At the eastern shore of Lake Erie, at the head of the Niagara River and 16 miles south of Niagara Falls, Buffalo’s fortunes have for centuries been tied to its proximity to water.
In the 19th century, hydroelectric power generated by the falls lit city streetlights and fueled an industrial boom. Generations later, cycles of economic change brought a decline in jobs and a fraying of community ties. Now, once again, development along Buffalo’s historic canal is reviving the region—and helping to revive the health of its residents.
Years of economic stress left many facing negative health ramifications. With more than 30 percent of the city living in poverty, limited greenspace and winter temperatures that regularly drop below freezing, many in the community were struggling with health challenges, including high rates of obesity and diabetes, as well as a high rate of emergency department visits for asthma attacks, particularly for young children.
The historic canal port in downtown Buffalo remained a faded, but valuable, gem –one that could be critical to creating a healthy, revitalized community for local residents. A major state-supported economic development project, Canalside, sought to spark a renaissance aimed at bringing in new buildings, public spaces and healthy activities to its waterfront. Knowing that a healthy and prosperous community begins with a healthy and prosperous population, BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York (BCBSWNY) became an official partner, offering four seasons of health and wellness programs that have helped to transform a once-dormant location into a must-see destination.
“Offering year-round wellness programs to the public allows us to support our community and have a significant impact on the overall health of the region,” said David W. Anderson, president and CEO of BCBSWNY.
“Fitness at Canalside,” sponsored by BCBSWNY, was one of the first anchoring activities. The free classes, which occur every day and target all ages and fitness levels, are so popular — 12,000 participated last summer — that each year since the program launched, BCBSWNY has had to expand the offerings. In the winter months, Western New Yorkers trade their sneakers for skates and visit “Ice at Canalside,” presented by BCBSWNY. Despite the cold and snowy Buffalo weather, more than 75,000 people visit the rink to enjoy ice skating, curling and other winter activities each year.
“Winter in Buffalo used to mean staying indoors and watching football,” said Anderson. “Today it means being a part of a community, enjoying all the activities offered at Canalside.”
BCBSWNY also sponsors Blue Bikes, which allow visitors another way to explore the 21-acre, mixed-use site, as well as a neighboring state park and other newly developed areas connected by ferry and pedestrian pathways.
Canalside has far exceeded all expectations. The area that once sat stagnant and empty is now buzzing with more than 1.5 million visitors every year. What began as one site with 200 hundred events every year has blossomed into continued activity and economic development.
“Canalside has brought life back to downtown Buffalo,” said Anderson. “It is not only making us healthier, it is reminding us why we love our city.”