Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Am I blue

The City of Cedar Rapids is participating in the Blue Zones Project, a nationwide initiative run out of Tennessee by Healthways Inc., and sponsored in Iowa by Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield (by far the largest health insurance provider in the state). Blue Zones promotes healthy living through exercise, dietary choices and positive attitudes. (The Blue Zones folk tend to longer lists, like the Power 9 list of healthy lifestyle habits, and the 11 Blueprint sections at last night's open house. Anyone who's taken my classes knows that a list of more than five things makes me woozy, so I have condensed it down to three major areas.)

Monday night there was an open house at Coe College. Volunteers from Blue Zones, the city, and maybe other organizations solicited opinions from visitors. Look at all the blue t-shirts!

Blue Zones operates a wide range of initiatives, seemingly on the theory that if they can start people talking about a variety of dimensions of healthy living, and achieve results on even a few of them, they will have done a great deal of good. I like that theory.

City design is one of their areas of interest, as indeed it is one of mine. From their website:

A community's streets, sidewalks and trails help people bike and walk more. Many cities have used the same techniques as the Blue Zones Project™ does to increase pedestrian and bike safety in roads, expand and build bike lanes and maintain sidewalks. These kinds of improvements allow for great sources of exercise for individuals and makes a community more livable overall.

Many people in Cedar Rapids are already using such pathways to get some exercise--some just because they feel like it, and a greater number because they own dogs. This is definitely something to be said in favor of dogs, who need walks throughout the year, and not just when it's nice out as it is now.

In trying to get more people to exercise, Blue Zones focuses on persuasion as well as more/better pathways. That may not work, though, for many people who don't own dogs and aren't self-motivated to walk. What they need is some place to go that's easiest to get to on foot. A lot of areas in any city as sprawled as Cedar Rapids don't have anything like that. Even in my close-in neighborhood, the only place within a five-minute walk is Brucemore (which admittedly is pretty special). Better city design needs not only more sidewalks and bike lanes, but more places to walk and bike to. [As I waited to write on the comment sheet, I noticed the woman in front of me was the first one to mention needing places to walk. Points for her! But then she used the example of the walking area at the proposed redesign of Westdale, which will in fact be a walking area you can only get to by car. Arggh.]

Along the same lines, Blue Zones encourages work places to provide exercise areas for employees and time to use them. Coe rocks in this area, with our pool, racquet courts, and two workout rooms. We are a college with traditional-age students, after all. But I think businesses can help a lot just by where they choose to locate. To pick unfairly on one business, Aegon USA might well have all that stuff, but they're on their own huge campus a long way from anywhere. Just to get across the parking lot is a long walk. Contrast that with CRST, which is locating their new office downtown. Even if they don't have fancy exercise equipment, they're close to restaurants, coffee houses and other places people can walk to on their lunch hours a lot more easily than they can drive anywhere.

One of the interesting walking ideas Blue Zones is promoting is the "walking school bus," where parents and/or community volunteers escort children to their neighborhood school.
(a "walking school bus" in action, from the Blue Zones website)

I think this is a great idea, and if I didn't typically have to be at work before school starts I would cheerfully volunteer. One problem is schools like the recently-built Viola Gibson School, located on busy and unwalkable Blairs Ferry Road. Another problem, in fact the problem in my own neighborhood, is that parents tend to opt out of Johnson School, even though it's about three blocks away, because it has been designated a School In Need of Assistance. So they drive their children to schools farther away.

Conversations about healthy living are conversations worth having. A lot can be done without persuasion, which some may consider to be scolding, if we pay attention to what Hester (Design for Ecological Democracy, 2006) calls "impelling form."

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