2020 Lane Reports

Apply the lessons of the 'blue zones' to the people who live here

Monday, August 3, 2020 10:00 am
by Marc J. Lane

crains chicago


How we redesign Chicago and set its priorities will define who we become, how healthy we are, how long we live and how habitable our city remains.

Photo: Getty Images

We should have expected COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black, Hispanic and poor Chicagoans. The unconscionable inadequacy of their health care, the disgrace of food deserts, the diminishing returns of food stamps, and the isolation, alienation and depression that blanket the city’s distressed neighborhoods have inevitably led to that outcome. Making matters worse, those who bear the brunt of economic inequality and injustice also constitute much of our “essential” workforce, many of whom have been denied the ability to practice social distancing or shelter safely at home.

Chicagoans of good will urgently seek to heal the wounds of a city in crisis, only exacerbated by the killing of George Floyd. We find ourselves at a turning point, sharing a new opportunity to increase our capacity for empathy, reconciliation and compassion along with our collective resilience to future shocks.

As we join forces to combat the agony of poverty and the terror of institutional racism, Dan Buettner’s research is instructive. Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, has identified the Earth’s “blue zones,” where people live the longest while remaining the healthiest, without medication or disability. One can reasonably infer they may also be among the happiest people in the world.

The blue zones include the mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia that boast the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians; Ikaria, Greece, an Aegean island with one of the world’s lowest rates of dementia; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, whose middle-age mortality rates are the lowest in the world; Loma Linda, California, whose Seventh Day Adventists live, on average, a decade longer than their co-religionists elsewhere in North America; and Okinawa, Japan, where women over 70 are the longest-lived population on earth.

Dissimilar as they are, blue zone residents find common ground in a lifestyle that values a healthy diet, daily exercise, family and purpose. They also prize meaningful relationships with others like themselves. In Buettner’s words, “To belong is to live long.”

Funding well-being is investing in social change. So Chicago’s policymakers, business leaders and institutional investors — all agents of change — should apply the lessons of the blue zones to the people who live here.

For starters, let’s make nutritious food readily available in all the city’s communities while also publicly funding food distribution programs like Chicago Public Schools’ Grab and Go sites. Let’s equitably invest in the prevention of chronic diseases, and ensure that adequate mental health and substance abuse resources can be found in every neighborhood. Let’s promote accessible, affordable housing in diverse, but cohesive communities where anyone would be proud to live. Let’s allocate resources among public schools fairly, and recommit to vocational training and retraining so the unemployed and underemployed can secure satisfying jobs that pay decent wages. And while we reconsider the city’s public safety paradigm, let’s demand that our police officers employ best practices in crisis intervention, de-escalation, procedural justice and the use of force.

In short, let’s heed the clarion call to action and empower all of Chicago’s communities to claim the better future within our reach.

Marc J. Lane is a Chicago attorney and financial adviser and vice chair of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation.

Reprinted from Marc Lane's May 4, 2020 editorial which appeared in Crain's Chicago Business. Crain Communication Inc.'s permission is gratefully acknowledged. Copyright © 2020 by Crain’s Communications Inc.

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