A look inside Blue Zones Project’s plan to re-engineer communities – including Salinas – for longer, healthier lives.

A smile flashed across Dan Buettner’s face when he took the stage at Sherwood Hall in Salinas on June 29. His presentations, by this point, are well-oiled – he’s gotten good at rolling into a city and offering a plan for their residents to turn around their health.

“You’re the 50th community we’ve come into,” Buettner says. “That means we’ve made all of the mistakes in 49 other communities. This time, we’ll be perfect.”

Buettner is a tall man with an athletic build, a bright smile and a gift for turning a phrase – think Harold Hill of The Music Man, with a bicycle instead of 76 trombones. But he’s done his damnedest to set himself apart from the usual cadre of quick-fix health gurus.

Since the 2009 publication of The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Buettner has devoted himself to reengineering communities so residents are tripping over health.

But unlike Hill, he plans to stick around the communities he blows into.

“People are stubborn. We forget stuff, we’re barraged with information and ideas, and… even the best diets only last for about seven months, because people lose focus,” Buettner says. “You’re never going to change America by trying to convince America to change its habits.”

What works, he’s found, isn’t changing the human – it’s changing everything around the human.

Take, for instance, Ventura Boulevard, the stretch of road outside of a Los Angeles cafe where Buettner sat last February. It’s a five-lane corridor for traffic. If Buettner had his way, he’d reduce the number of traffic lanes, establish four-foot buffered bike lanes and slow traffic down from 45 miles per hour into the low 30s. The road would become one where humans could actually see the other humans around them, rather than their shiny metal shells.

“What are the chances that a driver going by right now is going to see a store and say, ‘Oh, that’s right – I need to pick up wine for tonight?’” Buettner says. “When you slow traffic down, business does better, it’s safer, the air is cleaner. When people become more locally-focused, they’re less likely to have this stranger anger… if you shape your environment, it’ll shape you.”

Communities where Buettner’s Blue Zones Project have taken root have benefited. He points to case studies in outposts like Albert Lea, Minnesota, to work combating food deserts in Texas, and to surveys showing that, while most regions of the country have felt greater despair over the past three years, Blue Zones communities have largely held steady.

In Southern California, the Beach Cities Blue Zones Project touts one eye-popping stat: The childhood obesity rate in Redondo Beach’s elementary-aged students has plummeted over 10 years, from more than 20 percent down to 6.4 percent.

The key to Blue Zones success hasn’t come from any one thing; the strictures of the project are broad, covering “people, places and policy,” Buettner says.

But what seems most important is that Blue Zones communities have an infrastructure, a framework and a sponsor in place to advance the cause before the Blue Zones Project launches.

“The challenge is finding communities that are ready for it,” Buettner says. “Communities that are willing to invest the political equity.”

Without that, there’s no point.

Read the full story here, from Monterey County Now

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