By Mary Marvin, Mayor, Village of Bronxville
Dec. 18, 2019: As village government continues to proactively tackle and repair our underground infrastructure, we are also focusing on our above ground community qualities going beyond the traditional landscape and road surfaces to quality-of-life concerns.
In that vein, I think Bronxville truly has the possibility of being one of those “Blue Zones,” the locations around the world where people are most likely to live to be 100. By definition, Blue Zones are places that have the lowest rate of middle-age mortality and/or the highest concentration of centenarians. The common denominator is citizens are not being tempted to do the things that frankly make us sick in America. In essence, they live in an environment that sets them up for success.
As an example, they move around physically on average every 20 minutes; they have very few mechanized conveniences, and whenever they work or visit friends, they almost always walk. Reporters at National Geographic identified the first Blue Zone when they came across data that proved that people who lived in Okinawa had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world.
Beyond Okinawa, in their first wave of research, they identified two more locations: Sardinia and a Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. On the second wave of research, they also added the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica and the Greek Island of Icaria.
Icaria has the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet as one out of three residents make it into their 90’s. They also have about 20% lower rates of cancer, 50% lower rates of heart disease than the world average, and almost no dementia.
In Okinawa, they don’t even have a word for retirement. They talk about Kigali, which means, “Why I wake up in the morning.” People there think of themselves as being useful and productive into their 90s and even 100s. In Costa Rica, the phrase is “plan de vida” or life plan.
All these communities universally revere the oldest members of their community, honoring their decades of wisdom and seek their advice.
In all locations, the food is quite different from the American diet. The main foods in every one of the Blue Zones are greens, grains, tubers, nuts, and beans, or as Americans used to call, a peasant diet.
There are actually nine lifestyle indices that are replicated in each of these Blue Zones:
-Moderate regular physical activity
-A defined life purpose
-Moderate alcohol intake
-Spirituality or religious engagement
-Moderate caloric intake
-Stress reduction outlets
-Social activity in an age-integrated community
Dan Buettner, bestselling author on Blue Zones and author of “Where People Live Longer and Better,” has attempted to introduce the Blue Zone approach to several US cities, including Fort Worth, Texas. In essence, the goal is a community-led well-being improvement initiative designed to make healthy choices easier with permanent changes to a community’s environment, policy, and social networks.
In Fort Worth, his group is credited with lowering the smoking rate by 31% since 2014. The city also improved its Gallup Poll well-being index score by almost 4 points. Their approach was not to convince 1 million people in the greater Fort Worth area to eat their veggies, start running and socialize more; rather, they did it by changing the environment they live in.
They looked at 30 indices that have defined Blue Zones and encouraged Fort Worth to adopt whatever they thought feasible. Some of the changes included adding many more sidewalks and widening existing ones, adding bike lanes, and creating strict non-smoking ordinances. In essence, it was a critical look at the infrastructure of their community and reshaping the built environment or human-made places where people commute, live, work, and play.
By partnering with schools, workplaces, and even grocery stores and restaurants, changes were made that supported well-being by creating new ways to engage in the community and just make healthy life choices easier. The environmental transformation led to increased foot traffic in their downtown business district, significantly bolstering the local economy.
With a community-wide effort, I believe Bronxville could be a model in Westchester for Blue Zone ideas. Some initiatives that immediately come to mind include:
-Assessment of our walking lanes to see what needs to be repaired, widened, and safely connected to continuous paths.
-Outlets for inter-generational activities on a regular basis. My dream has always been an age-inclusive Community Center.
-Volunteer opportunities for people in every age bandwidth and not just our “middle” years.
Just as our Gramatan Village started as a germ of an idea that developed into a national model, so, too, could the concept of Bronxville as a forward-thinking lifestyle incubator.
We just need to adopt the principle that if you can change the environment, you change behavior.
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