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Pedestrian accessibility enhances urban vitality in Buffalo
Daniel Baldwin Hess | The Buffalo News

 

The Beck Group’s Dallas Arboretum Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden is one of the projects competing for the Urban Land Institute award.

City planners have used the development of a new city zoning ordinance, the Green Code – to be adopted in the coming months – to reinvigorate planning for pedestrians in Buffalo. The Green Code encourages walkable design by increasing urban density and enhancing the attractiveness of streetscapes. By de-emphasizing automobile access and parking, reflecting the wishes of many residents during public outreach events, the Green Code promotes walkability, bicycle access and transit-oriented development.

 

Compact and walkable neighborhoods, from which residents can easily reach a variety of daily needs on foot, were a building block of Buffalo’s successes during the 20th century. Despite decades of population decline and disinvestment, key ingredients of those walkable places – neighborhood character, diversity of buildings and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and street crossings – remain as vital components of Buffalo’s urban places.

 

To encourage more walking and less driving, public leaders, city officials and researchers throughout the United States first used environmentally motivated arguments to encourage people to walk more and drive less, since walking trips are energy-neutral and non-polluting. Recently, communitywide health benefits have influenced a shift toward walking, since “active” travel and exercise can improve individuals’ cardiovascular health and lower body mass indices while at the same time connecting people to communities.

 

Why do people choose to walk? They do so primarily for two reasons. “Necessity” walkers lack alternatives and usually do not own automobiles, and walking is their primary travel mode. “Lifestyle” walkers generally own automobiles but prefer to walk for certain trips, including fitness and recreation, but also shopping and other utility trips and travel to work or school. Urban density and presence of amenities are necessary to increase walking rates for both groups, and social class and education are associated with walking behavior.

 

Recent U.S. Census data suggests that 31 percent of households in Buffalo do not have a vehicle available – one of the highest rates among U.S. cities – a statistic that has long been linked to low incomes and high poverty rates. Only 30 percent of households in Buffalo are “conventional” two-vehicle households.

 

With the link between healthy lifestyles and sustainable transportation capturing public attention, many people are rediscovering the attraction of living in a walkable neighborhood. Walkable neighborhoods allow residents to choose non-motorized transport – both walking and biking – for some of their travel needs, and make public transit more efficient. A national survey conducted by the Pew Foundation determined 48 percent of Americans prefer compact and walkable neighborhoods compared to other alternatives.

 

In Buffalo, commercial corridors and neighborhood centers – including the Elmwood Village, Grant Street, Hertel Avenue, Broadway and South Park Avenue – are surrounded by high-density housing and serve as neighborhood anchors. Housing for a range of income types keeps neighborhoods diverse.

 

Compactness in Buffalo is achieved through small lot sizes and “double” houses. With 67 percent of dwellings in Buffalo built before 1940, driveways and garages were less prevalent on private property when neighborhoods were established. “Younger” cities than Buffalo (Las Vegas, Phoenix) have more post-World War II development and tend to have far less pedestrian infrastructure and walkable features than Buffalo.

 

Walkable neighborhoods in Buffalo have recently received national attention. WalkScore, an organization that measures walkability nationwide and provides data to the real estate industry, assesses how pedestrian-friendly a place is by evaluating population density and roadway characteristics such as block length, intersection crossings and relative ease of reaching important destinations. Buffalo recently scored in first place on a list of cities with neighborhoods that are both walkable and affordable.

 

Reasonable housing prices can be found in Buffalo in many places with convenient accessibility. The characteristics of affordability and walkability are mutually reinforcing as they serve to attract residents, revitalize neighborhoods and build community.

 

Convenient opportunities for walking can encourage – among citizens, residents and visitors – participation in local economies and may enhance people’s relationships with their surroundings. New research suggests high levels of walkability reflected in WalkScores are associated with higher economic performance of cities and their neighborhoods.

 

Walkability is enhanced by its relation to other non-motorized travel opportunities. In recent years, Buffalo has supported a home-grown car-share organization, Buffalo Car-Share, which now has 20 vehicles and 850 members. City leaders have expanded the number of on-street bicycle lanes and have commissioned a Bicycle Facility Master Plan for Buffalo. The Green Code will enhance further walkability and bicycle access by improving connections and refining streetscapes. (Buffalo’s seven-year-old Complete Streets policy, which requires that all travel modes be considered during street reconstruction projects, will move toward fuller implementation in the Green Code.)

 

Developers are currently working to convert Buffalo’s old industrial buildings into residences. Much of this activity is occurring downtown and in a swath of land on the near East Side running north to south parallel to Main Street. From these places, there is ample opportunity for residents to walk to work downtown. An expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus promises to reinvigorate walkable neighborhoods that surround it. Vacant lots located downtown and in places that immediately surround downtown offer the potential for new buildings, and the Green Code encourages small-scale development and does not require off-street parking. Such walkable places can be attractive to singles, families, retirees and empty-nesters. AARP and other advocates for older adults lobby throughout the United States for walkability and argue that safe and convenient walking environments are critical to age-friendly urban spaces.

 

Naturally, there is room for improvement in Buffalo’s walkability. More amenities are needed for residents, and it is hoped that the Green Code will encourage the development of small businesses and neighborhood development. The addition of new pockets parks and playgrounds will attract walkers, especially in neighborhoods that are now being reinvigorated with new housing. Walking is not a convenient option or even a possibility for many trips, especially for those involving cargo, chauffeuring children or covering great distances. But in a walkable neighborhood design for accessibility and convenience, even those who rely on driving for most of the travel may choose to walk for some trips, such as a buying a newspaper or a quart of milk.

 

After years of stagnant growth and languishing development, Buffalo is now at the cusp of leading American cities in reinventing how citizens and residents interact with urban space and the relationship between economic development and urban vibrancy. These potential changes are significant and analogous to the decisions made in Portland, Ore., in the 1970s that ushered in a new model of regional governance, setting the stage for urban growth and envied by urbanists from around the world.

 

When the Green Code is adopted, Buffalo could topple Portland from its long-seated throne as the “best” planned city, and may help Buffalo regain its glory days as a hotbed for civic engagement, walkable and connected neighborhoods, and urban vibrancy.

 

Daniel Baldwin Hess is an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo.