A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Op-Ed Was Originally Published March 13, 2019 in TheCityFix

When we think of design in cities, it’s typically physical environments and infrastructure that come to mind: glass, steel and stone, skylines and main streets, museums, traffic jams, playgrounds and construction sites. But the designs that determine the health and resilience of a city are invisible: they are the relationships between the people and institutions living there, the connections to each other and to services that sustain or overlook them. They are the human circulatory system of a city.

Now, they are the new frontier of design.

Traditional design rearranges physical or digital materials: cars, iPhones, couches, algorithms. Social design is the application of the design process to social infrastructure, to the relationships that keep us alive.

The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) in Buffalo, New York, is one example of how social design is changing how we build and conceive of cities. BNMC is an “anchor institution”: an organization, typically medical, educational or government, with permanent ties to a location and the capacity to contribute to it as an employer and an attraction for other businesses and workers. Cities build whole neighborhoods, business districts and transport plans around anchor institutions.

For the most part, the contributions of anchor institutions are measured in economic terms – for example, millions of dollars spent with local businesses. What makes BNMC unique is that instead of defining its objectives on the basis of its own institutional needs and what its operations can contribute, it has involved the community in creating its vision and goals.

Planning for Social Equity

Buffalo ranks third in the United States for the number of people living below the poverty line. For the residents of its poor neighborhoods, that means no jobs, high crime and very little access to healthy food. Like most American “rust belt” cities, the downtown had been abandoned by those who could afford to leave for the suburbs.

Since its creation in 2001 by a local consortium of medical institutions, BNMC has createdmore than 3,000 new jobs and built an innovation center that currently houses 75 start-up companies. So far, BNMC has attracted $1.4 billion in investments to Buffalo. Dozens of programs have also been co-created by BNMC and the community.

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