Niagara Falls: Reversing decline in a bipolar city
My definition of bipolar urban areas are those that have two principal cities at their core but that have each taken nearly opposite paths socioeconomically. The two cities possess Jekyll-and-Hyde-like qualities–one being quite healthy and prosperous while the other suffering from poverty, economic distress, or environmental degradation. While every significant urban area has its areas of poverty, distress, and degradation, a bipolar region differs in the fact that one of two primary core communities is the site of concentrated problems.
Unfortunately, in some cases the socioeconomic differences can be so stark that it’s almost like a third-world city has developed directly adjacent to a first world city, even though in many cases they exist in the same country.
Here are some examples of bipolar urban areas in North America.
- El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
- Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas
- Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada and Niagara Falls, New York
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey
- St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan
- St. Louis, Missouri and East St. Louis, Illinois
A bipolar urban case study:
These stark differences can be easily observed by both the residents and the millions of tourists alike in the Niagara Falls region of New York and Ontario.
The Niagara Falls region has been a tourist destination for many decades due to its awesome natural wonders–not just the waterfalls themselves, but the whirlpools, rainbows, nearby Great Lakes, and the impressive gorge below the falls. Combine those with numerous tourist attractions and historic sites and you have a recipe for long-term economic success on both sides of the border.
But Niagara Falls, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario have followed two different paths since World War II and have ended up at nearly opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Niagara Falls, Ontario is a busy tourist destination with a pleasing mix of modern and stately hotels, gorgeous and carefully manicured parks and gardens, scenic parkways, lovely neighborhoods, and busy commercial centers. Granted, it can be argued that Ontario has the better overall view of the American and Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls, but that alone shouldn’t have led to such a vast and visible difference right across the river.
For many years, parts of Niagara Falls, New York seemed virtually desolate compared to its vibrant Canadian neighbor. Instead of relying largely on tourism as Canada did, Niagara Falls, New York also used the enormous raw power generated by the falls to become an industrialized city. As a result, when those industries began to falter, the city declined in suit.
Downtown has seen a number of revitalization schemes put in place, some successful, others not. Much of the city’s breathtaking riverfront was marred by the limited access Robert Moses State Parkway, which also cut the city off from its source of fame and fortune. While the state parks abutting the falls remain busy, access to the heart of the city was impeded. Power plants and chemical plants were built (and in some cases abandoned) in the city, while electrical transmission and distribution lines crisscross the landscape.
Among the most heartbreaking legacies are the remnants of industrial indiscretions which have left visible scars –Love Canal being the most infamous. Niagara Falls, New York has never fully recovered from its industrial course and today remains a symbol of Rust Belt decay and dismay. The city’s population loss reflects this, as it has fallen from a high of 102,394 in 1960 to a mere 50,193 in 2010.
On the other hand, Niagara Falls, Ontario is simply a delight to visit. Beautifully landscaped parks and gardens, neat and trim neighborhoods, prosperous business and shopping districts, a growing and very impressive skyline for a city its size, well-maintained infrastructure, and a healthy and appealing ambiance all garner kudos. Each time I have visited Niagara Falls, Ontario I have been more impressed by the pride evoked by its citizens and business community. As a result, Niagara Falls, Ontario’s population has grown over the same decades, increasing from 22,874 in 1951 to 82,997 in 2011.
Are there ways to reverse the decline facing these urban Mr. Hydes without displacing those who have struggled to weather decades of socio-economic distress? Only time will tell. But, as urban planners, I believe part of our social, ethical, and moral responsibility is to seek viable solutions to such problems and do our level best to see them implemented.
Do I profess to have the solutions? Of course not; I would never be so vain. But I do know this–the status quo does not work. As Daniel Burnham so aptly said, “Make no little plans.”
In Niagara Falls, New York’s case, the first thing I would consider is demolishing and/or converting the limited access Robert Moses Parkway into a landscaped grade level boulevard with an adjacent but physically separated scenic bicycle trail overlooking the river and gorge. Apparently, I am not alone in the idea of removing the limited access highway. The multi-purpose bicycle trail would extend from one end of the city to the other and hopefully all the way to Lake Ontario.
Once the boulevard and bike trail have been established, a series of attractions could be developed along with a mix of low to mid-rise, ecologically friendly lodging and entertainment venues overlooking the lush surroundings. Linking these with attractions such as the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center and Trailhead, Prospect Point, Terrapin Point, Cave of the Winds, Goat Island, a proposed Nikola Tesla Science Museum in the world’s first hydroelectric plant, the planned restoration of the Niagara Gorge Rim, and the very successful ArtPark.
Most important would be to incorporate a variety of residential options along and near the boulevard/bike trail and provide direct walkable connections from downtown, existing residential areas, and other parks. The inclusion of residential options will assist in building a local client base for area businesses as well as provide new housing options within the city itself.
Unlike many cities facing difficult socioeconomic challenges, Niagara Falls, New York does have numerous great natural, scenic, ecological, and historical elements from which to build a strong economic base. It also has serious name recognition. From the list of existing and planned projects provided above, it is evident that they are working diligently to re-establish a thriving community. Kudos on their efforts to date and continued best wishes to Niagara Falls for the future.
– Rick Brown