Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo

Grassroots Gardens has long been Buffalo’s community garden support organization.

Community Gardens are an incredible reuse of vacant or underutilized land in the city, and create neighborhood assets out of liabilities. In addition, they can provide fresh, healthy food in “food deserts” – communities where it can be difficult to access fresh produce.

With more than 70 gardens throughout the city, Grassroots Gardeners are growing more than 20,000 square feet of food-producing space in addition to many ornamental plants and community gathering spaces.

Grassroots Gardens also have an ongoing community education partnership with Urban Roots and continue to grow the Buffalo Sprouts School Gardens program. Last year they launched Buffalo Sprouts Seedling Stewards, a community driven vacant lot mapping mobile platform and their first Community Garden Month.

Look for more great work in the year ahead from Grassroots Gardens!


Think Spring: Urban Roots

Posting will be light this week as Make Communities takes a very non-MTV-style spring break.

In lieu of regular updates, we’ll be posting links to some of our favorite places and organizations that make us think of spring – even if the snow is still flying.

First up: Urban Roots.

Urban RootsUrban Roots Community Cooperative Garden Center Cooperative is the nation’s first consumer-cooperative garden retailer – think food co-ops, but selling plants, supplies and materials.

Urban Roots opened with community-based capital on Buffalo’s West Side in April 2007, and has grown to nearly 1,000 members.

This growing season look for Urban Roots to expand its inside sales in the next door storefront that incubated 5 Points Bakery. Outside they’ll be running test gardens for vegetable plants native to many of Buffalo’s immigrant communities, and have partnered with the WASH project which will also have a garden on site.

While it may be a bit too early to plant outside, stop in for seeds, supplies, to take a class, become a member or just to get the feeling of springtime..

.seed-packetsSpring Workshops

what are your five?

5 ses st

In addition to Monday’s reference to Simran Noor’s  five actions the bike movement can take to advance racial equity, two other articles came across the screen this week with five points of advice for people-focused urban regeneration.

The first, from Bloomberg Philanthropies Tommy Pacello who served as the Director of the Mayor’s Innovation Team in Memphis, TN. His definition of city innovation includes “developing bold solutions to big urban challenges”, and through his work with Memphis he was engaged with both reducing gun violence and economic revitalization of distressed communities.  Out of this experience, he developed a top five list for fellow City Innovators, and it looks like this:

1. Activate the community

2. Numbers are your friend

3. Break down the silos

4. Don’t forget the importance of project management

5. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel

Meanwhile, at CityFix also chimed in with five reflections on ways technology can support better urban living from the Smart City Expo World Congress which recently wrapped up in Montreal. The conference focused on smart cities under the rubric of “energy and climate change, urban resilience, open government, and sustainable mobility”, with “the idea that smart cities are not truly sustainable unless they equip their citizens with the tools they need to contribute to civic life.” Dario’s top five are employing technology to:

1. Helping planners understand mobility needs

2. Empowering communities to engage in the planning process

3. Improving the travel experience

4. Integrating technology as a component of wider sustainable development objectives

5. Rediscovering bicycle ‘technology’

Themes of community-driven, data verified policy and programs run through both. So does working broadly and collaboratively and having an appreciation for those existing solutions that may need to be emphasized or enhanced, in other words, building on assets.

Many of these points are also similar themes to many of those sounded in the One Region Forward Complete Communities report, which gives a series of stakeholder-driven recommendations about making quality neighborhoods for all residents: data for informed decision making; pursuing neighborhood specific, asset based strategies for neighborhood redevelopment; and ensuring adequate capacity to carry out neighborhood projects.

Though there is some overlap, there are certainly many lessons to be learned from the various perspectives and emphases that lists like these bring.

So what about you? What are your top five recommendations for revitalizing communities in your area of focus?

Buffalo’s Best Google Pac-Man Maps

If you haven’t yet played the Google Maps Pac-Mac mash-up, then do yourself a favor and play it now before it’s gone. Just don’t expect to accomplish much else today…

Here are some great places to try out in Buffalo, with thanks to both Ellicott and Olmsted, click the maps for the direct link:

Buffalo Pac Man

Niagara Square

forest lawn

Forest Lawn Cemetery

Lafayette Square

Lafayette Square

Central Terminal

The Central Terminal

soldiers circle

Soldiers Circle


For extra difficultly, try out Colonial Circle, yikes!

The Bike Movement & Racial Equity via the Center for Social Inclusion

“We define racial equity as both an outcome and a process. A racially equitable society is one in which race no longer determines one’s life outcomes and in which we recognize that when we address inequity, we all share in the benefits of increased fairness and justice.”

For today’s post, Make Communities is going to cede it’s time to Simran Noor, Director of Policy and Strategy at the Center for Social Inclusion.

As mentioned briefly in Friday’s post, the National Bike Summit this year focused on Bikes+.

For many, this “+” is equity.

US Biking Boom
From People for Bikes Building Equity Report

In developing nations, the bike is very consciously seen as a tool for liberation and uplifting people in poverty, in ways not that dissimilar to the impact that bicycles had toward “free, untrammeled womanhood” in the early 20th century here in the States. As Ms. Noor points out, though, as it is swiftly gaining traction in this country the Bike Movement is too often seen as a white, middle-class, male phenomenon even though stats consistently show that people who ride bikes do, in fact, represent a broad demographic cross-section with the steepest increase in riding coming from communities of color.

In her excellent summary of her comments to the National Bike Summit, she highlights five places that the bike movement can focus to demonstrates a commitment to racial equity. The bullet-points are listed below, but to do them justice, click through and read the full post:

  1. Interrogate Root Cause of Disparities
  2. Lift up Leadership of Color in Your Movement
  3. Reframe the Message
  4. Engage with Communities
  5. Share Power and Resources

Complete Streets Plus ____(?)_____

Forgive us if the mind wanders a bit on a chilly spring Friday morning… but this is one of those posts about Copenhagen.

We spend a lot of time thinking about Complete Streets here at Make Communities. Not only is it part of the day job to work to help communities make their streets safe, accessible and equitable for all users – young and old, rich and poor, weekend warriors and those with mobility impairments — but it’s also a big part of how we try to live when (ok, if) we put the work away come Friday evening.

Getting around by bike or on foot, sometimes it can be frustrating enough just to overcome the challenges of infrastructure that doesn’t fully support getting from here to there while leaving the car at home. When your thoughts are focused on getting from A to B, though, it can be difficult to consider that our streets can be both places for transportation and be places of fun and even whimsy.

Which brings us back to Copenhagen…

Not far from the main drag of touristy Nyhavn with crowds embarking on canal tours or taking in the action from dockside cafes, is an incredible and incredibly simple piece of outside-the-box urbanism. Behold: the sidewalk trampoline!

CPH trampoline1Now, we haven’t checked in the index, but we’d bet our bike shorts that the sidewalk trampoline doesn’t show up in even the most recent version of the NACTO guidelines.

CPH trampoline3

Thanks to Google Maps, you can actually get a great before and after of this site. Which was part of a larger promenade project that installed a cycle track, benches, pavers and trees.

Take away the trampolines and this is still a great project.

Add the trampolines, and this is an experience that people will remember for a lifetime.

Though your local DOT may actually black out a little bit if you suggest a trampoline in your next street reconstruction initiative, what other ways can you think of to add the unexpected, the unforgettable and the fun into your community’s next project?

CPH trampoline4


*And, no, bike helmets aren’t required, or even recommended. In fact, there’s no signage or supervision at all. The helmets are just the result of a quick transition out of the cargo bike and onto the trampoline.


**Also, the name of this post is a play on the from the League of American Bicyclists National Bike Summit’s theme “Bikes+” earlier this month. Check out the great responses the conference attendees came up with here.

Today It’s All About You

PB March-25th-postcardIf you’re in Buffalo, then hopefully you know about the great work that Clean Air Coalition and the Common Council’s Participatory Budget Committee have been doing to bring direct democratic control to the people of this city.

For those of you who have been following this exciting progress, tonight’s open house is a great opportunity to learn more. And to those of you that participatory budgeting a new concept, tonight is a great chance to get acquainted.

From the Clean Air website:

Community Control Over Public Dollar$ is an informational Exposition on Participatory Budgeting in Buffalo. Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a fairly new way to make decisions about publicly funded projects. Participatory Budgeting gives ordinary people decision-making power over real money. PB is already working in over 1,500 municipalities around the world. It includes everyone in the community – especially those who are often excluded from the political process or feel disillusioned with current political structures and institutions.

Participatory Budgeting began in Brazil in the late 1980s and has spread to communities worldwide, helping to determine allocation of municipal and agency capital budgets, special funds, and legislative discretionary funds. In New York City, several Council Members have disbursed millions of dollars in discretionary spending through a broad based Participatory Budgeting process – gaining notoriety from the White House as a leading Open Government “Champions of Change” initiative. The White House has also included Participatory Budgeting in the 2014 Open Government National Action Plan, specifically citing HUD Community Development funds as a potential funding source.

The Participatory Budgeting Project, a New York city based 501(c)(3), has provided assistance to various projects throughout the continent, including local partners. Participatory Budgeting’s highest local profile to date has been Clean Air’s large scale public process and voting to gauge community support for the distribution of funds from the Tonawanda Coke environmental violations settlement.

Participatory Budgeting follows five basic steps:

1) rule setting

2) public ideation

3) project refinement and evaluation

4) public prioritization

5) award allocation

In a pure Participatory Budgeting process, the amount of funding available is established and communicated at the outset and projects are funded in the order of priority assigned by the community through the voting process until the funding is exhausted. On many occasions, though, by raising the profile of and interest in community needs and opportunities, even projects not funded through the Participatory Budgeting process have been taken on by other funding sources.

Traditional planning processes disconnected from the budget process can often create “planning fatigue” particularly in low-income communities where residents may succeed in having their knowledge and vision reflected in planning documents, but these have rarely resulted in direct, tangible neighborhood investment. This cycle has created distrust, suppressed engagement – particularly among low-income families and people of color – and produced a cadre of “usual suspects” that tend to dominate public process.

At the same time, capital investment for community development has too often benefited private interests without fundamentally addressing the concerns or needs of a neighborhood or catalyzing spin-off investment and long-term improvement.

Participatory Budgeting is a clear and direct way to engage communities and live into a planning practice that puts local first and reflects that fact that communities members know their neighborhoods better than anyone else. And the direct link from community to on-the-ground change creates a snowball effect of increasing community pride and civic engagement.

Come out tonight and learn more…

Thanks to Clean Air and the Common Council PB Committee for leading this charge!



Friday Finances: Buffalo’s City Inequality Rank

Buffalo ranks very low in income at the top and the bottom ends of household earnings, ranks high in inequality.

Buffalo skyline from 1832 LIghthouse Though it may not have been big news in the mainstream press, if you run in policy wonk circles, you’ve probably seen the recently released Inequality Rankings from Alan Berube and Natalie Holmes at Brookings.

Their study only encompasses the 50 largest cities in the country, so Buffalo doesn’t make the cut.

However, fear not, we at Make Communities went wading through the American Community Survey stats so you don’t have to.

The headline here is that Buffalo ranks very low in income at the top and the bottom ends of household earnings, and yet also ranks relatively high in inequality.

By Brookings measure, if Buffalo had been among the top 50 cities in 2013, it would have ranked #18 in inequality – with an inequality ratio of 10.6 — that is those households in the 20th percentile income strata (earning $11,794 per year) make less than 1/10 of the earnings of those at the 95th percentile (earning $125,551 per year). For comparison, Brookings benchmarks the national ratio at 9.3.

Also of note, of these cities Buffalo would have ranked as the 4th lowest income level for residents at the 20th percentile, with these households bringing in more than only their peers in Detroit ($8,982), Cleveland ($9,371) and Miami ($11,497).

As for those at the 95th percentile, Buffalo ranks low there, too. This time at 3rd lowest, behind only Detroit ($107,521) and Cleveland ($116,034).

Though only one measure, and though Buffalo compares poorly to most other major U.S. cities, there is some hope in these numbers.

…clearly much work to be done to raise the income’s of Buffalo’s households, particularly as major investments are being made in the city’s 21st century economy.

Looking at raw data from before the Great Recession, in 2007 Buffalo would have ranked last when compared to every one of the 50 largest cities for income at the 20th percentile, and second lowest – in front of Cleveland – for income at the 95th percentile.

Since 2007, Buffalo’s low income households fared better than the lowest income earners in most other big cities, experiencing an increase of a little more than $1,000, behind only Denver and El Paso. In fact, only 6 of the 50 largest cities saw incomes appreciate for the bottom 1/5 of households from 2007-2013.

While less than $12,000 is certainly too low to lift a household out of poverty, the early post-recession trend in Buffalo appears to be heading in the right direction. However, there is clearly much work to be done to raise the income’s of Buffalo’s households, particularly as major investments are being made in the city’s 21st century economy.

Brookings points to some measures that cities are beginning to take to tackle inequality, including raising the minimum wage. Though Governor Cuomo has launched a campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage, Buffalo and other cities and counties across New York currently lack the ability to set a higher local wage standard. A number of Buffalo based organizations, including the Coalition for Economic Justice, have been active in pursuing Local Wage Authorization, but the prospects in the near future seem dim.

Buffalo, however, does have a Living Wage Ordinance, which sets a higher floor for municipal employees and employees who who work for contractors doing business with the city. Though additional research would need to be done to see how much this ordinance has contributed to the positive trends for Buffalo’s low-income households when other city residents across the country were struggling, this is certainly a tool to consider for those interested in reducing the large income gaps across we see in U.S. cities.

American Community Survey Estimates, Buffalo, New York
Quintile Upper Limits: 2013 2012 2007
Lowest Quintile $11,794 $10,608 $10,759
Second Quintile $24,819 $22,320 $22,343
Third Quintile $41,378 $39,776 $37,024
Fourth Quintile $71,311 $68,948 $61,297
Lower Limit of Top 5 Percent $125,551 $122,616 $119,035


Anchor Institutions and the New Economy in Buffalo

LU3 advisors keynoteast week, Make Communities was on hand as a host of national and local partners convened to discuss how anchor institutions and local communities can partner to improve outcomes for both sides. The timing for this conversation is certainly ripe given the large scale public investment in these anchors here in Buffalo. Read more about the conference and the partners who made it happen, and get connected to some best practices of communities that have shown great success over at the Open Buffalo news feed…

Also see PUSH Buffalo Executive Director Aaron Bartley’s reflections on the potential of anchor institutions in the Huff Post for more.

Lessons from LA’s New Economy

Tynan & Estolano

A definite highlight of the Open Places convening in Puerto Rico last week was an incredibly dynamic and engaging session with Cecilia Estolano of Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors and Roxana Tynan of LAANE.

Together they describe the unlikely partnership between community and bureaucracy [actually not a dirty word…] that they forged during Ms. Estolano’s tenure as Chief Executive Officer of the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles. By building community power, calling out community knowledge and teaming that with technical research while also tapping into the best and highest aspirations of agency workers who too often are isolated from the people they set out to serve, this cross sector team was able to refocus the impact of a three-quarter of a billion dollar annual budget to provide real and direct impact to traditionally marginalized communities and provide real opportunities and ladders for success.

The Open Buffalo contingent had the opportunity to meet with Cecilia and Roxana to discuss the current wave of economic development projects in Buffalo and get insights on how to ensure the new Buffalo economy is an open Buffalo economy. Though now equipped with even more tools for working with community members to make this happen, we also left with a sense that it would be great to bring this team to town to share their uplifting and inspiring story.

LAANE has achieved an incredibly impressive suite of wins with Los Angeles residents, in good jobs, a healthy environment and thriving communities. This track record of progress is built on a very intentional mix of engagement, research and relationships all tied to outcomes and implementation.

LAANE was one of the models that Open Buffalo explored in its very early stages of envisioning what a new and collaborative social justice initiative could look like in this city. After having the great opportunity to hear more of the behind-the-scenes work that went into their success, as impressive as the scope of their accomplishments is their obvious and ongoing passion for this work and a commitment to real community-led change.