The Success of Buffalo’s Green Code

A Proven Blueprint for Other Cities to Copy

In Buffalo, NY a pioneering urban experiment has unfolded over the past several years, fundamentally reshaping the city's landscape and setting a precedent for municipalities nationwide. The Buffalo Green Code, officially called the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) and adopted in 2017, promised a departure from traditional zoning practices, aiming to foster a more vibrant, sustainable, and inclusive urban environment. As we dive into the impacts of this landmark policy, it's clear that while Buffalo has found a strong path toward equitable urban revival, but the journey is far from over, and the blueprint it offers is both a model and provides a look at the ways that similar efforts across the US can be improved.

At the core of the Green Code's success is its form-based approach, which emphasizes the physical form of the urban environment over the separation of uses typical of conventional zoning laws. This has spurred a remarkable revival of Buffalo's historic building stock, bringing life back to long-vacant storefronts and industrial relics. Developments like the transformation of the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Factory and the adaptive reuse of grain silos near Lake Erie's waterfront exemplify how the Green Code has catalyzed investment in Buffalo's architectural heritage​​.

The abolition of minimum parking requirements stands out as a particularly transformative policy, freeing developers from the costly burden of providing excessive parking. This has facilitated projects that would have been economically unfeasible under the old regime, allowing for the construction of affordable housing units downtown without the stipulation of dedicated parking spaces​​.

Moreover, the population growth Buffalo experienced from 2010 to 2020, reversing a 70-year trend of decline, underscores the broader appeal and livability improvements fostered by these regulatory changes​​.

Despite these successes, looking back at the last seven years since the Green Code was adopted clearly highlights additional areas of improvement. Critics point to an unevenness in the locations of development that has left some neighborhoods behind, raising concerns about the plan's inclusivity and its effects on low-income residents​​. The challenge moving forward is to ensure that the benefits of urban revitalization are equitably distributed, providing opportunities for all Buffalonians to thrive in the city's resurgence.

The call for a more comprehensive approach to equity is echoed by urban planners and community activists alike, who argue that the Green Code, while innovative, must continue to evolve overtime to help address the systemic disparities that persist in housing, economic opportunity, and access to amenities. Implementing mechanisms such as inclusionary zoning, which mandates a portion of new development to be affordable, could be one step towards reconciling these gaps​​​​. There is also a need to go beyond just the built environment, ending poverty will require that cities, states, and the federal government take stronger action to directly provide resources for the communities that need them.

Buffalo's experience illustrates the potential of form-based codes to rejuvenate cities, but it also underscores the necessity of continuous community engagement and policy adaptation. The process of developing the Green Code, which involved extensive public consultation, set a precedent for participatory urban planning. However, maintaining this momentum requires a commitment to ongoing dialogue with residents and stakeholders to identify emerging needs and adapt strategies accordingly.

The Green Code offers a model of a major revision to zoning that no longer serves people, but can also show a path to a living document, a foundation upon which to build a more inclusive city. By prioritizing equity, enhancing public participation, and refining policies in response to community feedback, Buffalo can continue to lead by example, demonstrating that urban revitalization is not just about buildings and streetscapes but about fostering a city that reflects the aspirations of all its residents.

In the narrative of Buffalo's revival, the Green Code is both a milestone and a work in progress. It's a testament to the city's resilience and ambition, a blueprint that other cities eyeing regeneration can learn from. But perhaps more importantly, it's a reminder that the work of building inclusive, sustainable urban spaces is never truly complete, but rather an evolving challenge that demands creativity, commitment, and, above all, community.

For those tracking the pulse of urban revitalization, Buffalo's ongoing experiment with the Green Code offers a compelling case study in the power and limitations of innovative zoning. As we watch this story unfold, the lessons gleaned from Buffalo's streets will undoubtedly inform the next generation of urban policy, both within its boundaries and beyond.

Cities and advocates seeking to replicate Buffalo's success and achieve similar benefits in urban revitalization, sustainability, and inclusivity can consider adopting a series of progressive actions. These actions are derived from the successes and areas for improvement identified in Buffalo's experience​​​​​​​​​​:

  1. Adopt Form-Based Codes: Move away from traditional zoning that segregates by use, and instead, adopt form-based codes that emphasize the physical character of the city and promote mixed-use developments. This approach encourages the efficient use of space and resources, revitalizing urban centers and neighborhoods.

  2. Eliminate Minimum Parking Requirements: Reducing or eliminating minimum parking requirements can encourage more sustainable transportation options and free up valuable urban space for development that contributes to vibrant, walkable communities.

  3. Facilitate Historic Preservation and Adaptive Reuse: Create policies that ease the rehabilitation of historic buildings and support their conversion into mixed-use, residential, or commercial spaces. This not only preserves the city's architectural heritage but also stimulates local economies and promotes density.

  4. Engage in Extensive Public Consultation: Implement a community engagement process that ensures the voices of residents are heard and considered in the planning and development process. This fosters a sense of ownership and support for urban revitalization projects among the community.

  5. Promote Equity and Inclusivity: Develop and integrate policies that address and prioritize equity and inclusivity, ensuring that urban revitalization benefits are shared across all segments of the population. Consider mechanisms like inclusionary zoning to ensure a mix of affordable and market-rate housing.

  6. Simplify Zoning and Regulatory Processes: Streamline zoning and regulatory processes to make them more transparent and less burdensome for developers and homeowners alike. A simplified process can encourage investment and development while reducing costs and delays.

  7. Incorporate Sustainable and Green Infrastructure: Encourage the development of green infrastructure and sustainable building practices. This can include incentives for green roofs, solar panels, and urban agriculture, contributing to environmental sustainability and resilience.

  8. Prioritize Active Transportation and Public Transit: Develop and enhance infrastructure that supports active transportation (walking, cycling) and public transit, making these options more accessible and attractive to residents. This can reduce dependence on cars, decrease traffic congestion, and improve public health.

  9. Focus on Infill Development: Encourage infill development to utilize existing urban spaces more efficiently, preventing sprawl and preserving natural habitats. Infill development can also contribute to a more cohesive urban fabric and reduce infrastructure costs.

  10. Monitor, Evaluate, and Adapt Policies: Establish mechanisms for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the impact of urban planning policies. Be prepared to adapt and refine these policies over time in response to new data, challenges, and community feedback.

By adopting these actions, cities and local advocates can work towards creating more livable, sustainable, and inclusive urban environments, drawing on the lessons learned from Buffalo's implementation of the Green Code.

Michael Moore is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Resident Urbanist. He has previously written for Streetsblog and Millennial American Dream, he has also been covered on Planetizen, the How We Work podcast, and StrongHaven. You can follow him on Threads, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.


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