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Culture Change Sustains and Thrives In Buffalo

By Joanne Lee on September 22nd, 2016

One of the many privileges of being part of the Active Living By Design (ALBD) team is forming long-standing relationships with community partners, learning from their experiences, and celebrating their successes. During a recent visit to Buffalo, New York, I re-connected with partners and saw first-hand how they have grown and sustained a thriving, healthy community over the past 15 years.

The relationship between Buffalo and ALBD began in 2002 with the Active Living by Design (ALbD) grant. The lead agency, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, Inc. (BNMC), had recently formed as a non-profit and ALBD was established the prior year as the National Program Office for the initiative. In some respects, we grew up together. Serving as a trusted convener and coordinator for healthy community initiatives throughout the city, BNMC’s strategic approach has resulted in tremendous impact since 2002. More than $1 million has been raised to implement healthy eating and active living policy and environmental changes.

As a result, 10 significant healthy community policies have been passed, including the creation of a food policy council and changes to city land use laws. More than 50 changes have been made to make the city’s environment more supportive of health, including additional bike lanes and community gardens. These policy and environmental successes have been driven by an authentic commitment to the value of health embedded in BNMC’s goal of creating a healthy, safe, and livable community by making it easier to access nutritious food and active living opportunities for all residents. The value of health is also integrated with BNMC’s operations and budgets, as the organization now funds a position to continue the healthy communities work that started with the ALbD grant, and is in the process of hiring a Healthy Communities Catalyst who will be an agent for action to make Buffalo a healthy place.

During my visit to Buffalo, it was heartening to see that many of the physical supports for healthy eating and physical activity that were implemented years ago—and newer ones—are still well maintained. One of the most powerful examples is sustainability of Complete Streets. In 2008, Buffalo passed New York State’s first Complete Streets policy, and as Justin Booth, Executive Director of GOBike Buffalo, reflects,

“It didn’t take long for us to recognize that policy was easy to pass; implementation and creating real change was going to be more long-term.”

The partners coordinated to engage community stakeholders around creating the institutional and culture changes they knew would be required to implement the Complete Streets policy. They held neighborhood forums to lift the voices and influence of residents, and developed a training program to build capacity of staff within the city’s planning and public works departments. They also built a partnership with Mayor Byron Brown, who became a champion for Complete Streets, dedicating 10 miles of new bicycle lanes per year. Today, Complete Streets is institutionalized into the city’s bicycle master plan, land use plans, and zoning codes, thereby influencing new construction in the city.

This institutionalization has led to a culture change, with residents asking when, not if, their streets are getting bike lanes.

Justin exemplifies another aspect of sustainability that has been particularly successful in Buffalo. Many of the partners I met when they first launched a healthy community initiative remain just as committed today to making Buffalo a thriving, healthy place. Many have expanded or deepened their roles as leaders and partners, and those that have moved into new careers have continued to contribute to sustainability of the work. For example, Mike Ball was an early healthy communities leader, serving as the Project Director for the ALbD and Healthy Eating by Design initiatives in Buffalo. In his current role as Deputy Director for Empire State Development’s Western New York Region, Mike manages funding and projects with an expanded reach to communities and organizations throughout the region. Mike’s experiences have given him an informed perspective about how health and economic development are intertwined. He explained,

“The impacts of positive placemaking are not only making us healthier, but also leading our economic renaissance.”

Buffalo’s story of healthy community transformation is a powerful demonstration of sustainable thinking as an essential practice for successful and lasting community change. It is evident in the strategic growth and sustainability of a lead organization and partnership; healthy policy and environmental supports that continue to exist in the city; and strengthened bridges between the health and economic development sectors. I’m eager to see how Buffalo’s culture of health continues to thrive in the coming years!

This month, we highlighted two of ALBD’s first grantees, Buffalo and Kalihi Valley. Their stories are illustrative of strategies that are essential to sustainability. Visit our website to learn more about ALBD’s Sustainability Framework and approach.

Joanne Lee

Collaborative Learning Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.