A Step Back, then 20 Years of Steps Forward

The Fall 2019 Colloquium lecture series at UB is focused on Niagara Falls, New York. Most people think of Niagara Falls simply as the waterfall, but there are cities on both sides of the border that tell much different stories.

First, I must cite our three speakers so far that provided the basis of information in the first half of this post: Robert Sozanski of Empire State Development, Bob Richardson of Blue Cardinal Capital, and Amy Fisk of the Niagara County Department of Economic Development and Niagara County Brownfield Development Corporation . All three taught me more about Niagara Falls, New York and economic development than I ever could have imagined. Thank you.

Niagara Falls New York has experienced three major challenges over the past 150 years: Concentration of heavy industry, urban renewal in 1960’s, and real estate speculation based on the popularity of the Falls. To fully address all three of these would take volumes exponentially longer than this post; however, I will briefly address the impact of industry on Niagara Falls.

The Niagara River and the now famous Niagara Falls are a tremendous source of electricity generation. As a result, many industrial companies set up shop along the river in what is now the city of Niagara Falls, New York. These companies provided stable jobs and tax revenue for the city from the late 1800’s through today. Many of these companies produced chemical products and therefore, chemical waste products. Environmental pollution regulations didn’t exist during the late 1800s up to the mid 1900s so these companies freely polluted the air, water, and ground.

One dump site was known as “Love Canal.” Love canal started as a vision to create a model city. In the 1890s, entrepreneur William T. Love imagined a city where businesses using hydroelectric power generated from a canal would employ people who lived near by. By 1910, he was out of money and had only dug less than a mile of his canal. The site became a municipal dump then was bought by Hooker Chemical in 1942. From 1942-1953 Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation dumped approximately 22,000 tons of chemical waste into Love Canal.

After pressure to use eminent domain, the former dumpsite, then covered in soil, was sold to the city for $1.00. An elementary school and 100 homes were built on the site in the late 1950’s. By the mid 1970’s health problems started to occur, plants were dying, and chemicals could be seen leaching out of the ground and basement walls after heavy rain and snowfall.

“Half-buried and leaking hazardous waste containment tanks in Love Canal neighborhood of abandoned homes,” Digital Collections – University at Buffalo Libraries, accessed September 16, 2019, https://digital.lib.buffalo.edu/items/show/16148.

The result was a series of evacuations, illness, cancers, birth defects, government buyouts, dozens of lawsuits, and precedent setting federal spending on a non natural disaster leading to the legislation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, commonly referred to as “Superfund.” The 70 acre site is now fenced off and still uninhabitable 40 years later (see cover image). A complete record about Love Canal can be found at the UB online library archive.

Three concrete barriers stand like soldiers next to a stop sign at the end of an abandoned street across from the Love Canal site. Photo taken by the author, 2019.

Love Canal is obviously a tragedy in New York’s history, but what are the lessons to be learned? What is the real source of the problem?

An old economic theory called “Tragedy of the Commons” might help illustrate this problem on a large scale. Imagine that a group of farmers share a common pasture. Each starts with the same number of cows and has equal right to the pasture. When used responsibly, the pasture will rejuvenate on its own and continue to support livestock grazing in the pasture indefinitely. If a farmer adds another cow to the pasture, he profits and causes the pasture to deteriorate a little bit faster; the expense is distributed equally among the farmers. No farmer wants to be the sucker disproportionately paying for the damage done to the pasture without benefiting from additional cows in the pasture. Each and every farmer continues to add more and more cows to the pasture, increasing their individual profits while spreading the expense among the rest of the farmers. They prioritize short term gain over long term sustainability. Eventually, the pasture can no longer support all these cows and becomes barren leaving the farmers to graze their cattle in new pastures where the same situation will repeat if left unregulated. Indeed a tragedy.

Love Canal was the common pasture.

In a free market economy, like the current United States economy, the role of government is intervene where there are market failures. The market fails to provide and protect “public goods” – resources that are not exclusive to select users but are in rival consumption between users. Examples are found in both natural and urban (human-created) environmental resource systems.

The problem of protecting public goods is far from solved. In October 2018 a “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 C” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the November 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment Report (both of which are renowned global organizations on the subject of climate change) found that:

  • Human activity is the dominate cause of observed climate change over the past century
  • A changing climate is causing sea levels to rise and increase in wildfires, severe storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events that threaten human life, healthy communities, and critical infrastructure.
  • Global warming at or above 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 F) will cause: (A) mass migration from the regions most affected by climate change, (B) more than $500 billion in lost annual economic output in the United States by the year 2100, (C) wildfires that by 2050 will annually burn at least twice as much forest area in the western United States than was typically burned by wildfires in the years preceding 2019, (D) a loss of more than 99 percent of all coral reefs on Earth, (E) more than 3.5 million people exposed globally to deadly heat stress by 2050, and (F) a risk of damage to $1 trillion of public infrastructure and coastal real estate in the United States.

The list goes on, and on, and on…

Moral of the story: if we don’t drastically change course soon, and prevent the global temperature from rising another 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, humankind will have passed a point of no return in terms of climate change.

This sobering reality is not without a solution. Here is the 14 page congressional Green New Deal Resolution that cites the reports mentioned above and explained in the video created by Vox. The Green New Deal is proposal to create a federal, legislative movement to protect the natural environment, a public good.

According to the NY Times (here), the Trump Administration has completed 53 environmental policy rollbacks with 32 more in progress. These policies include: air pollution and emissions, drilling and extraction, infrastructure and planning, animals, toxic substances and safety, water pollution, and more. After seeing the harm done by pollution at Love Canal, it is unfathomable to explain why the Trump Administration has allowed any environmental regulations to be reduced or removed.

These concepts shocked me enough to write this post which is nothing like the rest of the content on this site. Now the question I’m asking myself is, “how can I use my interests and abilities in architecture, real estate development, and urban planning to create a truly sustainable and economically viable built environment today?” Previously, I was interested in using existing buildings to reduced embodied carbon, but now I’m interested in going far beyond that.

If you have made it this far, I strongly encourage you to continue educating yourself on the Green New Deal, climate change, related policies and to educate your fellow citizens. Look around and try to imagine how the area around you could be more sustainable. Get involved somehow. Do something bold. Better than average isn’t good enough anymore.

The clock is ticking…

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