Medical Campus aims to be regional beacon of wellness

The Buffalo News
By

Almost 15 years ago, as leaders in the Western New York health field began to hatch ideas for a new medical campus in the Buffalo Fruit Belt, a tiny nonprofit designed to help nurture the effort got its first wellness grant.

Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Inc. has been working behind the scenes in the years since as cranes have come and gone on the 120-acre swath north of downtown, and the number of buildings has grown.

Its charge: Turn the Medical Campus into a model for healthy living across the region – and support similar efforts elsewhere.

“The campus is becoming more of a neighborhood than a medical community,” said Jonathan McNeice, who is helping plan the transformation. “Neighborhoods have people who want active things to do. They want access to food and healthy lifestyles. So the bigger picture is that we see the campus as a place of wellness and not just a place you come to for sick care.”

If the Medical Campus is to become a microcosm for a healthier Buffalo Niagara, its leaders must be able to answer key questions, including:

  • Can I walk or bike or take public transit to work?
  • Where can I find healthy food in the neighborhood?
  • Are there places to get some exercise?

Fueled by more than $7 million in grants – starting with a $200,000 Active Living by Design grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Inc. (BNMC) and its like-minded partners have begun to change the campus in the following ways.

1. TRANSPORTATION AND LAND USE

Justin Booth, left, and Thea Hassan, both of GObike Buffalo, helped get bike lane markings on Ellicott Street on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and continue to work to make the campus more bicycle friendly. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

One of the largest challenges the Medical Campus faces is that almost everybody who steps foot in the neighborhood takes a car to get there.

“I think for the revitalization of any city, you need a critical mass of people so that the transit options, the bike options, the car share options will be successful,” said McNeice, a healthy communities planner on the Medical Campus. “To be a modern urban city, you want to be multi-mobile. Maybe you want to take the subway part of the way and take your bike on the subway so that if you want to ride it the rest of the way to work, or run an errand or go to lunch, you’ve got that option.”

Work has begun to double the size of a parking ramp to 1,800 spaces behind the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, which is expected to open late this year.

Parking for patients and visitors will continue to be paramount, but the more than 12,000 people employed on the campus are encouraged to find other means to get to and from their workplaces, McNeice said. They can visit gobnmc.org to learn how.

“You’re looking at a dense urban core, where people want to live and want to work because it’s exciting,” said Kari Root Bonaro, BNMC communications director. “We really would like to get more employees to take transit, to walk, to bike, to live closer to campus. There’s both the healthy living aspect as well as building community.”

Reddy Bike Share plans to boost the number of rental bikes on the Medical Campus this year. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The nonprofit also is working with others on a larger effort, gobuffaloniagara.org, to encourage alternative transportation across the region, BNMC Planning Manager Jamie Hamann-Burney said.

The organization helped secure $8.4 million in federal, state and local funding to upgrade Ellicott Street – the spine of the Medical Campus street grid – into a linear park with bike lanes, wider sidewalks, benches and improved lighting. Nearly $7 million more has been allocated for the Allen Street stretch that will connect Allentown to the UB medical school and rest of the campus. Pocket parks – BNMC staff likes to call them “parkettes” – also have been sprinkled throughout the neighborhood.

Reddy Bike Share provided more than a half dozen rental bikes on the campus last year and will return with more bikes in the spring, along with a free trial membership to encourage employees to take advantage of the service. The nonprofit BNMC, which is housed at the Thomas R. Beecher Jr. Innovation Center on Ellicott Street along with nearly 100 health-related startup businesses, put a shipping container in a nearby parking lot for safe, indoor bike storage.

“We’re a medical campus where we offer health care, and a great way to be healthy is by actively commuting,” McNeice said. “Part of that is having the infrastructure.”

2. FOOD

Jonathan McNeice, left a healthy communities planner with Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Inc., works last fall with Rosemary Wilson, a senior volunteer, in the garden at The Moot Community Center in the Fruit Belt. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The Moot Community Center sits five blocks east of Buffalo General Medical Center. It participates in a countywide Stay Fit Dining Program but that doesn’t serve all the nutritional needs of seniors in the Fruit Belt, many of whom have limited financial means, transportation and access to healthy foods. Four of every five seniors who use the High Street center have Type 2 diabetes, said Daysi Ball, its assistant director of development and senior services.

“We get the breads, the desserts, all of the wonderful stuff that we love to eat but aren’t necessarily the most healthy, or the best for our seniors,” Ball said. “We appreciate everything – it’s very helpful – but we wanted to figure out ways to get more fresh foods and vegetables here.”

So the community center’s leaders – with help from McNeice, Grassroots Gardens, the Massachusetts Avenue Project and the Mulberry Street and Friends Block Club – decided last year to start a community garden and host a weekly farm market at Moot.

The efforts are part of a larger strategy to bring healthier food options to those who will live, work and visit the Medical Campus and surrounding communities in years to come.

McNeice – who grew up in Canada and whose family owned the Lakeside Marketeria in Oakville, Ont. – is the point person in the effort to more meaningfully connect the campus with farmers in the region.

“I got to see the industry changing” in 1990s, when supermarket and hardware chains drove many mom and pop shops out of business, and often bypassed small local suppliers, he said.

McNeice, 38, first came to Buffalo to get his master’s degree in urban planning. He left to work on food policy and wellness planning in Toronto and Edmonton before returning to the city three years ago. While at UB, he worked in the university’s Food Lab, the key player in efforts that have begun to bear fruit on the Medical Campus when it comes to helping forge stronger bonds between hospitals, schools, retailers, community centers and farmers.

“We were fortunate to get Jonathan to come and bring a totally different perspective,” said Matthew Enstice, president and CEO of the BNMC.

Medical Campus planner Jonathan McNeice has worked in Toronto, Edmonton and Buffalo. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

McNeice and others are at work on a Healthy Corner Store Initiative that looks to bring fresh produce into convenience stores not only on the campus but in neighborhoods across the city where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited.

Farmers’ markets have been established at the Salvation Army branch and Buffalo Place along the ring of campus, as well as the Moot Center. The BNMC also worked with Farmers & Artisans last year to set up a “farm-to-work table” that offered regional goods on Wednesdays at the Innovation Center.

The resurgent and growing “farm-to-table” attitude in the region helped spur six community gardens on the Medical Campus, including two fostered by Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Inc.

Ball is among those who have seen the planning pay dividends.

Grassroots Gardens worked with Moot Center staff and volunteers to clear a patch of land off the back parking lot last spring, plant a strawberry patch and fill nine raised garden beds with vegetables that included heirloom tomatoes, broccoli, squash, kale, cucumbers “and all sorts of peppers,” Ball said. “It really was wonderful. We were not only able to harvest the vegetables here at the center – for use in our kitchen to supplement the lunches – we also were able to distribute the harvest to the seniors.”

Some seniors canned collard greens and Swiss chard, Ball said, and “there were a number of opportunities for them to learn more about the foods and how to incorporate them into their diets.

“Historically, we’ve been more of a social center where you come for social activities,” she said. “The seniors wanted health-related, tangible outcomes. We wanted to provide more preventative programs. We’ve done that.”

3. FITNESS

Attendance at yoga classes in the Innovation Center have been strong, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus officials say. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

David Longhini took his first yoga class on the Medical Campus in January, two days after he started a new job with BlueWolf, a medical sales force consulting company in the dig, or Design Innovation Garage, inside the Innovation Center on Ellicott Street.

“I was definitely down for it,” said Longhini, 24, a Dansville native who lives in the Elmwood Village. “I love everything about what’s happening here. One of the top reasons I took the job – I left Rich Products – was to be closer to downtown, the dig and the Medical Campus. It’s very important for me to see this area thrive.”

On the fitness front, the BNMC supported a “100 Days of Summer” last year that brought the Independent Health Fitness in the Parks program onto campus for the first time. It helped throw a fitness festival last June. And the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo led a weekly Walking on Wednesday sojourn starting and ending outside Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

The nonprofit also has been a consistent supporter of the Buffalo Green Code, advocating for more bike lanes across Buffalo, including on the Medical Campus.

McNeice, Hamann-Burney and others have worked with GObike Buffalo as they have eyed future transportation in the neighborhood and beyond, and both nonprofits recently were among the organizations to receive a five-year, $250,000 Creating Healthy Schools & Communities grant from the state Department of Health. Among other projects, the grant will provide Healthy Workplace assessments and programming support for businesses on and off the campus.

“Broadly speaking, active living is very important,” McNeice said.

That becomes even more true, he said, on a medical campus that aspires to lead by example.

“Neighbors and communities go up and down with the times but anchor institutions can withstand that,” McNeice said. “Largely, the role we play is that steady force behind the scenes. We’re looking for gaps in how we bring things together.”

Part of the job is asking, “What if?” “How do we help improve our community?”

“What if a medical campus was a place of wellness? What does that look like?” McNeice said. “Maybe it’s a place where you’re not just coming when you’re sick but you go there to get physically active, get fit, learn to cook from scratch. That’s where our head is at going forward.”

email: sscanlon@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon