Suffering in the face of the 2008 economic downturn, Albert Lea, Minnesota, was determined to transform its situation. Its leaders eagerly teamed up with Blue Zones in 2009, making Albert Lea the first Blue Zones Pilot Project, applying principles from areas around the world where people lived longer, healthier lives. Pleased with the results of the nine month pilot, Albert Lea has continued on as a Blue Zones Project community addressing built environment, tobacco policy, citizen engagement, and bringing back the downtown.
The commitment to well-being has resulted in numerous measurable impacts for Albert Lea leading incremental changes and sparking chain reactions. Impacts such as:
When Blue Zones and Blue Zones Project began working with Albert Lea in 2009 to transform its policies, places, and people, the focus was on helping people move naturally, eat wisely, connect, and have the right outlook—all of which can lead to living longer, better. To make transformation a reality, city leaders and the Blue Zones Project identified key opportunities for impact and sought pledges from businesses and residents.
In 2009, Blue Zones’ expert Dan Burden led a walking audit of Albert Lea, identifying ways to create more active and healthy living environments centered around people. A Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan was created that identified areas needing improvement to align with the Complete Streets Policy, which Albert Lea was an early adopter of in 2009.
Armed with inspiration and grant money, Albert Lea created bump outs to ensure safe pedestrian crossings and wider sidewalks that provided space for outdoor dining. A five-mile route that was added around a lake within the city was affectionately named the Blue Zones Walkway by Albert Lea, and it now connects to neighborhoods, parks, downtown and past the local hospital. Stop signs were replaced with traffic lights to maintain a smooth traffic flow. Community message boards were added, and a complete park renovation with amphitheater seating provided additional community gathering space.
The improvements sparked a chain reaction of economic development. New businesses relocated to downtown Albert Lea, and the city initiated a mixed-use project to open room for income-limited housing units and commercial space in the historic downtown area.
Blue Zones Project offered local businesses the opportunity to become a designated Blue Zones Worksite by completing an assessment and improvements to increase the long-term well-being of employees, customers, or students.
The simple changes were designed to provide lasting benefits to people’s physical health, emotional health and social relationships. More than 45 worksites have registered with Blue Zones Project and made varying levels of change, the City of Albert Lea being one.
Blue Zones Project also recommended worksite clinics for some of the larger employers in Albert Lea to increase well-being for employees and reduce healthcare costs. Five of the top 20 partnered together to provide their employees with a dedicated worksite clinic, serving approximately 1,650 employees. Two other area worksite also opened clinics. These efforts resulted in considerable savings.
To make healthy food the easy choice for everyone in the community, Blue Zones Project provided guidance on how to offer and bring attention to foods that are more nutritious and tasty.
As a result, one of the local grocery stores implemented changes to its environment, selection of healthy options, and education and promotions to make healthier choices easier for customers.
Grab-n-go breakfast and healthy snack cart programs were introduced in various public schools to help children create healthy habits, and they’ve been highly received by students, educators and parents. An indoor sports arena added healthier options to its concession stand and saw a bump in sales. And the City of Albert Lea has expanded the community garden space 150%, giving residents an opportunity to grow healthy food and socialize in an agricultural environment.
Starting in 2009, Blue Zones Project began working with the City of Albert Lea to drive policy and environmental changes for a measured reduction in tobacco usage.
This included changes for public housing, public parks and events, outdoor dining, as well as partnering with local businesses. Out of 18,000 residents, 4,140 were smokers in 2010, and success had the potential of reducing health care costs by $6,000 per year, per smoker. Given the challenge of trying to implement this change and provide a new outlook toward this important public health issue, the city chose to make incremental moves over time, which have made a big impact.
MEASURABLE IMPACTS THAT TRANSFORMED THE COMMUNITY
The following progress indicators were reported by the City of Albert Lea in 2015, dating back to 2009 if the data was available.
U.S. Surgeon General after his orientation to the Blue Zones Project in the Beach Cities, California