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Buffalo Rising: Touring Innovation in the Queen City

For many Torontonians, Buffalo, NY is predominantly associated with outlet shopping, sports games, and post-industrial poverty. Buffalo’s rich industrial and commercial history, largely centred on the integral role it played as the port city at the western terminus of the Erie Canal, has largely been overshadowed by a more recent history of economic hardship and the hollowing out of the city. But as we’ve recently discovered, there’s a lot going on in Buffalo if you know where to look!

A caboose at Silo City

Similar to many rust-belt cities that were hit especially hard by the recent recession, Buffalo does have some real troubling issues with which to contend. There are many abandoned buildings, half the population has moved to the surrounding suburbs, it is one of the most segregated cities in America and young people in particular are not likely to stick around. Despite this, people who are living, working, and playing in Buffalo who are full of ideas, inspiration and a can-do attitude. That’s something you notice about Buffalo almost immediately – the people who stayed are proud of their city and want to make it better. With a number of public incentive schemes aiming to attract people & businesses back to the city (such as New York state’s ‘Buffalo Billion’ plan), those who have committed to positive change in Buffalo are seeing great opportunity in what the city offers. There is an increasingly receptive context for invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship and amazing new projects have sprouted up including a new waterfront, Main Street revitalization, expanded medical campus and there’s even talk of an urban gondola.

ThinkFresh Group recently organized a day trip to Buffalo for a small group of urban innovators and city builders from Toronto to see this in action. Our aim was to show others what we have been seeing about Buffalo and how we might work together. Attendees included Jane’s Walk, Senayah Design and 100 in 1 Day Toronto. Our invitation was from Designing to Live Sustainably (d2ls) who asked us to attend their d2ls 2015 Competition, “Our Responsibility to Future Generation: Preparing for the Effects of Climate Change”. Our role was to provide some mentorship and advice as outsiders from Toronto to some of the competition topics such as transportation & walkability, food security, sustainability in business and design innovation & infrastructure.

ThinkFresh Associate Waeza Afzal at the d2ls event

Following the event, we had the opportunity to tour the city with some of the coolest, most informed, and energetic locals in Buffalo. Our first stop was The Foundry, an incubator, maker-space, and community hub on Buffalo’s eastside. The vibe at the Foundry was just spectacular – with people working on projects as diverse as turning hockey pucks into bottle openers, to 3-D printing, DIY carpentry projects and designing jewellery. The Foundry was started by folks in the restoration and sustainable demolition business. You definitely get the sense that people do not like to see things go to waste in Buffalo – which has led to people getting creative, pitching in to lend one another a hand and creating a work space where they can share tools and pursue their dreams together.

Our next stop was Silo City, where we toured through enormous empty grain silos now being re-used for art & music shows and as movie sets. Breathtaking paintings and art pieces left in the silo’s shadowy interiors are a testament to City of Night – Buffalo’s late night arts festival. The silos are a monument to Buffalo’s industrial past (Buffalo was once home to the largest number of grain silos in the world), and the opportunity to explore them with people such as Chris Hawley, a Planner with the City of Buffalo and a walking encyclopedia of Buffalo knowledge, is a testament to the energy and passion of Buffalonians for their city’s future.

Our Buffalo Tour Group!After Silo City, we dined at Hydraulic Hearth, which serves absolutely delicious brick over pizzas and houses a satellite location of Community Beer Works. Full of good beer and good food, we quickly toured Larkin District, a redeveloped industrial complex. Once home to one of the most important soap exporters in the country, the Larkin District now contains businesses, condos, and the central square has become an important community space, no more so than in the summer when food trucks converge at this spot and get the party started! Our action packed day in Buffalo concluded at Resurgence brew pub, one of the many examples of Buffalo’s emerging “beer-oriented” development.

As our long day wound to an end, our crew from Toronto was ready to head home to bed, but we also couldn’t wait to go back to Buffalo! We knew that getting to spend the day with urban experts who were able to tell us all so much – from Buffalo’s new form based planning code, to the history and architectural context on essentially every building in the city – while also instilling in us the amazing sense of the hope & pride that is permeating from the city was something truly remarkable. We could see that Buffalo was is on its way to becoming a great city again – driven by true urban love and passion.

The connections we’ve made in Buffalo have sown the seeds for further collaboration and idea exchanges between our two cities. As we mentioned in a previous post, we continue to be excited about the prospect of a Buffalo to Toronto innovation corridor – the foundations of this are evident in every major urban centre around Western Lake Ontario that we’ve visited. If supported by a strong network of social entrepreneurs – we believe that this could become a reality.

We’re looking forward to continuing and strengthening our relationship with awesome people in Buffalo and around the region who are working to bring innovative urban ideas to life. As part of this, in the next few months we are planning to organize more innovation tours to Buffalo – stay tuned to this blog for more details!

And finally – a huge shout out and thank you to the entire organizing team in Buffalo! Thank you again for such an amazing day – we look forward seeing you again real soon!

For more info on Buffalo’s regeneration, check out the Buffalo Rising Blog:

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