More than two decades ago a writer for National Geographic realised that some parts of the world had the highest concentration of people living long, healthy lives. Dubbed “blue zones”, these longevity hotspots not only had large numbers of residents reaching impressive dotages, but many had done so without suffering from any of the chronic diseases of modern life, such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Statistics also suggest lower rates of cancer and dementia in the five regions, which included Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, the Barbagia region in Sardinia, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and Ikaria in Greece. Perhaps unsurprisingly, residents of these regions also consistently report higher than average levels of happiness.
Following the dawning realisation that this just wasn’t a happy coincidence, the common characteristics of these blue zones are now being implemented by urban planners across the globe as they attempt to recreate the magical conditions in which people not just survive but thrive. One project saw the city of Albert Lea in Minnesota in the United States converted to a bespoke blue zone as part of a pilot project – residents saw their average lifespan increase by almost three years.
Safe liveable spaces
In Irish cities, many of the principles of blue zones, such as walkability, liveability and catering for all generations, are being integrated into future development plans.
“While we haven’t yet identified blue zones in Limerick, public participation and engagement in the preparation of the proposed Limerick development plan process has played a crucial role in the pre-draft consultation stage, in order to raise public awareness of and ownership of the plan that will shape their communities,” says Maria Woods, senior planner with Limerick City and County Council.
It is from this public input and in an attempt to create more attractive, safe liveable spaces that initiatives such as the “blue green infrastructure proposal” is being progressed, she adds.
“It is an objective of Limerick City and County Council to promote a network of blue green infrastructure throughout Limerick, with rivers, canal and parks connecting neighbourhoods and providing an ecological and leisure function,” she explains, adding that the Limerick City and Environs Green and Blue Infrastructure Strategy, currently being prepared, will inform the provision of green and blue infrastructure within the city and environs.
According to Helena Hayes, director of new homes and sales with Quintain, everything needed for a good life – work, live, study, culture, exercise – should be available within 15 minutes by walking, cycling, bus or Luas, thus reducing the need for cars and urban sprawl. The “15-minute city” concept is very much aligned with the underlying principles of blue zone living, she notes.
“Implementation of this planning principle is undoubtedly seeing happier and healthier residents emerge in our schemes. Planners have to get away from the notion that some parts of the town are where you live, and some parts are where you work – we are rethinking these notions with health, wellbeing and inclusivity in mind.”
Another principle of blue zones is utilising vertical space to minimise congestion at street level. Hayes believes this is something Irish cities have not gotten to grips with and blames our limited understanding of what low-rise means.
“In Dublin it is defined as any residential building up to 24m – eight storeys tall – and not just the two-storey three-bed semi. Context is everything,” she says.
“High-density compact housing neighbourhood planning concepts need to be considered with trade-offs such as not having a front and back garden or scope to park a car outside the door. This would allow high-density housing product to be delivered in urban locations. Planners need to give real consideration to different types of high-density neighbourhoods.”
Dublin or Cork may not be Okinawa but integrating some basic blue zone principles into future city planning will pay dividends in terms of our overall health and wellbeing, according to Hayes.
“Good planning not only helps to counter viruses but improves general health too, since it reduces the need for cars and tackles obesity.”