In Buffalo, New York, a city marked by striking contrasts in health and prosperity, a new initiative aims to confront these disparities head-on. The project, centered on Buffalo’s predominantly Black East Side, seeks to address the root causes of health inequities through innovative neighborhood planning and development. This article explores the origins, supporters, goals, and measures of success for this ambitious undertaking, which could set a precedent for cities across the nation grappling with similar challenges.
The pilot initiative, catalyzed by the “Harder We Run” report, is a collaboration among community groups, the University at Buffalo, and local activists. It targets the social determinants of health—a set of conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age that impact a wide range of health risks and outcomes. Dr. Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., director of UB’s Center for Urban Studies, underscores the initiative’s ethos: “We will create these positive health outcomes by changing the physical, social, and economic conditions found in the neighborhood.”
Key players in this transformative project include the Buffalo Center for Health Equity, the UB Community Health Equity Research Institute, and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Their joint efforts reflect a comprehensive approach to tackling health disparities, integrating academic research with community-based solutions.
The initiative’s primary goal is to improve overall health outcomes. This includes reducing infant mortality, addressing low birth weights, and mitigating illnesses exacerbated by stress—all prevalent issues in the East Side community. Dr. Taylor notes, “The goal of this neighborhood transformation is that people will live longer and better.”
“Health outcomes will be the key metric of success,” says Dr. Taylor
This project represents a departure from traditional urban planning models, which often prioritize economic development at the expense of existing communities. Dr. Taylor criticizes such models for perpetuating racial and income-based exclusion. Instead, the initiative proposes a model that promotes collective ownership and local involvement, empowering residents to shape their environment.
Success will be gauged not just by improved health statistics but also by the extent to which the community takes ownership of the development process. Indicators like reduced crime rates, improved education outcomes, and increased economic opportunities will also be key metrics.
“Where schools are poor and there’s a lack of good jobs, lack of transportation, there’s this push-me-pull-you aspect where each social determinant of health is connected to another,” says Rita Hubbard-Robinson, CEO of NeuWater & Associates and a key figure in the project.
“You have to look at how folks are being treated at every level—crime, housing, education—so I like the holistic approach to community development.
“You can’t just look at one thing,” agrees Rita Gay, president of the grassroots nonprofit Fillmore Forward. “You have to look at how folks are being treated at every level — crime, housing, education — so I like the holistic approach to community development.”
One innovative aspect of the project is its focus on collective forms of ownership, as opposed to the traditional emphasis on individual homeownership. This approach is rooted in the successful models seen in Black community churches and aims to provide a more sustainable and inclusive path to neighborhood development.
School of Architecture and Planning
The initiative also involves educating future medical professionals at UB about the importance of understanding and addressing social determinants of health. This educational approach aims to create a new generation of healthcare providers who are more attuned to the complexities of urban health disparities.
As Dr. Taylor asserts, this is not just a local project but a bold statement against centuries of systemic inequality. The success of this initiative could serve as a model for other cities facing similar challenges, redefining how urban health and development are approached in America.
“This is the first time in the history of this city where we have outlined a clear and precise strategic approach to the development of a Black neighborhood. We have to build a different type of neighborhood.
“Is it morally correct to build neighborhoods based on keeping groups out simply because of their income and, in some instances, race? Every book, every article we can get our hands on critiques this model. We thought, why don’t we try something new and different?”
“We’ve identified those geographies that we think are most threatened. We want to do a demonstration project that will also create a firewall between those sections of the East side that are threatened by gentrification and those that aren’t in harm’s way at this point. We also wanted a neighborhood with a strong community base and organizations that have the capacity to house a neighborhood transformation team.
“The most successful enterprises we have in the Black community are churches, and that’s cooperative ownership. So what happens if we collectively pool resources to promote land ownership? You don’t have to focus on buying an individual house, build condominiums and other forms of collective ownership.”
Sweat equity, where collective owners do their own repairs instead of hiring contractors, can help drive costs down, Taylor adds.
“You miss the point if you bring in other people to do the jobs that need to get done,” says Taylor, “so you train the people that live there to do that work.”
For more information on the project and to get involved, contact Taylor at 716-829-5910 or email email@example.com.
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