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Greening Buffalo

Cities everywhere are adopting green policies that save money, improve quality of life, and encourage community development. Buffalo should, too.

Across the United States, cities are launching green initiatives. Environmentalists are focusing on cities because that’s where the action is. By 2030, the world will be two-thirds urban. The earth’s future depends on what happens in cities: whether they grow compactly or sprawl; whether their buildings are energy efficient or wasteful; whether they encourage mass transit or driving; whether they build coal plants or wind farms.

As environmentalists are honing in on cities, so cities are seeing advantages in becoming greener. Cities are competing for highly mobile residents, and, increasingly, those residents prize green amenities and policies. This green preference will only increase as people realize that city living is much greener than suburban living; for example, city residents drive 31 percent less than suburban counterparts with the same income level.

Cities are coming to understand how global warming threatens them. Hurricane Katrina provided a terrible preview of what rising sea levels and storms may do to major cities around the globe. Hotter weather poses special risks to urban residents, even in wintry cities like Buffalo. Consider the fact that under a business-as-usual scenario, Buffalo will have 14 days per year over 100 degrees by 2100.

As Hurricane Katrina also demonstrated, cities with high poverty suffer the most from environmental problems. Buffalo illustrates these environmental justice issues quite starkly. Of the five zip codes with the highest lead poisoning rates in the state, three are located in Buffalo. A New York state study of 3,000 Buffalo children found that 26 percent suffered from asthma, with Hispanic residents suffering asthma rates roughly twice those of other residents.

Cities like Buffalo, suffering from a lack of good jobs, also stand to gain the most from green businesses, which tend to be labor intensive. The wind industry creates more jobs than the coal, natural gas, or oil industries. Organic farming requires more labor than non-organic. Deconstructing a house employs more people than demolishing it, and recycling our waste employs more people than dumping it in landfills.

Potential waiting to be tapped

The Queen City has great potential as a green city. We have abundant hydropower and high wind speeds. We have great hiking, birding, natural wonders, and other resources that could lead to significant eco-tourism. We have a city chock-full of existing buildings to re-use and recycle. We have the Olmsted Parks and miles of waterfront.

But nobody is hailing Buffalo as a green city yet. No one in local government has set forth a green vision for our area. Under Mayor Masiello, the city signed the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, but the city has never created a plan to fulfill the agreement by reducing its greenhouse emissions. Buffalo’s comprehensive plan, adopted in 2006, is filled with environmental principles and projects, including an environmental management system, but none of those plans have been implemented.

Our elected officials, of course, respond to the concerns we raise as voters, residents, and advocates. If they do not feel more pressure to go green, then we’re not doing our job. So, assuming we are going to clamor for a greener Buffalo, for what should we clamor? Here are some suggestions, culled from a report that I wrote for the Partnership for the Public Good with students from UB Law School. (The full report is available at


Buffalo’s worst environmental problem is our development pattern: what scholars have called “sprawl without growth.” From 1980 to 2006, as our regional population was declining by 5.8 percent, our urbanized area was growing 38 percent. We now have over 20,000 vacant housing units in the city of Buffalo, not to mention over 20,000 vacant lots. Not coincidentally, we built over 20,000 new housing units outside the city between 1990 and 2000.

Abandoning the city to build new housing and new infrastructure is enormously expensive. First, we pay to build all those new roads, sewers, water lines, schools, and municipal buildings. Then, we pay to maintain them. Meanwhile, back in the city, we pay to demolish all the old buildings; we pay for the blight and concentrated poverty left behind; and we pay for the inefficiencies of using an infrastructure built for twice the population it now serves. No wonder, then, that Erie and Niagara Counties have concluded that growing more compactly over the next twenty years could save the taxpayers $800 million.

The environmental costs of sprawl are devastating. All that new construction requires vast amounts of raw materials and energy. Sprawl destroys habitats for animals and plants, pollutes our waterways, crowds out our family farms, and dramatically increases our driving. Between 1984 and 1999, the average number of miles driven in this region increased 50 percent, from 10 to 15 miles per day.

Erie and Niagara Counties have adopted a regional framework: a planning document that recognizes the costs of sprawl and includes policies to combat it, including a new Erie County Planning Board. (You can find the framework at As residents, we should urge our counties to promptly and fully implement the plans that they have adopted in the framework.

We should also pay special attention to reforming our fractured, wasteful system of economic development subsidies. As the Good Jobs First study, “Sprawling by the Lake,” has demonstrated, we are subsidizing sprawl. Last year, the Clarence IDA ran a full-page advertisement in the Buffalo News, touting its success in moving a business from Buffalo to Clarence. We need to push for IDA consolidation and for the addition of green criteria to every economic development program.

Buffalo's Green Groups

• Buffalo Audubon Society,

• Buffalo Blue Bicycle,

• Buffalo First!,

• Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper,

• Buffalo ReUse,

• Citizens Campaign for the Environment,

• Citizens Regional Transit Corporation,

• Community Action of Erie County,

• Daemen Center for Sustainable Communities,

• Grassroots Gardens,

• Green Gold Development Corporation / Wind Action Group,

• Massachusetts Avenue Project,

• Queen City Farm,

• Sierra Club, Niagara Group,

• UB Green,

• Urban Roots Community Garden Center,

• WNY Climate Action Coalition,

• WNY Land Conservancy,


Local governments can encourage biking and walking by providing bicycle lanes, biking and walking trails, bike racks, and easily available bikes to rent or share. Chicago has added 125 miles of new bikeways, 9,400 new bike racks, and put a bike depot in its Millennium Park with lockers, showers, bike repair, bike rental, and other services. Chicago also has programs like the “Walking School Bus,” making it easier for children to walk or bike to school; an impressive 90 percent of its students now do so.

We can also green our vehicles and the fuel that they use. Many cities are buying hybrids for their municipal fleets, using bio-fuel and biodiesel blends, and retrofitting school buses and other vehicles with emissions reduction equipment. Cleveland, for example, now has 300 flex-fuel and 32 hybrid vehicles. Many cities and schools have also adopted anti-idling policies—requiring vehicles to be turned off when not needed—to reduce emissions and gas costs.

Perhaps most important, local governments can focus their transportation dollars and policies on mass transit, making it cheaper and more convenient. The share of Buffalo commuters using mass transit fell from 11 percent to four percent from 1970 to 2000. (Pittsburgh, by contrast, still has eight percent using mass transit.) We should look at projects like Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor project, which includes 5.2 miles of exclusive bus lanes, designed not only to reduce pollution but also to revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods.


You might assume that before we discharge sewage into lakes and rivers, we process it at waste treatment plants. So indeed we do—except when it rains. Whenever it rains (or snow melts) more than a trace amount, that rainwater causes our system to overflow and sends raw sewage directly into our waterways. In the city of Buffalo, these “combined sewer overflows” happen about 68 times a year, violating the Clean Water Act and endangering wildlife, fishermen, swimmers, and others.

How do you eliminate sewer overflows? One plan, favored by the Buffalo Sewer Authority, focuses on big engineering projects: building giant holding tanks and separating out storm sewers from sanitary sewers. There are two problems with these solutions. First, they are enormously expensive. Second, they solve only some of the problems. For example, when you separate out storm sewers and route them directly into our waterways, you fail to filter all the pollutants that flow with storm water (fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and motor oil, to name a few).

The greener solutions keep rainwater out of sewers in the first place. Cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis are using green infrastructure to divert and filter rainwater. One simple measure is to disconnect downspouts from sewer pipes. Portland has disconnected over 49,000 downspouts. Some residents choose to connect their gutters to rain barrels or rain gardens, with the added benefit of conserving water. Pittsburgh studied where rain barrels would have the most effect and then installed 500 132-gallon barrels.

Another technique is to intersperse big impermeable surfaces like parking lots with greenery to absorb the rainwater. Green roofs—roofs planted with vegetation—also help. Buffalo has reported only three green roofs, while Chicago has over one million square feet of green roofs, because it has offered developers and residents various incentives to build them.

We also need to make our sewage fees reflect our costs. Minneapolis and other cities charge separately for storm sewer service, based on amount of impervious surface, and then offer credits to residents and businesses that reduce their rain water impact with landscaping, removal of impervious surfaces, green roofs, downspout disconnects, and other methods.


One of the simplest ways to green a city is to plant more trees. Even before the October storm, Buffalo was lacking in trees, with a tree canopy of 12 percent, compared to a national average of 30 percent. Trees suck up rainwater and keep it out of sewers, and they also remove pollutants like ozone and carbon dioxide from the air. A study done for New York City recently estimated that the city got $5.60 in benefits for every $1 it put into trees; small wonder, then, that Mayor Bloomberg wants to plant one million of them.

Three ideas the city might want to embrace are: planting more trees in vacant lots, to reclaim them from blight; giving residents incentives to plant and care for their own trees (Minneapolis offers $80 trees to residents for $15); and bringing fruit trees back to the historic Fruit Belt neighborhood, offering beautification and a healthy food source to this impoverished neighborhood, plagued with severe health problems despite being next to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.


When we think about pollution, most of us think first about industry, then about vehicles, and last (if at all) about buildings. We have things reversed. Buildings account for 48 percent of the nation’s energy consumption, well ahead of transportation (27 percent) and industry (25 percent). In Buffalo, residential energy use accounts for 34 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, stemming largely from burning natural gas to heat our homes and burning coal to make electricity for them.

Buffalo has not yet embraced green building. The Buffalo area has only seven LEED-certified buildings, and the Buffalo School District, which is in the middle of a $1 billion project to renovate and rebuild each one of its schools, is not planning to seek LEED certification for a single one. (LEED is the most common system for certifying and rating green buildings; the city of Chicago has 29 LEED-certified buildings.)

The school district explained its decision not to seek LEED certification by saying it was “significantly more expensive.” The truth is, however, that green buildings save significant amounts of money over their lifetime when compared with conventional buildings. HealthNow reports that its new downtown building, which is LEED-Silver, cost one percent to two percent more upfront, but is saving $166,000 per year in energy costs.

The city should require green design for any buildings that it subsidizes. Even more important, the city should redirect its housing money away from new construction projects—like the impractical Sycamore Village—to renovation and weatherization programs. Weatherizing our houses does more than fight pollution; it also fights poverty by reducing energy bills. Weatherizing a home that heats with natural gas saves an average of $461 per year and reduces carbon emissions by one metric ton per year.

Renewable energy

Buffalo can become one of the renewable energy capitals of the world. We have the awesome hydropower resources of the Niagara River. We have, for a northeastern city, relatively plentiful sunshine. And we are the fourth windiest major city in the nation, with wind speed averaging 11.9 miles per hour.

Coal, oil, and natural gas may appear cheaper than renewable energy, but only because we are not including their environmental costs. How great are those costs? Scientists estimate that, under a business as usual scenario, global warming will kill 180 million people in Africa alone by 2100. We must stop building coal plants nearly immediately if we are to do what the scientists tell us we must: reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050.

Burning coal does harm in many other ways, as well. Consider the fact that the Huntley Generating Station in Tonawanda is by far the largest source of toxins in Erie County, releasing 2,642,883 pounds in 2002. Consider how we extract the coal we burn—using methods like blowing up entire mountains in Appalachia. Small wonder that local environmentalists fervently oppose plans for a new coal plant in Jamestown!

Besides saying no to new coal plants, what can local governments do to promote renewable energy?

■ Make it themselves. Every government building with a flat roof should have solar panels. Many should also host micro-turbines for wind energy and solar collectors for hot water. Buffalo should consider on-site wind energy for its water pumping and sewage treatment plants.

■ Buy it themselves. County Legislators Maria Whyte and Tim Kennedy sponsored a successful resolution in 2007 with goals of the County buying eight percent renewable energy by 2009, 16 percent by 2011, and 25 percent by 2013. We need to make sure the county follows through and that our other local governments follow its lead.

■ Encourage us to buy it. Buying renewable energy is easy in New York, but only one percent of residents have done it. (You can learn how at Every local government should be urging its residents to make the switch.

Garbage and recycling

The city of Buffalo has a serious recycling problem. We recycle about 6.5 percent of our solid waste, compared to a national average of 27 percent and compared to a rate of 42 percent for the parts of Erie County outside the city. As recently as the 1990s, Buffalo recycled 14 percent of its waste, but, according to the Public Works Commissioner, “In the last few years, no one has really thought much about recycling.” By contrast, San Francisco recycles over 50 percent of its waste and plans to reach 75 percent by 2010.

Our financial problems should not distract us from recycling; they should spur us on. The city pays $43 per ton to tip its garbage at the landfill and $25 to $30 per ton to tip its yard waste at a composting plant; it gets paid $10 per ton for its recyclables. Thus, we save about $15 per ton when we divert our yard waste and $53 per ton when we divert our recyclables.

A first step is to amend our garbage ordinance to bring it into compliance with state law, which requires recycling for all residents and businesses. Buffalo’s ordinance appears to require recycling by businesses but not residents. A second step is to enforce the law. Many businesses do not recycle, and the city’s materials do not even notify businesses that they are required to do so.

The city also needs to reform how it handles yard waste. Many cities collect yard waste every other week or at least once a month, on a regular, advertised schedule. Buffalo simply landfills its yard waste except for, typically, one unannounced day in the fall when the leaves are collected for composting.

Buffalo also should reexamine its policies regarding construction and demolition debris, particularly given its plan to demolish 5,000 houses in the next five years. Much of the material from those homes—the wood, concrete, asphalt, etc.—can be recycled instead of landfilled. Chicago requires that 50 percent of construction and demolition debris be recycled; Buffalo should enact a similar ordinance.

Finally, the city needs policies that encourage source reduction, and not just recycling. A potent example is Seattle’s 20-cent tax on shopping bags (both paper and plastic), which is expected to raise $10 million in revenue. When Ireland started taxing shopping bags, it reduced their use by 90 percent. Other simple source reduction methods include two-sided printing and copying of all government documents and campaigns to teach residents how to stop junk mail.

Sustainability offices and plans

Cities are finding innumerable ways to become more sustainable. Learning about these methods and implementing them requires the full attention of dedicated staff. Therefore, the first thing to do is to create a sustainability office, as governments, institutions, and businesses across the country have done. These offices tend to pay for themselves. UB Green has produced $10 million per year in energy savings for the University at Buffalo.

The county and city both lack sustainability offices and plans. In its 2008-2009 budget, the city added two part-time interns in the Planning Department to work on sustainability issues; this is a start, but full-time, upper-level staff are essential. The key challenge is to make sure that a sustainability office is not an isolated outlier: to integrate sustainability into all budgeting, planning, and reporting—with measurable goals and indicators.

We can make the Queen City a green city, but it will take all of us working closely with our local governments, not just demanding change but also making change. Buffalo has a broad array of environmental groups that are doing just that; a great first step is to join one of them.

Sam Magavern is a clinical instructor at the University at Buffalo Law School.

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