Albert Lea Blue Zones Project
- Need: Healthy lifestyles are often difficult to achieve for community members of rural, small-town areas.
- Intervention: The rural community of Albert Lea, as part of the Blue Zones Pilot Project, implemented walking and biking initiatives along with high-level policy systems and environmental changes to promote health and wellness.
- Results: In the past 5 years, there has been a 38% increase in walking and biking among community members, and they have lost a combined total of 8,000 pounds.
The agriculturally-based, rural Minnesotan community of Albert Lea is creating new ways for its members to more readily choose healthy lifestyles. Since 2009, this community has used the Blue Zones framework to increase walkability and promote healthy ways of living. Numerous local businesses, schools, restaurants, grocery stores, public entities, nonprofit organizations, and community members have taken many steps toward increased wellness through this movement.
The pilot project was funded by Blue Zones, LLC and their partners. They have also received funding from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic Health System, Walmart, and many other community organizations.
Albert Lea took the following 3 main steps to transform their community as part of the Blue Zones Project:
Public education campaign
A campaign to emphasize the social acceptance of community wellness was implemented. The following people and places were given the charge to promote walking among community members:
- Local business
- Public agencies
Walking/biking social group organization
In an effort to increase accountability and incentive to get active, community members were encouraged to create informal walking groups. These small groups of 5-10 people, called walking moais, can be found in neighborhoods, worksites, and social groups citywide.
Community events were held, such as “Open Streets Albert Lea,” “Just Play,” and the “Family Bike Rodeo.” These events focused on active living, non-motorized forms of transportation, and viewing the community in a new way while biking and walking.
Appealing public spaces for pedestrians
The following measures were taken to increase the walkability of downtown Albert Lea and its surrounding neighborhoods:
- Unnecessary street lane elimination
- Sidewalk widening
- Diagonal parking restoration
- Replacement of stoplights with stop signs
- “Wayfinding” and “Share the Road” signage
- Shortening of crosswalk distances by extending intersections with sidewalk bumpouts
Additionally, over 8 miles of sidewalks were added to city streets surrounding businesses, schools, and senior centers along with a 5-mile “Blue Zones Walkway” around Fountain Lake which lies in the center of Albert Lea. The city also created a new bikeway that connected its downtown area to a state park.
Below are some results from the road rechannelization project in Albert Lea:
- 90% favorable opinion of the project from residents and businesses after completion
- 15 new businesses have moved into the road rechannelization stretch as a direct result of the project
- Accidents reduced from 13 to 3 since the project was completed
- No truck problems or concerns after project was completed
- 25% increase in downtown property values in this area
- 96% increase in pedestrian traffic in road rechannelization area
- 38% increase in lodging tax revenue over 4-year period since completing project.
- 44% of the adult population of Albert Lea participated in walking moais, logging over 75 million steps in one year.
- No traffic back-up problems and the number of speeding vehicles has dropped considerably
- No problems with cars being able to back onto the road even though there were numerous locations where driveways abutted the road
- Total revitalization of the downtown area led to an average of 2 calls a week from people inquiring about space along the road rechannelization stretch.
The following statistics show the support from the Albert Lea community behind the Blue Zones Project. In all, 40% of Albert Lea residents are involved in some way in the Blue Zones Project:
- 2,464 people joined
- Half of all the Albert Lea's businesses joined: 69 total
- 7 schools joined; all of the students in Kindergarten through 12th grade participated
- 7,821 citizens took action
- 12 free annual events were created to promote community engagement and nurture social networks
- Participating community members lost a combined total of 8,000 pounds.
At the outset of the program, Albert Lea community members created around 30 walking and biking groups that met 3-7 times per week. After 5 years, many of these groups are still thriving and additional groups have been formed.
Albert Lea experienced a 38% increase in walking and biking among community members in the past 5 years.
According to a 2015 Citizen Survey conducted by The City of Albert Lea, 80% of Albert Lea residents found the community very supportive of non-motorized forms of transportation.
A Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index conducted in both July of 2014 and 2016 showed that Albert Lea was over both the national and state averages for being active and productive.
Albert Lea helped Freeborn County improve their health ranking from 68th to 44th out of 87 Minnesota counties.
The City of Albert Lea received a 2016 Local Government Innovation Award for the Blue Zones Project Albert Lea.
All of these indicators reflect the same results: Albert Lea’s built environment supports walking and biking and active living has become an integral part of the community’s culture of well-being.
Sources for more information:
Albert Lea: Operation Transformation, Irish TV show feature, 2017.
“The Minnesota Experiment,” Blue Zones: The Science of Longer Living, 2016 National Geographic
“Blue Zones project helped Albert Lea, Minn., find the benefits of walking,” Star Tribune, 2015
“These Minnesotans Boosted Walking in Their Small Town by 70 Percent. Here's How,” YES! Magazine, 2015
“The Minnesota Miracle,” AARP The Magazine, 2010
“Creating America's Healthiest Hometown,” AARP The Magazine, 2009
Challenges experienced in implementing high-level community initiatives of this type are almost exclusively tied to:
- Building advocacy for changes in the built environment on the community level
- Staff dollars to keep all the initiatives connected and moving in the same direction
Funding partners for built environment projects can also be challenging, but with a good leadership team and dedicated staffing, they can be found.
Sustaining active living initiatives is ultimately a community decision that requires a long-term commitment to funding and staffing dedicated to driving those initiatives.
The most critical component to replicating a successful active living initiative is engaging community leadership on a very high level from across all sectors with this common vision in mind. Albert Lea calls it the "shared leadership model." The leadership team and the resources they are willing to share moving toward a common goal will ultimately determine the level of success.
Wellness, health promotion, and disease prevention
August 26, 2015
August 17, 2017
Please contact the models and innovations contact directly for the most complete and current information about this program. Summaries of models and innovations are provided by RHIhub for your convenience. The programs described are not endorsed by RHIhub or by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. Each rural community should consider whether a particular project or approach is a good match for their community’s needs and capacity. While it is sometimes possible to adapt program components to match your resources, keep in mind that changes to the program design may impact results.