Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why Bloggers Could Save Buffalo

I'm ripping off the title of Sean Safford's new book because his research looks at why some Rust Belt cities succeed and others fail. Safford cautions that a community might have too much social capital. Parochial networks can be so dense as to stifle civic innovation. Another test case (Safford compared the development trajectories of Youngstown and Allentown) is Hamilton and how it might benefit from studying the recent political history of Pittsburgh and Buffalo:

While local politicians had no control over the fate of the Seaway or the steel mills, their failure to respond collaboratively compounded the problems. [Former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra] believes infighting between city and suburbs prevented a co-ordinated regional approach to planning and economic development.

Suburban communities focused on poaching businesses from the old City of Buffalo while building sprawling low-density neighbourhoods that effectively segregate upper-middle-class whites by race and income from the urban areas they fled.

High commercial taxes drove remaining businesses away, while discouraging new industries.

The hollowing out of Buffalo accelerated when they built a new university campus and an NFL football stadium in distant suburbs. They constructed an LRT/subway system, but parochial politics guaranteed its failure by dead-ending the line at the city limits, preventing it from connecting to the university and high-growth employment areas in the suburbs.

Buffalo built a waterfront expressway that undermined stable neighbourhoods and disconnected the community from the natural beauty of Lake Erie. They squabbled for years about how to improve capacity at the Peace Bridge while frustrated tourists and exporters took their business elsewhere.

The columinist for the Hamilton newspaper promises a second piece about Pittsburgh, which I expect will mirror Safford's relatively positive account of Allentown (Buffalo and Youngstown both suffering from too much social capital). The Rust Belt challenge, as Richard Longworth has articulated in his book Caught in the Middle, is to overcome the legacy of parochial politics. How might Buffalo accomplish this feat?

Sharon Panelo might have a few ideas:

My program is in Strategic Communications at Columbia, and the course I'm taking this semester is about Communications 3.0: Best Practices in a Networked Society. My team and I are working with The Center for American Progress -- specifically, their Science Progress subdivision -- to develop a social media plan for creating a regional center of innovation . Our target region is Buffalo, NY and we're working with the mayor's office there.

As you can see, it's a sprawling project spanning many disciplines. My team and I have to struggle not to solve the problem itself (how to revive Buffalo's economy by creating regional innovation clusters) but to focus on recommendations for a social media plan that promotes these clusters.

My focus is on the blogosphere and how ordinary citizens are shaking up convention, from policymaking to entrepreneurship.

Sharon contacted me, along with who knows how many other Rust Belt bloggers and social media wonks, in hopes of learning a bit about our experiences attempting to revitalize shrinking cities. I think the shortcomings that Dr. Safford identifies can be mitigated via social media. Mike Madison is a great example of how this cause is advanced in Pittsburgh. If Hamilton wants to avoid the mistakes that Buffalo (and even Pittsburgh) made, then it should look to its own social media community as the broker of ideas.

1 comment:

Economic Sociologist said...

I'm actually a native of Buffalo. One way of interpreting the book's findings is that Youngstown had "too much" social capital. I think maybe more important is the fact that, when it counted, the social infrastructure that was needed to bring Youngstown's leadership together to address its problems had collapsed. The networks were so tied to the economy that when the economy went into a tail spin, it dragged the leadership down with it. The key thing about Allentown--and this would go for Pittsburgh too--was that they rebuilt local leadership networks. Most importantly, leaders of major "value added" companies continue to contribute to local politics, civil society and economic development initiatives. Bloggers can save Buffalo (or Hamilton), but leaders are even more important. - Sean Safford