Designing Communities for Longevity: The Blue Zones Project

Is your neighborhood designed to make people healthy or sick? With the right characteristics, the place where you live could add years to your life.

Children in Redondo Beach, California -- a Blue Zone community -- take part in morning exercises. ## Times##

In 2004, Dan Buettner, CEO of the Blue Zones Project, partnered with researchers from National Geographic to study the places around the world that enjoy the greatest longevity. They found that what distinguishes places like Ikaria, Greece, and Okinawa, Japan, are environments and cultural attributes that foster community, family life, connectedness, and physical activity.

The team boiled down their research to nine principles for longevity and health. The number one principle? “Move Naturally.”

“The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms,” the researchers wrote. “Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it.”

Now the Blue Zones Project — run by Healthways, a company focused on improving health, in partnership with AARP, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute — is trying to create cities and towns that promote wellness across the U.S.

More than a dozen places, from the Los Angeles suburbs to small-town Iowa, have been designated as “Blue Zone” communities. The partnership is helping these places advance complete streets, walking school buses, and safe routes to school. The program also focuses on goals like gardening, volunteering, smoking cessation, and providing access to fresh food.

“Seventy percent of our health outcomes are predicted by our behaviors and our environment,” said Laura Jackson of Wellmark, which insures 2 million people in Iowa and South Dakota, during a seminar at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference taking place this week in Kansas City. “We searched around the world to try to find the magic bullet.”

Jackson has been working with Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to help make the state the healthiest in the U.S. Iowa — home to Blue Cross Blue Shield — has four communities that are Blue Zones.

Blue Zones matches up communities with the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute to help make their infrastructure conducive to healthy living and physical activity, by shifting the focus from designing for autos to designing for walking and social interaction.

Three Los Angeles suburbs — Hermosa, Redondo Beach, and Manhattan Beach — all took part in a Blue Zones planning process in 2010. The cities developed a livable streets plan and a bicycle master plan, which included the construction of a walking corridor along the main commuter thoroughfare. Ten local schools also instituted “walking buses” — groups of kids who walk to school together with a chaperone. The communities also outlawed smoking in public places and encouraged healthy menu choices at restaurants.

A follow-up Gallup poll found that health has indeed been improving in these beach communities. The study found that smoking had declined almost 4 percent while regular exercise rose 6 percent.

“It is moving the needle in the ways that are literally improving the well-being of thousands of residents within the beach cities,” Dan Witters, principal at Gallup, told the Los Angeles Times.

6 thoughts on Designing Communities for Longevity: The Blue Zones Project

  1. What is discouraging about Blue Zones project is this: they have ignored the most important data from Ikaria, Greece.  Like just about every other American group seeking to extend people’s lives, they have ignored social factors that are so engrained in American culture that scientists don’t dare talk about changing them.  The greatest impediment to longevity in the United States just might be our highly prized individualism, private life, and cross generational independence.  We like our anonymity, our alone time, even when we sometimes feel lonely.  The folks on Ikaria don’t get that freedom to feel lonely.

    Ikarians’ longevity was probably not much related to diet or exercise. The island’s residents’ diets and exercise are not that different from many places in Greece where people have shorter lifespans.  Rather it was the near constant social visiting and the absence of living by the clock. Community, emotional connection to others, social life — these are what Ikaria provides its residents and they one another.  But they also keep a close eye on one another.  Transgressing social norms would probably result in shunning.

    So the Blue Zone project’s bike lanes and programs for groups walking to school with others and quitting smoking will undoubtedly help southern Californians live healthier lives.  But these physical health changes with very minor nods to communal life are puny imputs compared to Ikaria’s constant social visiting and lack of competitive stress.

    To read about Ikarians’ longevity, search the New York Times site with the word “Ikaria” and you will find the results of the study there.

  2. Of course, in Southern California, beach cites are usually inhabited by people fairly high up in economic status; they can afford healthy food, good medical care, pleasant housing, etc.  They’re more likely to read and heed healthy living publications.  And beach cities tend to be, on the average more walkable because land is so expensive and lots are smaller.  Many of them were settled a long time ago, in the days before universal automobility, when residents rode the Pacific Electric to downtown LA for major shopping and inlanders rode the Red Cars to the beach.

  3. I agree with voltairesmistress. The American lifestyle where we basically expect people to be “on their own” (whatever that means) not long after getting out of college isn’t conducive to mental health or long life. Even worse, the idea of extended families is openly ridiculed. For example, many woman will consider a man who still lives with his parents to be poor dating or marriage material. And yet it’s the idea of extended families which offer health and security on many levels. For one, a smaller percentage of income is spent on housing. This means either more money for other things, or better yet, not needing to continually work full time your entire adult life. While it’s necessary for health and longevity to have a purpose to life, that purpose isn’t necessarily served well by a traditional 9-to-5, 5 day a week job, with perhaps a scant 2 or 3 weeks off per year. Setting your own schedule, waking and sleeping as your body tells you, are much healthier. I know because I abandoned the rat race in the early 1990s once I realized the stress of working full time would eventually take its toll. I went into business for myself, working from home, basically trading income for time. Yes, the fact that I was able to live with my parents helped immensely, but then again that’s one of the advantages of extended families. My aging parents appreciated the help, I appreciated the roof over my head. My dad passed away in 2006 but I still live with my mom. I think it would have been nice also to have had my brother and sister under the same roof, but they chose the American way of living on their own in their late and mid 20s, respectively.

    We need to stop looking solely at things like diet or exercise as the keys to longevity. Mental health is the most important thing. If someone has a stressful life, they’ll tend to get sick and die off sooner. It’s good we as a nation are at least acknowledging the need to eat better and integrate movement into our lives. We next need to touch a subject which until now has been taboo-namely that the American ideal of going it alone may be the single biggest factor keeping us from living longer. There’s nothing wrong with adult children never leaving the nest, even after marrying. Eventually they become the caretakers to their aging parents, helping them live longer, and also avoiding the societal cost of long-term care facilities. All benefit by sharing living quarters, with the attendant reduction in living expenses per capita. Why we should shun something so obviously beneficial in favor of pursuing an illusory ideal is beyond me.

  4. I think Waterloo/Cedar Falls, Iowa is one of the cities in the project. The social aspect voltaire… mentions is really the _only_ thing they have going. The food is not healthy. But family ties vertically across generations, and horizontally, are strong. The civic community is not that strong, but many people are in religious communities that are. 

    When I want to see my grandniece, I look for pictures on Facebook, since I no longer live there. When my brother wants to see his grandchild, he sees her -actual- face. 😉 My Waterloo brothers hardly do email or anything else on the internet. Contact with family and friends is frequent, and is face-to-face or talking on the phone. 

    As everywhere in the US, there are people in Iowa falling off the bottom of the economic ladder, and these people aren’t doing that well. But people who still have decent jobs tend to have these strong social ties. 

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