The Airdrie Blue Zones Project, which sought to make Airdrie “the healthiest community in Canada,” has been shuttered due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Nov. 20, ABZP Executive Director Kent Rupert notified project stakeholders the local Blue Zones initiative would be cancelled.
“While we continue to believe in the difference it will make, we are disappointed to announce that the Airdrie Blue Zones Project, as we have known it, will not be moving forward in the community,” he wrote in an email.
The project's goal was to improve the collective health of Airdrie residents through various means, such as providing nutritious options in stores, restaurants and schools, or by ensuring communities are walkable. The project has been in the works in Airdrie since September 2019.
According to Rupert, much of the Blue Zones model depends on public engagement. Without being able to conduct events, he said it has been "impossible to proceed to test and measure systemic changes" that fall under the Blue Zones philosophy.
"At the local level, we have also heard from many of our larger businesses, school boards, community not-for-profits, local restaurants and local government that they just do not have the capacity to add any new programming to their workloads as they deal with challenges within their own organizations," he said.
Airdrie City council approved $1.5 million in funding to jumpstart the Blue Zone project in November 2018. The City did not respond to a request for comment on the cancellation of the project by press time.
Tony Buettner, the founder of Blue Zones LLP, said the idea of Blue Zones started as a National Geographic study that researched why residents of certain communities live longer, healthier lives than others. The magazine's findings indicated the communities with the highest concentration of centenarians have established social and economic frameworks in place that improve collective health. These frameworks include adequate housing, food security, social safety networks and educational opportunities, among other things.
Had the project not been cancelled, Airdrie would have been the first Canadian city to become a certified Blue Zone community. Buettner, who came to Airdrie to promote the project in 2018, said Blue Zones communities in the U.S. have seen savings in healthcare-related expenses and drops in long-term chronic disease, obesity and smoking rates.
Working alongside Blue Zones LLP to help deliver the project was Airdrie-based Abrio Health. Dave Jackson, the company’s chief technology officer, said one of the philosophies of the project was to empower Airdrie residents to take ownership of their own health decisions.
“It was something that was always a risk because it was such a big project and something new, that had never been done out of the U.S.,” he said. “But we also had such belief and we were so excited about the project and the prospects of what it could do, that we kept pushing.
"When it came time with such a weird environment we have right now, with the pandemic, cuts to Alberta Health Services and different changes in the health system, it was an environment that, as much as we wanted to push, it didn’t make sense to push at this time.”
Even though the project has been cancelled, Rupert said it may be possible to bring the initiative back in the future. He added an interesting consequence of the pandemic was that many people's new habits align with some of the outcomes associated with the Blue Zones philosophy.
"Due to the pandemic, people are choosing to walk more, eat better; we have seen many people grow their own gardens for the first time; family and friend connections have been even more important to us now than they have ever been and people are taking the time to downshift and think about what their purpose is and what is really important to them," he said.