With 12,000 employees across nine different institutions, the 120-acre Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) is the size of a small community. To be globally competitive and ensure they are a growth catalyst for the region, a non-profit by the same name Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Inc. was developed. Some would say their mission is ambitious enough. However, two neighborhoods, Allentown and the Fruit Belt, border the campus with a majority minority population of 7,000. Furthermore, the campus and these two neighborhoods are located in Buffalo, NY, the third poorest city in America with an overweight rate three times the national average and two times higher than the state average. Wisely, leaders at BNMC realized the importance of working towards a healthy city, not just a successful campus.
“It’s our responsibility as a medical community to lead by example,” said Michael Ball, Director of Planning and the Healthy Communities Initiative for the Campus, “therefore we created the Healthy Communities Initiative as a way of engaging the Campus and its surrounding neighborhoods in a conversation around active living and healthy eating.”
So in 2003, BNMC applied for and was selected to receive an Active Living by Design grant. This launched the Healthy Communities Initiative, a community partnership promoting active living. Some 30 organizations and individuals joined, including employees of institutions located on campus, residents of adjacent Allentown and the Fruit Belt, and representatives from local non-profits, city and state government agencies and universities. They began growing the dialogue and trust between all groups.
Residents engaged for the first time with City and campus leaders to develop a shared vision for their hometown. Given that Buffalo is flat and more than 31% of households do not own a car they focused on improving and increasing active transportation options and transportation infrastructure. Overtime, various agencies incorporated the work into their missions and/or increased their leadership around the issue, and many have stayed with the work long-term. The Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo, for example, led intra partnership dialogues with the City to facilitate policy change. A new non-profit emerged called Green Options Buffalo with a mission to create healthy, environmentally sustainable and community-friendly transportation. In addition to advocating for good policy, Green Options Buffalo increased demand for bicycling through Buffalo Blue Bicycles (a city-wide bike-sharing program) and Recycle a Bicycle (a youth bike education program) and has continued to be a key partner.
Strong collaborative efforts resulted in significant gains. They established a citizen-based Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board (BPAB) which assesses environments, reviews development plans and makes recommendations to city officials. With heavy involvement from residents, a number of plans have been developed or updated to include active living components, including a bike plan which identifies 128 miles of future bike lanes (10 miles are already complete). The city has adopted a Complete Streets and Bike Parking Ordinance along with a Commercial District Bicycle Parking Program under which 300 permanent bike racks have been installed around the city. Bike racks are now required for all new and rehabilitated buildings. The partnership also played a key role in securing a $14 million dollar grant from the US Department of Transportation for street and sidewalk improvements, many of which have been completed.
Over time, the Healthy Communities Initiative expanded their work to include access to healthy food, especially since most supermarkets and grocery stores were located in more affluent sections of the city and suburbs. A Healthy Eating by Design grant (HEbD) helped initiate their work. Key partners included Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning and the Buffalo School District. Together they provided a youth mentoring program around healthy foods and improved school lunch and demand for healthy foods at a school in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. That HEbD pilot influenced the Buffalo School District to offer a weekly salad bar at all their schools and continue workshops related to healthy food choices during after-school programs.
Since then, and through their current Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant, they’ve significantly expanded their work. They’ve reviewed existing physical, regulatory, and stakeholder environments pertaining to healthy eating opportunities in the City. They’ve created maps showing food environment conditions and conducted a Food Policy Summit with more than 230 participants for the two-day event, including 50 policymakers. The Summit catalyzed local action. Afterward, the City adopted recommendations developed by the HKHC partnership as an addendum to their comprehensive plan. Significant changes include the ongoing development of a County-City Food Policy Council and recognition of urban agriculture as a beneficial use in the zoning code. In addition, the City has developed a Queen City Garden’s Plan and received a $2 million federal grant for community engagement in food systems planning.
And it doesn’t stop there. Leadership on the issue is expanding. Youth are now heavily involved. As the City sought resident input on the process to update their 60-year-old land use and zoning regulations (Buffalo Green Code), youth advocates from MAP led training about land use issues. They recruited peers and neighbors to attend meetings and provided testimony in support of including health considerations in the updates. Youth now also have a seat on the BPAB and have led additional neighborhood assessments regarding food availability and walking and biking conditions.
Furthermore, Buffalo’s work is spreading. The partnership is partnering with ChangeLab Solutions (formerly known as PHLP) to develop a healthy zoning code checklist and a health retail ordinance for use by communities nationwide. In addition, Dr. Samina Raja, a key and long-term partner who is a well-respected national leader in food security, food distribution and access and community health, has produced and published several evidence-based documents, including a Planners Guide to Community and Regional Food Planning which was distributed to 8,000 professional planners. Clearly, their seeds are now deeply rooted and feeding the nation.