The Blue Zones : An Architectural Perspective
‘The Blue Zones’, is a phrase coined by Dan Buettner and his team in a book by the same name, to identify 5 geographic ‘hotspots’ associated with the “world’s healthiest, long-lived people”. These hotspots include: Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica and Loma Linda in California.
Studying these people and places, his team identified 9 lifestyle habits associated with longevity. I have outlined them here with a brief summary. They include:
- Move Naturally – (Exercise – but not necessarily as a separate activity)
- Purpose – (the thing that ‘get’s you out of bed in the morning’)
- Downshift – (stress mitigation)
- 80% Rule – (don’t eat too much, and not too late)
- Plant Slant – (Eat a plant based diet – not necessarily Vegan!)
- Wine @ 5 – (A glass of wine or 2 in a relaxed social setting)
- Belong – (spirituality)
- Loved Ones First – (multigenerational care and living)
- Right Tribe – (A tight and dependable social network)
You might be wondering why an architect might be interested in lifestyle habits?
I first stumbled across the ‘Blue Zones’ following my wife’s (Toni) cancer diagnosis in 2017. Her cancer (like many cancers and other ‘western’ ‘chronic’ illnesses) could be (at least partially) attributed to ‘lifestyle factors’. Frenetically studying academic papers to better understand the causes, contributors and mitigators to Toni’s cancer in everything from broad studies of exercise, nutrition, sleep and stress mitigation through to minutia (eg. randomised control studies of flaxseed consumption) it was difficult to stand back and coherently conceive a ‘cancer mitigating lifestyle’. Dan Buettner’s ‘The Blue Zones’ book painted a picture of what such a lifestyle might look like based on the ‘Blue Zone’ communities, and provided a valuable reference to ‘design’ a lifestyle scaffolded by my reading of the scientific literature. The book provided a useful framework that reshaped our daily habits and outlook.
But for the purposes of this article, I want to delve further. How might we design our urban environments for longevity? Or, to put it differently for greater health-span?
Interestingly, The Blue Zones team have already asked themselves the same question, and initiated the ‘Blue Zones Project‘ which is an organisation that partners with communities and local governments to develop initiatives to improve the lifestyles of their constiuents towards greater health, happiness and longevity. These initiatives have demonstrated measurable improvements in health, reductions in obesity, and corresponding reductions in health care costs through simple and effective education campaigns and public domain improvements in the form of bicycle paths, footpaths, as well as fostering more subsistent and connected communities.
But how have these affected ‘lifestyle’ improvements and what more can we do to Australian cities to emulate those of the world’s most long-lived people?
- • Greater connectivity via Pedestrian and Bike Paths facilitate and encourage exercise through walking or cycling and accordingly ‘natural movement’ (principle 1) is more readily possible and encouragable. Off course this needs to be supported and facilitated by;
- • Greater amenities and more subsistent local communities. In the Australia context, these can be readily found and consolidated within the inner and middle ring suburbs of Sydney, as these neighbourhoods were originally established as pedestrian centres around rail nodes and light rail corridors prior to the city’s rapid expansion; which was enabled by the motor car, but the outer ring suburbs will need some work. Such self subsistent communities can foster greater social networks (principle 9) and are generally associated with reduced stress levels (principle 3).
- • Multigenerational Housing. Much of Australian housing stock is in the form of the the detached single family home and more recently high-rise apartments, yet the recent policy implementation to facilitate the ‘Missing Middle’ via the NSW Low Rise Housing Diversity Code could also enable multi-generational living by allowing families to accommodate ageing dependants to live with their extended families (principle 8) and accordingly provide child care on site.
These shifts would facilitate greater sustainability through more compact neighbourhoods, but would potentially also foster greater social networks (principle 9), community gardens and local produce (principle 4), and provide greater purpose (principle 2), particularly for our ageing population, thereby reducing the burden on our health care and welfare systems (as demonstrated by the Blue Zones Projects).
These initiative correspond very closely with the concept of the 20-minute neighbourhoods which is “a concept… all about ‘living locally’ – giving people the ability to meet most of their daily needs within a 20-minute walk from home, with access to safe cycling and local transport options.” that was adopted by Melbourne for its ‘Plan Melbourne 2017-2050’ plan.
Covid-19 has already thrust some of these ‘live local’ shifts upon us, and changed habits, but what policies and cultural shifts do we want to see as the threat of the virus subsides? Given the prospective lifestyle benefits and their attribution to Toni’s ongoing recovery and well being, I know the change I want to see but I am but one voice, and it will take many to make the necessary cultural shifts towards the healthier, happier, more sustainable societies associated with the Blue Zones.
Who’s with me?