Over my sabbatical year, I visited dozens of communities across the United States. I appreciated the welcome that I received from each place, but certainly each community had their differences, whether political, economic, demographic, etc. That’s part of living in a diverse republic. But I was also fascinated by the shared ideas that many of these communities were striving towards.
Though I did not ask about it directly in interviews, many respondents brought up their aspiration to turn their communities into blue zones. If you haven’t heard of them, blue zones are five areas in the world—Okinawa, Sardinia, Nicoya, Icaria, and Loma Linda—where a high proportion of residents live healthily past the age of 100. These areas share a lot of things in common: people eat plant-centric diets, they mostly don’t smoke, family relationships are important, and they regularly get moderate exercise, like walking.
The findings related to these original blue zones—so named because of the ink color with which a researcher happened to circle them on a map—have grown into a larger Blue Zone Project that advises cities here in the US. For example, the small city of Albert Lea, Minnesota reports that, as a result of adopting Blue Zone Project principles, they have climbed 34 places in the Minnesota county health rankings and estimates that they have added nearly three years to community members’ lifespans. Fort Worth, Texas measures a 31 percent decrease in smoking along with a 9 percent increase in residents who exercise 30 minutes at least three times a week. The Blue Zones Project adheres to principles centered around working with local businesses, schools, and other organizations; these principles include creating a safer environment, reducing healthcare costs, engaging community organizations to enable change, and ultimately transforming the system.
Blue zone characteristics have found their way into real-estate development. As the New York Times reported this past week, a new development in Brooklyn is emphasizing walkability, shared recreation spaces, and a community farm. Of course, these amenities aren’t really that new in the world of high-end or transit-oriented development. Around my neighborhood in greater Boston, many new apartment developments have cordoned off spaces for their residents to enjoy these kinds of amenities.
But there is a question: can we replicate blue zones’ successes by adopting their features? Or does the causation go the other way: is there something inherent about blue zones that makes residents especially long-lived, and existing blue zones just happen to have the observable characteristics that made them famous, like walkability, vegetable-centric diets, red wine, etc.?
It will be interesting to see the long-term outcomes of the Blue Zone Project in the United States. In particular, I want to see how these communities will manage long-term stress, especially given economic uncertainties and the climate crisis. I would be surprised if rising stress levels corresponded with higher longevity. In other words, an active commute is great—but what if you’re trying to balance multiple jobs or your benefits keep getting reduced? Or maybe that job pays well, but that might matter less if the cost of essentials or paying off debt is also rising rapidly.
As the pandemic has shown, many people in the United States are a paycheck away from losing their homes and the ability to pay for food or medical bills. That lack of guaranteed access to basic needs is stressful. For several of my interviewees who were seeking to develop blue zones, their concerns centered on health. The United States has high rates of diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. Stress—the uncertainty of being able to meet one’s needs, the necessity of holding on to good paying job(s) in an uncertain economy, the competition we implicitly have with others, etc.—can contribute to many of these chronic conditions. That economic treadmill can sap our energy to do the things that make life meaningful. For all our economic and technological advancement, it is still puzzling as to why our society cannot guarantee these basic needs.
For many communities in the US, it is difficult to address the root causes of our societal stress. So much of our economic system centers on commodification and the atomized targeting of product advertising purporting to meet our needs. But for blue-zone principles to really effect lasting change, we need to go deeper than creating walkable zones and bicycle lanes. We need to address our crisis of community and the stress of meeting our needs.