Boosting Buffalo as a climate change haven

City Hall
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

The hot real estate plays of the next decade will be in the rust belt along the Great Lakes.

Writing in Citylab, Jeremy Deaton asks Will Buffalo become a climate change haven? This is something we have been talking about on TreeHugger for a decade; it already is. Buffalo has just about everything going for it including water, electricity, rail, even canals. It has great architecture and cheap real estate. It has been going through a remarkable revitalization. Years ago, Ed Glaeser wrote about the things that hurt Buffalo over the years:

Darwin Martin HouseLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
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.

Those "lake effect" blizzards off Lake Erie could bury the city, while Toronto, less than fifty miles away, would miss it all. But Deaton in Citylab says the weather is changing, and isn't so dismal. The average temperature has warmed 2 degrees since 1965, but Buffalo climate scientist Stephen Vermette found few other effects:

While warmer weather has fueled fires in California, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, and flooding in the Midwest, climate change has left western New York mostly untouched. Vermette found no evidence that rainfall has grown more severe, or that heat waves have grown more frequent — Buffalo had only one 90-degree day in 2019. He said the breeze off Lake Erie acts like a natural air conditioner, helping to keep the city cool.

Ancient landmarks in BuffaloAncient landmarks in Buffalo/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Or, as he summarized:

“The way I described it at a meeting once was, ‘With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less,’” he said. “We may not only be able to adapt. We may actually thrive as a region in a world where the climate is changing.”

Fettered by fortresses nowIt's fettered by fortresses now/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I suspect he's right, and that just as Canadians hug the southern border because it is warmer, Americans are going to be returning to the rust belt because it is cooler. And unless they drill a big pipe from the Great Lakes to California (not beyond the realm of possibility), the rust belt is going to have all the good water.

Yamasaki in BuffaloYamasaki in Buffalo/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Deaton worries that there will be massive gentrification, and quotes Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.

The challenge for Buffalo, he said, is that it must not model itself after San Francisco and New York City, attracting white-collar migrants who displace working-class natives. If it is going to be a climate refuge, he says, it needs to do better than the gilded coastal metropolises.

empty lotLloyd Alter/ Empty lot near Larkin Square, Buffalo/CC BY 2.0

I suspect that this is already happening. Property values are rising; Toronto real estate developers are looking south for the next boom. Factories and office buildings that have been vacant for years, even decades, are turning into condos. Fortunately, there is enough supply and vacant land that it won't happen overnight. But a decade ago I concluded my article with this sentence that is still true today:

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.

Electric towerElectric tower/Lloyd Alter/CC BY 1.0

Boosting Buffalo as a climate change haven
The hot real estate plays of the next decade will be in the rust belt along the Great Lakes.

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