Nov 9, 2023 - News

South Phoenix "Blue Zone" project hopes to increase life spans

Illustration of two houses in a neighborhood connected by a dotted heart.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Where you live can dictate how long — and how well — you live, and community leaders in south Phoenix hope an international longevity roadmap will help them build healthier neighborhoods in some of the Valley's least healthy zip codes.

Why it matters: The typical south Phoenix native lives 14 years shorter than those born a few miles away in north Scottsdale, according to a 2015 Virginia Commonwealth University study.

  • This part of the Valley — where 84% of residents are Black or Latino, per an Equality Health Foundation analysis — has high rates of diabetes and obesity.

What's happening: Equality Health Foundation is leading a campaign to implement a model called "Blue Zones" to change the built environment in south Phoenix to encourage natural movement, community connection and healthy eating.

Catch up quick: Over the past two decades, National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner has identified five communities with the longest-living people.

  • He took lessons learned from centenarians (people older than 100) there and established the "Blue Zone" model for longevity, which focuses on community change — like creating walkable neighborhoods and easy access to fresh vegetables — instead of individual behavioral change.
  • The theory has been re-popularized by the Netflix documentary "Live to 100: Secrets of Blue Zones," released in August.

The latest: Buettner and his team are now looking to create Blue Zones in the U.S., and south Phoenix is one of the first communities to give it a shot. The area's relatively low life expectancy and deep community and cultural bonds make it ripe for opportunity, Equality Health Foundation president Tomás León tells Axios Phoenix.

What they found: For Blue Zones to work, they must be community-driven, so Equality Health has spent the past year hosting listening sessions to chart an action plan.

  • South Phoenix residents engaged through these sessions most often cited a lack of access to medical care, safe outdoor spaces for exercise, affordable housing, transportation and healthy food as major concerns, León says.

What's next: Equality Health is fundraising with the intent of enacting a five-year Blue Zone plan by early next year.

  • León told us it's important to move quickly to prove to residents this isn't another gimmick, but a real way they can work together to make their community healthier.

What they're saying: "This is a community that has been assessed a lot. There's been research. There's been organizations that come in and promise all these things," León says. "There is a level of readiness that can move us into action pretty quickly."


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