Our Outer Harbor Coalition
Introduction to the Our Outer Harbor Coalition
It’s a humid, hot day in July, but I’m able to feel the breeze and hear the chirps of birds and the quiet splashes in the lake. Walking along the path, I’m surrounded by trees, flowering plants, and all sorts of animals. It’s truly hard to believe that I’m right at the edge of a busylarge metropolitan city. With all the natural beauty around me, I could easily be miles deep into some forest in the middle of nowhere. But, just beyond me lie all the attractions of Canalside, the towering Skyway, and even City Hall. Although the Buffalo Niagara bioregion is rich in diversity, most people have limited access to the rich resources of the region. Buffalo’s Outer Harbor may hold the key to connecting citizens to their natural heritage, but it continues to be threatened by plans for development that sacrifice irreplaceable, publicly accessible, natural landscapes for short-term profit by private interests. The Our Outer Harbor Coalition is working to preserve this greenspace for the public, protect the natural habitats for hundreds of species, and increase the wealth of the region by developing our assets sustainably.
Visitors to the Outer Harbor as recently as ten years ago would likely have been unable to see the space for the beauty and tranquility it provides. From the time Margaret Wooster of the Our Outer Harbor Coalition (OOHC) was a child, it was nothing more than “a burning dump”. People would routinely drive up to the Outer Harbor to get rid of their construction debris. Little more than a glorified wasteland, this land went largely ignored by the city and state. “Nobody was looking at the Outer Harbor as anything but an eyesore.” What, then, makes the issue of the Outer Harbor so incredibly important now? How did this stretch of land go from an area that nobody cared about to the subject of one of the most heavily contested debates in the city?
The Outer Harbor has revealed itself to be a mecca for wildlife and a cornerstone for our natural heritage. Even when unrecognized by most, the Outer Harbor was declared a Globally Significant Important Bird Area. Jay Burney, of the Friends of the Times Beach Nature Preserve and Pollinator Conservation Association, has spent his whole life studying the migration patterns of birds. He considers the Outer Harbor “one of the most important sites on the Great Lakes.” Key birds, fish, and pollinating species rely on the Outer Harbor as part of their migratory flight patterns. Situated uniquely against Lake Erie, the harbor provides these species space for a much-needed break on their annual pilgrimage across the world. And, in attracting so many animals, the Outer Harbor also becomes a nexus for native plant growth and sustainability. This is extremely important for the region at large- by maintaining the vitality of this stretch of land, we improve the overall vitality of the ecosystem.
The Outer Harbor isn’t just a natural asset – it’s also a source of great economic and cultural wealth. A healthy, ecologically diverse environment is a desirable feature that attracts both people and capital to the region. As Burney says, “the public’s greatest asset” is “our connection to nature.” The maintenance of fresh, clean air improves the vitality of the region; the sheer experience of being able to sit in such a quiet, tranquil area creates peace of mind. People want to live near places like the Outer Harbor; the easy access to greenspace and all the benefits that go along with it make places more desirable, which in turn increases financial wealth and capital. Residents of the Buffalo Niagara region have a unique opportunity with the Outer Harbor to access the Great Lakes so close to the downtown area.
While very clearly an important part of Buffalo’s landscape, the Outer Harbor continues to be threatened by new development projects. Many developers see the region as largely vacant land, perfect for the creation of new residential buildings. But this view does not take into account the costs of such development to the community and to the habitat. Not only will new developments here harm the native plants and animals that depend upon the Outer Harbor, but it will make the whole area largely inaccessible to all members of the community. Few will be able to afford the elite housing on the waterfront, and even fewer will be able to enjoy the beauty of nature if the land is made private and commercial. If we don’t design on the Outer Harbor with the principles of public engagement and public trust in mind, we will end up tearing down the natural infrastructure in place in order to erect buildings that encourage inequality and sprawl. This land belongs to the public. To build that which only benefits the few would betray the principles of sustainable development on Buffalo’s landscape. An ideal vision of the Outer Harbor is one that is permanently protected by and accessible to the average citizen and other beings who use the waterfront.
This all begs the question: what can we do to protect the Outer Harbor? How do we ensure that the green space remains free and open to the public? The answer lies with the work of the Our Outer Harbor Coalition (OOHC) and other community stakeholders that fight for inclusionary zoning laws. From its beginning four years ago, OOHC was united by a common goal to protect public land on the Outer Harbor. When faced with development plans put forth by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) that encouraged urban sprawl and endangered wildlife habitats, the coalition united with several other community organizations to promote regulations in the new Green Code. Passed in 2016, the new Buffalo Green Code is the first zoning code passed since 1953, and actually accounts for the issues which plague our twenty-first century city. WNYEA worked tirelessly to structure this legislation in a way that promotes holistic development, and OOHC formed around these ideas as a defense against threatening projects on the Outer Harbor. The passage of the Green Code was a huge success for the Our Outer Harbor Coalition, as it protected many of the lands it sought to protect. As Lynda Schneekloth of WNYEA says, “zoning is a vision of what your city should be.” We have created our vision- now is the time to safeguard it. As we move forward, it is vital to keep this principles in mind so that the steps we take to develop on the Outer Harbor protect wildlife and their habitats, preserve public land for the people, and create an example for future development projects that also promote the sustainability of such spaces.
The story of the Outer Harbor represents a larger movement to protect natural lands against unhealthy development. It is a tale of the people who deserve access to their natural heritage, of the myriad species who rely on the rich bioregion, and of the fight for sustainable development in the Buffalo Niagara region. But, first and foremost, it is the story of a very special stretch of land that is regenerating itself after being treated as an industrial wasteland for decades. The Outer Harbor needs protection from unhealthy development plans so that it can continue to grow, act as a haven for wildlife, and provide sanctuary for humans in the midst of a very crazy world. We have been made stewards of a land that is only now recovering from years of abuse and neglect. To stunt the growth it has undergone and subject it to more industrial turmoil would have negative impacts for bioregion, the city, and the people at large.