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The Death and Life of Buffalo’s Parks

Buffalo city hall and square.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, in the United States there are very few big cities that are actually shrinking. In fact, they have grown very much in land area and in only a few cases have these regions actually lost population (and only slightly when they do). Both Kaid Benfield of NRDC and Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile have insightful pieces essentially making this point — using the Buffalo region as an example, where land area has increased threefold yet population has remained virtually steady since 1950.

Aaron Renn makes a great overall point about this spreading out of resources:

Statistics aside, all of these additional obligations in time and money make us poorer…… Over the last 60 years, we’ve been too busy trying to keep up with basic infrastructure maintenance to invest much in our future. Individually, people have less to spend on housing, food, transportation, health care, entertainment, etc. There are fewer public resources available for schools, parks, cultural institutions, and other public services.

In Buffalo city, the park system today is one of the most underfunded in the nation. (This is not fault of the parks – the system was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who himself said it was “the best designed city in the country, if not the world.”) Maintaining the system has been a proverbial hot potato in the last few years, with Erie County taking over the city’s parks and then handing back maintenance to the city. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy is, however, making strides to revitalize some key parks.

If Buffalo’s parks are ever to be again the best in the world, as Olmsted believed, having more people living around them and less people continually moving farther out in the metro area would certainly help. This brings us to a quote from Kaid’s post:

If the solutions [in places like Buffalo] do not include stopping sprawl on the fringe, nothing done on the ground in the central city will help.  Indeed, if potentially revitalized land is converted to other uses, it may even aggravate sprawl and worsen the problem, especially since there are national demographic and market changes under way that point to increasing demand for urban environments in the coming decades.

This is why any efforts to revitalize and reinvest in the city’s parks [instead of continuing to build infrastructure to support sprawl] can push those market changes and get people to move back into this great older American city, and help return the favor through a more compact tax base.

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