Despite a struggling economy, residents of Buffalo are mobilizing with the help of activists and researchers to change policy and infrastructure to support community health by improving access to nutritious, affordable food and making it safer to walk and bike in their communities.
"The city of Buffalo is not a good food environment for low-income residents and the unemployed," says Samina Raja, a resident since 2001. "We've lost supermarkets and grocery stores to the suburbs, and most neighborhoods in the city have no healthy food stores located within walking distance."
A community-based scholar and associate professor of urban and regional planning in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, Raja has been studying how community design impacts healthy eating and physical activity.
"People understand healthy choices, be it nutritious food or daily exercise, but lack of access is an obstacle to making them," says Raja. "Though Buffalo has great 'bones,'—incredible old architecture, incredible community spirit—with the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, the city has suffered a severe loss of jobs, population and revenue since the 1950s. Our challenge is to identify low-cost policy changes that will expand and support healthy choices."
Working in close partnership with public agencies—including the City of Buffalo's Office of Strategic Planning, the Buffalo Public Schools, Erie County Department of Health, and New York State Department of Transportation—along with health and environmental activists and local residents, Raja is helping guide the development of a long-term policy advocacy strategy. The partners began by conducting an assessment of the city's food and physical activity environment, identifying both barriers and opportunities.
According to Raja, the group would not have come together if not for a four-year Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Buffalo is one of 49 sites around the country selected for HKHC, a national program that advances community-based solutions that will help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. It focuses on changing policies and environments to support active living and healthy eating among children and families, placing special emphasis on reaching children who are at highest risk based on race or ethnicity, income or geographic location.
In Buffalo, awareness of the connection between environment and health is nothing new. In the late 1800s Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering landscape designer later responsible for Manhattan's Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace, designed a 1,200-acre network of parks and parkways throughout the city.
Now, thanks to close collaboration between the HKHC partners and city leaders, health and the environment is again a centerpiece of long-term planning in Buffalo.
"The city's zoning code is currently undergoing a full revision," says Raja. "City planners and consultants are exploring how to incorporate healthy land uses such as urban agriculture, which will improve people's access to fresh produce."
Planners like Raja are used to working in the policy arena and seeing the positive results that can be achieved. But for the general public, policy work can be a much less compelling call to action compared to, say, cleaning up parks or planting trees—both of which are being done in Buffalo.
"Buffalo already has great action on the ground. The gap we're filling is policy change," says Michael Ball, director of planning and implementation for Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and director of the city's HKHC initiative. "But the economic situation is tough, and it's hard to get people rallied around community health when they're losing their jobs, even their homes. We're not putting a shovel in the ground—we're reviewing land-use policies."
Organizers have therefore made a concerted effort to bring Buffalo residents of all ages into the process through visioning exercises and community dialogue, showing how policy change leads to physical, visible changes that support a healthy, active lifestyle.
In a flat city where more than 31 percent of households do not own a car, policies that improve the safety and convenience of bicycling are a priority, particularly for the city's many bicycle commuters. Buffalo was an early adopter of complete streets legislation—whereby roadways are designed to ensure safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and users of different ages and abilities—and Green Options Buffalo, a nonprofit advocacy organization and a key HKHC partner, has worked to ensure its implementation.
"So far we have only seven miles of striped lanes out of 128 miles in the city's biking plan," says Justin Booth, executive director of Green Options Buffalo, and a year-round bike commuter who has lived in downtown Buffalo since 1996. But he also points to a number of notable "wins"—for example, the installation of 300 permanent bike racks around the city and a requirement that all new and rehabilitated buildings include bike racks—that make Booth confident the upward trend in bicycle ridership will continue, helping residents get more exercise and less exposure to pollution.
And Buffalo is not alone.
"Other cities of similar size are tackling similar issues," says Raja, "and we network and share best practices. We're all part of this bigger puzzle and learn from each other. As a researcher, I see that as part of my job—taking these lessons into the larger discipline of planning." Working with the American Planning Association, she developed a how-to guide, The Planner’s Guide to Community and Regional Food Planning, published and distributed to 8,000 planners nationwide with support from RWJF.
"Obesity prevention is more of a buzzword now," adds Ball. "And here in Buffalo, the iron is hot for doing this work."
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