Have you ever wished Palm Springs was a little more like Sardinia, Italy, or Okinawa, Japan? A new initiative wants to transform the city so that at least our health can look a bit more like those cities — two “blue zones” identified by researchers where people tend to live longer than average.
The effort officially moved to the next phase last week, when Nick Buettner, program director of the Blue Zones Project, introduced the concept to city leaders and others. Roughly 100 people attended the event March 15 at Palm Springs Pavilion.
While this may have been the first time that many in the room had heard of the idea, the concept has been in the works at the city level for years.
Former Councilmember Geoff Kors floated the idea in 2021, and it became reality last fall when the city approved $85,000 to fund an assessment from the Blue Zones Project, which will determine ways the city could improve residents’ health at a structural level.
“We have an outstanding quality of life here in Palm Springs and in the valley,” Assistant City Manager Teresa Gallavan said prior to the presentation. “But this is an opportunity to look at how we can make it even better.”
The keynote speech marks the halfway point of the six-month assessment period, Gallavan said. The Blue Zones Project team has already been meeting with members of the community, and will continue to do so over the next few months while also researching the current state of the city. At the end of the assessment period, the team will provide a roadmap of ways the city can improve in order to become a designated Blue Zone.
All communities that are blue zones share a few common characteristics, which Blue Zones Founder Dan Buettner narrowed down to their “Power 9” lifestyle habits, or practices that he and researchers believe may contribute to better longevity and health.
Some advice is familiar, like eating more plants and less meat, and emphasizing movement. What’s unfamiliar is the idea that certain structures in place in blue zones make things like movement a natural and easy choice, rather than putting the responsibility on the individual.
“The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms,” reads an entry from the organization’s website. “Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it.”
“We’re afraid to let our kids walk and bike to school,” Buettner added. “Fifty years ago, there was about one-third the rate of obesity, one-seventh the rate of diabetes, and one-tenth the rate of dementia. People 50 years ago weren’t smarter, but our environment has changed.”
Other lifestyle habits aren’t directly tied to diet or exercise, but have just as much of an effect on health. Residents in Blue Zone communities have more of a sense of belonging and put loved ones first. “The impact of loneliness on your health is about the same as smoking 20 cigarettes a day,” Buettner said. “Isolation kills.”
The Blue Zones Project develops specialized plans for each city that introduce small changes — like putting fruit at the checkout line instead of candy — and big changes — like overhauls in street design and organized volunteer outings.
“We work in partnership with hospital systems, school districts, businesses and the city,” Buettner said. “This project isn’t led by me. It’s led by the community and champions of the community.”
Six cities within Riverside County, including Coachella, are also part of a separate Blue Zones assessment approved by the county. “That makes it easier to work together and collaborate,” Gallavan said. “We have a joint steering committee so we can learn and share resources.”
Once the Palm Springs assessment period is over, the City Council will have a plan from Blue Zones. “That’s where they will decide the scope,” Gallavan said. “It could be a several-year, multi-million dollar investment, or a more phased approach that prioritizes certain areas.”
Whatever the city decides, Mayor Grace Garner said she wants to make sure no one is left out of the conversation.
“We’re here to think about what’s possible when we start to think about our health and wellbeing,” she said. “And not just for the people who have money, but for everyone.”