Celebrate 'Blue'

Friday, November 30, 2012
Blue Zone volunteer Angela Armstrong instructs Amy Knoup through the registration process during the Blue Zone roll-out at the Clay County Regional Events Center on Thursday, November 29. Spencer is the first community in northwest Iowa to participate in the demonstration project, which is designed to build healthy lifestyles on a community-wide basis. (Photo by Michael Fischer)

For seven months, the Power 9 and Leadership teams involved in the Spencer Blue Zones project have been working hard to raise awareness and to brainstorm what Spencer would look like as a Blue Zones Certified community.

Blue Zones creator Dan Buettner spoke at the celebration event Thursday night, alongside Walkable Livable Communities Institute Executive Director Dan Burden and Spencer City Manager Bob Fagan. Buettner has traveled the globe researching environmental similarities in the areas of the world with the highest level of wellness, from Sardinia, Italy, to the San Bernadino Valley in California. (Photo by Michael Fischer)

Those seven months culminated into one event Thursday night, when the teams joined members of the community to celebrate Spencer becoming an official Blue Zones demonstration site in Iowa.

"This is such a special night for Spencer," Emcee Kevin Tlam said.

Speakers at the event included Blue Zones creator Dan Buettner, Walkable Livable Communities Institute Executive Director Dan Burden, Wellmark Executive Vice President of Healthcare and Strategy Laura Jackson, and Spencer City Manager Bob Fagan.

"I am completely blown away by this town," Jackson said. "Clearly we found passion in this community."

Buettner detailed his study of the Blue Zones of the world, areas that show the greatest longevity and wellness of their citizens. One of those areas, he noted, is an island off the coast of Italy known as Sardinia.

Author Dan Buettner, who introduced the Blue Zone concept in his groundbreaking best seller, speaks to a large crowd at the Clay County Regional Events Center on Thursday, November 27. Buettner, was in Spencer as part of the roll-out of the Blue Zone demonstration site. (Photo by Michael Fischer)

"In America, we celebrate youth," Buettner said, "but in Sardinia the older you get, the better you are."

Sardinia's secret, he noted, is a strong sense of community.

"Life expectancy is eight years shorter for those who live alone than it is for those who have others around them," Buettner said. "It's the same as smoking."

In Okinawa, Japan, there is no word for "retirement," because the people of Okinawa see no purpose in stopping the life they know and love.

"In Okinawa, the whole idea of getting to 65 just to quit working is foreign. There are 102-year-old men still teaching karate."

The third Blue Zone he mentioned was in the heart of the San Bernadino Valley, "right under the L.A. smog and right next to a Del Taco and a Weiner Hut." Their secret, Buettner realized, was in their belief system. The highest concentration of Seventh-Day Adventists lives here, and their faith keeps them alive in a very literal way.

The nine things he found similar in each of the Blue Zones are the nine changes he believes can change the environment of Spencer and of Iowa.

"What we hope to do in the next 18 months we hope to be permanent," he said. "Simply change people's surrounding, so they don't have to think about the changes they're making."

He continued. "There's a lot of money to be made in diet and exercise in America. But, even if there's a supplement to reverse aging, and there isn't one proven, Americans wouldn't take it long enough to make a difference. We want longevity to happen without having to think much of it."

While Buettner focused on subtle individual changes within the community, Burden focused on much larger changes for the community, by way of street and landscape efficiency.

"As we get older, we realize we forgot to build the environment that works for us," he said. "What you build for the people, you're building for beauty."

Burden noted implementing a "road diet" in other communities he's worked in; how they can take away unnecessary lanes from the road and "move traffic just as well if not better."

Burden's focus is to create Spencer as a space for members of the community to live among, not just in. By offering suggestions to create the city for beauty, Burden hopes to encourage the community to walk more along the streets instead of driving to their destination, or to sit at a sidewalk cafe and enjoy a cup of coffee with friends.

"We have the technology to get to the moon and back, but we can't walk our child to and from school," Burden said. "We're talking about bringing back prosperity."

Both Buettner and Burden are encouraged by the passion and motivation they see already in the Spencer community.

"You have built one of the more beautiful communities that I've found in northwest Iowa," Burden said. "The Midwest needs inspiration from other towns in the Midwest."

"Spencer is a city where the leadership works well together," Buettner said. "We see a community who is jazzed, a community who partners in innovation."

Spencer City Manager Bob Fagan concluded the speeches with a personal story of his own drastic health improvements over the past seven months.

"They're not selling us anything," Fagan said. "They're here for us."

He continued. "There are 900+ cities in the state of Iowa, but we are one of four chosen to be a Blue Zones site. And we want to be the first certified Blue Zones community in the world.

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