

Once known as “The City of Trees,” Buffalo has suffered a steady decline in tree canopy coverage over the past three decades, the result of disease, harsh environmental conditions, inadequate maintenance and simple aging. Like other elements of the urban environment, trees provide shelter, habitat, beauty and economic value to city life. Reversing the long-term trend in urban deforestation should be a key element in a quality-of-life strategy for Buffalo’s revival. 

City resources are stretched thin in this realm, too. The Division of Forestry is responsible for the protection and care of 20,000 trees in city parks and 65,000 in street rights of way. Their first priority is to remove hazardous trees and branches, and clean up damage created by wind and weather. When no emergency conditions exist, forestry crews trim park trees and plant trees on City rights of way at the request of homeowners. Trees are also planted by private contractors when funds are available. 

Figure 33 Street trees on Timon Street in the Masten District.

Figure 33 Street trees on Timon Street in the Masten District. (Popup full image) 

Private groups have joined the effort to make Buffalo a city of trees again. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, the Reforest Buffalo Committee, and the Buffalo Green Fund have all organized reforestation programs and are moving to implement them. More than 2,000 trees will be planted over the next three years. The Division of Forestry also works with these groups and others, including Forever Elmwood, Allentown Association, Parkside Community Association, and many smaller community associations and block clubs to plant trees in parks, greenways, and along streets. 

Longer range planning is also taking place. A comprehensive survey detailing the condition of every tree in the city was completed in 2001 (See Figure 34). A Street Tree Master Plan has also been developed to provide a five-year management plan for street tree maintenance, hazard removal, and citywide reforestation, and a ten-year citywide routine tree-trimming rotation. The plan also includes removal, trimming and planting specifications, identification of appropriate species for planting, and a guide for construction around trees on City rights of way. 

Staff in the Division of Forestry are among those who will be transferred to Erie County as part of the handover of parks management under the recent City-County agreement. The new Street Tree Master Plan should be carried forward and implemented as these staff are absorbed into a new organization.   

Figure 34 A tree condition survey recently completed by the City assesses the current condition of Buffalo’s urban forest.

Figure 34 A tree condition survey recently completed by the City assesses the current condition of Buffalo’s urban forest. (Popup full image) 

1.5.8 Green Infrastructure

Public parks are only one part of what might be called the “green infrastructure” of a city. This “green infrastructure” includes not only public parks, parkways and playgrounds, but also institutional and private open spaces, rail and utility rights of way, highway margins, stream corridors, trailways, disused industrial land, vacant residential property and more. Because this infrastructure performs a range of ecological functions – providing wildlife corridors, urban habitat, support for biodiversity and more – it is important to the health of the ecosystem. 

We can imagine a system of green infrastructure composed of several types of open spaces. The formally protected green spaces of the city such as parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities in public ownership, as well as dedicated green spaces such as cemeteries, constitute one layer of the green infrastructure (See Figure 35). 

Figure 35 Existing Protected - Green Infrastructure

Figure 35 Existing Protected - Green Infrastructure (Popup full image) 

Figure 36 Existing Non-Protected - Green Infrastructure

Figure 36 Existing Non-Protected - Green Infrastructure (Popup full image) 

Green and open space that is not formally protected, such as land in private ownership like the buffers on transportation or utility corridors, constitutes a second layer of the infrastructure (See Figure 36). Such lands may serve ecological purposes although they are not necessarily all performing such a function today. 

A third layer includes lands that might be added to the city’s green infrastructure over time, including vacant residential, industrial and commercial properties (See Figure 37). The reality, of course, is that most of these properties ultimately will be redeveloped for uses other than green space. Nevertheless, they should be assessed in terms of their environmental value whenever re-use is planned. Some may be needed to make connections in the infrastructure or perform functions vital to the larger system of green infrastructure, including re-use as parks, woodlots, greenways, or gardens. 

One of the functions of planning is to preserve resources for future use when immediate action is not feasible. Implementation can be incremental, but the vision can be long-term. The Buffalo Greenway Plan is a good example of this concept (See Figure 38). Construction of some links in the Greenway system will require elements of the green infrastructure to be held out of other development. Developing our green infrastructure in the long term will require fidelity to these plans.   

Figure 37 Potential - Green Infrastructure

Figure 37 Potential - Green Infrastructure (Popup full image) 

Figure 38 Greeway Zones

Figure 38 Greeway Zones (Popup full image) 

1.5.9 Green Building

It is common to think of cars or factories as the primary enemies of the environment, consuming energy and emitting air pollution and other forms of waste. In reality, buildings consume more than half the energy used worldwide (compared with 25 percent by transportation and 25 percent by industrial uses) and 40 to 50 percent of the carbon emissions that cause global warming. As Buffalo approaches the management, renewal, and ultimately, the expansion of the city's building stock, it makes sense to think about how to make buildings less polluting and more energy efficient. 

Building codes are evolving in ways that promote more efficient land use, energy conservation, air quality, water conservation, and material use. They are also working to promote pedestrian activity and public transit. Rating systems such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) are now being used to evaluate sustainable architecture. They define environmentally progressive architecture as an architecture that uses renewable energy sources; employs passive techniques for ventilation and illumination; recycles greenery, water and waste; and uses environmentally benign construction techniques. It supports a practice of architecture that combines new technology with inherited architectural vernacular. 

Buffalo, led by the architects, planners, and engineers who work here, is in a unique position to use green building techniques as the city restores, preserves and reuses its building stock. Already, the award winning Queen City Hub Action Plan has included green building projects in its scope of work. Buildings in other parts of the city also lend themselves to these practices. Green building techniques and codes should also be used in the design and construction of new structures as well as the retrofitting of existing buildings.