Blue Zones hopes for healthier harbor

Longevity initiative looks forward to helping with big projects: parks, trails, food access

After several years of planning and nearly a year of development, Blue Zones, the initiative that aims to boost longevity and happiness in Grays Harbor County based on lifestyle principles from around the world, is ready to begin work on nine projects tailored toward that goal.

On Saturday, Nov. 4, Blue Zones will host a kickoff event at Summit Pacific Medical Center to inform the public and set the stage for changes and improvements to community spaces and food systems that, if all goes to plan, will be ready for implementation at the end of the next two years.

“Basically, it’s go time,” said Chris Frye, executive director with Blue Zones in Grays Harbor. “We want everybody to know what projects to anticipate, as well as if you want to get involved, not just as an individual, but your association, your employer. You could get involved at a variety of different levels.”

At Saturday’s event, which will last from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., attendees will get a taste and a glimpse of what Blue Zones is all about with activities like walking the hospital’s trail loop, ascending its rock wall, sampling wine, cheese and foods from the healthiest communities on earth, and potentially earning a free trip to a spa.

Nick Buettner, a co-founder of Blue Zones, LLC, will be a guest speaker at the event. His brother, Dan, founded the company almost two decades ago after he set out on a 2004 National Geographic expedition across the globe to pinpoint the specific aspects of lifestyle and environment that lead to longer living. His team located five geographic areas with the highest percentage of centenarians, or 100-year-olds: Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Okinawa, Japan.

Those areas were dubbed “Blue Zones.”

Further research sought to find similarities between lifestyle practices in each area and found nine common denominators, including natural movement, a plant-based and moderated diet, healthy social and familial circles, stress-relieving activities and even the consistent consumption of limited amounts of alcohol.

Dan Buettner eventually published a book on the subject in 2008 and the company began piloting the concept in American cities. They applied the principles first to a small town in Minnesota, then moved to the beach communities of California, and on to Iowa.

According to a 2016 study authored by Buettner and published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, smoking rates in test cities dropped anywhere from 10-30%, and body mass index dropped 10-15%. The Minnesota residents now live longer by three years and has overall lower healthcare costs.

Today Blue Zones is active in about two dozen communities across the country, including five in Washington state: Walla Walla and Spanaway, where the company has implemented projects; and Mason, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties, where ideas are still being developed.

Grays Harbor County stacks up as one of the unhealthiest in the state based on life expectancy and quality, according to the 2022 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The county has higher rates of smoking and obesity than the statewide average, and fewer access opportunities to exercise by a factor of one-fifth.

Those statistics were incorporated into Summit Pacific Medical Center’s community health needs assessment for the next two years. The hospital played a large role in bringing Blue Zones to Grays Harbor, including launching an initial study to see if the community was interested in the concept. The assessment was backed by a $25,000 contribution from the Grays Harbor Board of County Commissioners.

Frye, who lives in Hoquiam, has spent about one year as executive director of the local project. He’s spent that time reaching out to local governments, nonprofits, agencies, other leaders and people from different facets of the community. A similar group met at a summit held in Aberdeen this summer. They exchanged ideas about potential projects for improvements to public spaces and food systems, which then bounced back and forth between Grays Harbor and a national Blue Zones team, ultimately whittling a long list down to nine projects.

“Since we started here in Grays Harbor, everything about Blue Zones has been about education and discovery, trying to get people engaged and aware of Blue Zones, but also trying to identify those projects that are the action plan,” Frye said. “We’ve done that now.”

County-wide plans

Potential Blue Zones projects span from Ocean Shores to Elma, and might touch anywhere in between.

The largest in scope are two projects that would serve the entire region: a centrally-located park and a county-wide trail system. According to Blue Zones’ final action plan, the park idea is intended to address “community disconnection” discovered during conversations with local leaders, and provide an opportunity to “unite toward a shared goal.”

A county-wide trail system linking nearby neighborhoods, cities and nature trails, the plan states, would be within a 20-40 minute drive for all residents of the county.

“Regardless of where it is, it’s great in our county,” said Brian Shay, city administrator with the city of Hoquiam. “It’d be awesome to have a park like that. I feel like we should think bigger as individual communities to try to bring in a regional facility like that.”

“If we want to catch up and be on par with some of the other communities for health and wellness, we need those types of facilities,” he added.

A third project would help Hoquiam create a looped walking and biking path system in coordination with the upcoming levee project. Shay said the city already planned to incorporate trails into the levee system, and that aligned with the goals of Blue Zones.

For Hoquiam’s west levee, Shay said, “Anywhere there’s an earthen berm, our goal is to have a walking path and/or bike path on top of the levee.”

Similarly, the city of Ocean Shores has recently examined ways to make walking and biking easier in a town mostly free of sidewalks and bike lanes. It recently completed a three-quarter mile trail through the sand dunes, and the city’s planning commission outlined a series of potential improvements to address that issue, including multi-use trails, bike paths, and crosswalks and sidewalks on its busiest street.

Blue Zones hopes to assist with a wayfinding system, and has already identified funding to provide bike racks, according to Ocean Shores Project Manager Becky Leach.

“To the extent that we can get people out and moving in the city and allow those kinds of venues to get them out and moving, it’s great,” said Ocean Shores City Administrator Scott Andersen.

Blue Zones will partner with local governments or other agencies to apply for grants for projects, Frye said, but would not be in charge of administering any of the funds.

“Nothing is ever just ‘hey, Blue Zones is going to do this,’” Frye said. “Everything we do is through community.”

That’s beneficial for a city with limited resources, said Josh Collette, a member of the Elma City Council who got involved with Blue Zones in 2021. The small city doesn’t have a grant writer on staff, but Collette said Blue Zones could help fill that role, particularly as the city looks to fund improvements to public infrastructure that have taken a backseat to other priorities.

The company identified enhancements to Elma’s Main Street and a community walking loop as future projects. Collette said those could entail adding dynamic crosswalks and signage to the street.

“Little improvements, I think, would have a big impact, and then build momentum and community support to take on bigger projects,” he said.

The final project tailored toward “built environment” would be to host a training event for local housing developers in Hoquiam with the goal of increasing middle housing capacity.

Physical projects are only part of what Blue Zones has planned for Grays Harbor County. The other part is food policy, projects that aim to expand local food incentive programs from local farms and develop support for local gardeners and growers in coordination with food organizations.

The first step, however, will be to set up a food policy council that will suggest changes to local systems. Frye said a similar council existed previously in Grays Harbor County but had fizzled out in recent years, and Blue Zones could be the glue to hold it together.

“Food isn’t really something that gets talked about a lot on a larger scale,” said Kimberly McLaury, who coordinates the local supplemental nutrition program for Women Infants and Children through Grays Harbor County Public Health. “I feel like just being together as a group, and maybe with Blue Zones helping us figure out what the vision is and who is going to be in a leadership position, that could be helpful in the future.”

It’s unrealistic to expect each of these projects to be fully constructed or completed within the next two years, Frye said, but the goal is to have funding, plans and permits lined up by that time, when Blue Zones would then decide whether or not to roll into the next phase. Frye said he will spend the next two months adding members to the Blue Zones committees before beginning to actively pursue projects in January.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or