If You Really Want to Get Off Oil, Move to Buffalo

A blue pin highlighting the destination of Buffalo on a map.

meshaphoto / Getty Ia=mages

A few years ago, Wired Magazine published an interesting map showing carbon footprint per capita that graphically demonstrated the obvious: Where you get sprawl, lots of cars and air conditioning, you get a much bigger footprint for every citizen due to their higher energy consumption. So if we want to reduce our footprint and get off oil, what is the best thing for Americans to do?

Move to Buffalo.

A hundred years ago Buffalo was known as "The City of Light"- "so abundant was the electricity delivered by the falls and Westinghouse generators. The electricity would be an added draw for firms, such as Union Carbide and the Aluminum Company of America, that needed plentiful power." It was a shipping powerhouse as well, moving 2 million bushels of grain per year through the Erie Canal to New York. But then, post World War II, it began its long decline, along with other cities along the canal and in the midwest's "Rust Belt."

Edward L. Glaeser wrote in City Journal in 2007:

Starting in the 1910s, trucks made it easy to deliver products and get deliveries--all you needed was a nearby highway. Rail became more efficient: the real cost of transporting a ton one mile by rail has fallen 90 percent since 1900. Then the Saint Lawrence Seaway opened in 1957, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic and allowing grain shipments to bypass Buffalo altogether.

Other trends compounded Buffalo's woes. Improvements in electricity transmission made companies' proximity to Niagara Falls increasingly irrelevant. Mechanization meant that the industry that did remain in the city needed fewer bodies. The appeal of the automobile induced many to leave the older center cities for the suburbs, where property was plentiful and cheaper, or to abandon the area altogether for cities like Los Angeles, built around the car. And Buffalo's dismal weather didn't help. January temperatures are one of the best predictors of urban success over the last half-century, with colder climes losing out--and Buffalo isn't just cold during the winter: blizzards regularly shut the city down completely. The invention of air conditioners and certain public health advances made warmer states even more alluring.

But things have changed, and were changing when Glaeser wrote his article. That electric power is green and plentiful, while the transmission network is near the point of breakdown. 20% of the world's fresh water is right beside it. Transport by truck is increasingly challenged by fuel costs, clogged roads and failing infrastructure. Suburban house real estate prices have collapsed. And Buffalo's so-called dismal weather is beginning to look very attractive as the weather warms and the south overheats.

In fact, so many of those things that caused the trouble for cities like Buffalo, like suburban sprawl, the private automobile and air conditioning, are looking less and less tenable every day. What our Great Lakes cities have to prepare for is a reverse migration, to attract people back to cities like Detroit and Buffalo.

Richard Florida had some suggestions in his new book, The Great Reset:

So what can be done? Instead of spending millions to lure or bail out factories, or hundreds of millions and in some cases billions to build stadiums, convention centers, and hotels, use that money to invest in local assets, spur local business formation and development, better employ local people and utilize their skills, and invest in improving quality of place. One leading economic developer...talked about how efforts to support local entrepreneurship, build and nurture local clusters, develop arts and cultural industries, support local festivals and tourism, attract and retain people - efforts that he and his peers would have sneered at a decade or two ago - have become the core stuff of economic development. When taken together, seemingly smaller initiatives and efforts can and do add up in ways that confer real benefits to communities. These are the kinds of initiatives that Jane Jacobs and others have advocated as plain old good urbanism.

Upper New York State also is part of population cluster of immense power and productivity. Richard Florida writes about the possible economic engine that could be Toronto, Buffalo and Rochester:

Tor-Buff-Chester is bigger than the San Francisco-Silicon Valley mega-region, Greater Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and more than twice the size of Cascadia, which stretches from Vancouver to Seattle and Portland. Its economic might is equivalent to more than half of all of Canada's. If it were its own country, it would number among the 16 biggest in the world, with economic output bigger than that of Sweden, the Netherlands, or Australia.

Cities can come back. Ryan Avent wrote about the rebirth of Philadelphia.

The city has excellent connections to other booming cities, which makes it a natural place for firms and people to locate. It also benefits from being one of the low cost options in its neighborhood. Need a full service city close to the northeast action and can't afford New York? Head to Philadelphia.

With a high speed rail link to New York City, much the same could happen in Upper New York State.

In an earlier post in this series, I disagreed with David Owen, author of the Green Metropolis, and wrote:

The key drivers of energy efficiency appear to be less about density and more about walkability...You can't have walkability at suburban densities, but you don't need to be New York or Hong Kong either. There is something in the middle, and it is in our smaller cities and towns all over North America.

Our rust belt cities have water, electricity, surrounding farmland, railways and even canals. Phoenix doesn't. In not too long, these attributes are going to look very attractive.