How a Suburbanite Became the “Downtown Princess”

I grew up in Amherst, NY, in the Hamlet of Snyder, where walking and riding my bike were my main means of transportation to school and work at the local public library.

Many of my friends got cars on their 16th birthdays; I didn’t. Fast forward three years to 2002, I was working two part-time jobs and needed transportation, I finally got a car. In 2004, I enrolled at Niagara University and my commute was 21.8 miles each way for three years. I finished my studies and got a job in Elma, New York. Still living in Amherst, I’d drive 23.5 miles each way. As a planning consultant, I worked for clients across Western New York, visiting sites across the region.

Needless to say, I drove. A lot. Angela Keppel

In 2010, I moved to Downtown Buffalo. A few months later, the company I worked for at the time also moved Downtown. Suddenly it seemed silly to pay $45 a month for a car that sat in a lot most of the time. In reality, I was paying much more because the cost of having a car includes: car payments, insurance, registration, gas and so much more. Each year, AAA evaluates driving costs, and in August 2017 the true average cost of vehicle ownership was at $9,469 a year, which equates to $789 a month.

I sold my car in 2011, and I have never looked back. Living downtown, you don’t need a car. Buffalo is a very walkable city due to its early development occurring prior to the use of the automobile. My office is a quick half-mile walk. I have access to retail, restaurants and other amenities within a quick 15-minute walk or a 5-minute train ride. I have at least five separate places to buy coffee on my walk to work alone. The Central Library and its amazing resources, programs and books are nearly next door.

The city is accessible and caters to diverse interests: Want to see a play? You can decide at 7pm to purchase tickets for a show where doors open at 7:30pm. Want to grab a bite to eat? We have everything from Greek diners to sushi to steakhouses and everything in-between. Visit the Downtown Country Farmer’s Market in the summer and Rotary Rink in the winter. You can walk to the arena for Sabres games, to Canalside for summer festivals, and to the Convention Center for the Home Show or Soup Fest.

Riding the bus and walking places allows you to experience the city in a different way. As a driver, especially during typical commute times, you mostly pay attention only to the traffic signals and the cars in front of you. Bus riding is a great leveler. Everyone rides the bus, from government employees to business people, to those with fewer resources.

Social capital is the concept that connections between people have value and that the collective value of social networks builds trust, reciprocity, information and cooperation between these connections. When you get out of your car, you get to know your neighbors. You interact with all kinds of people, and that makes our community better. Your social capital improves merely by running into people more often than if you were secluded by yourself in a car.

Robert Putnam, a professor from Harvard University whose studies revolve around social capital, has demonstrated the decline in social capital over time. He indicates that every ten minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10 percent. According to Professor Putnam’s extensive research, a few simple ways you can rebuild social capital are:

  • Walking and biking
  • Using public transportation and talking with people you regularly see
  • Getting to know the clerks and salespeople at your local stores
  • Getting to know and thank your public servants (such as the police officers who patrol our downtown)
  • Saying hello to strangers
  • Logging off and going to the park.

A study by Oxford University and the University of Hong Kong in 2017 showed that city centers rank higher than suburban living when it comes to human well-being, mostly because social interactions and walking lead to happier, healthier people. However, you don’t have to live downtown or ride the bus to help to build a better community. Say hi to your neighbor, call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while, or pick up a piece of trash you see on the sidewalk.

I work as an urban planner. The American Institute of Certified Planners holds professional urban planners such as myself to a code of ethics where our primary obligation is to serve the public interest. Planners work towards being conscious of the rights of others and paying attention to the long-range consequences of our actions and the inter-relatedness of decisions. We feel a responsibility to provide for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration.

For me, part of this includes understanding the community by being a part of it in as many ways as possible – volunteering for various organizations, being involved in public events, using community facilities as much as possible, and riding public transportation.

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My quality of life has improved greatly due to living downtown. I can relax in the evening while listening to the sounds of baseball games through the air. After a stressful day at work, a quick walk to the waterfront can calm you down (on extra bad days, you can grab an ice cream cone from our downtown ice cream shop to go with this walk).

You can fully embrace winter as your favorite season when you don’t have to shovel sidewalks, scrape off your windshield or drive in snow. I can make snow angels in Lafayette Square in the winter, and spread out a blanket to read there in the summer. I have a front seat view to all the new things happening in Buffalo, and it’s a thrill to experience the daily changes happening in our city.

While it might not be for everyone, living and working Downtown has allowed me to thrive. Mayor Byron Brown has referred to me as the Princess of Downtown, a title I’ll gladly accept. And say hi the next time you see me out on Main Street….if you listen closely, you’ll probably hear me humming Petula Clark “Downtown”:  Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city, linger on the sidewalks where the neon signs are pretty, how can you lose?  The lights are much brighter there; you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares and go downtown….