Retired nurse Jean McMurray moved from Illinois to Burnsville last year to be near her son and his family, and since then she's come to love living in Dakota County.

McMurray, 86, said she understands why CNN's Money Magazine has named the county one of the 25 best places for a long life. She heard about the designation not long ago.

"I was very proud to say I am a citizen of Dakota County," said McMurray, who stays active by walking near her retirement home and picking strawberries near Hastings.

In August, the same magazine named four Dakota County cities -- Eagan, Apple Valley, Lakeville and Burnsville -- among the top 100 best places to live in the nation. Plymouth, in Hennepin County, topped the list. Among Minnesota cities, Eagan ranked next highest, at 17th.

And now, in the newest category, Dakota County residents were ranked with a life expectancy of 79.97 years, according to the CNN article, published Sept. 16. No. 1 was Montgomery, Md., where the life expectancy is 81.31 years.

The magazine, describing Dakota as one of the best counties in which to grow old, calls Lebanon Hills Regional Park "the crown jewel in the county's extensive park system, which offers year-round recreation."

County officials say the article affirms that they're on the right track.

"We want people to stay in Dakota County because there's nowhere else that they'd rather be," said Debra Miller, a county analyst. "It's not just about meeting needs or providing services, but really it's because we want people to look around and say, 'Well, out of the top 25 cities, I'm already in one of the top 25.'"

McMurray lives at the Augustana Regent at Burnsville, a senior living complex where she can take the DARTS bus to go shopping or stroll with the help of her walker along Lake Earley.

"They're very health-conscious here, and they suggest 'Use it or you'll lose it,'" she said. "When it's not so nice out, I usually walk in the building."

Livability amenities

By 2030, the county's baby boomers will be ages 64 to 80 and will need more services, from housing to transit. Providing that will contribute to more high rankings for livability in the future, Miller said.

She pointed to a project by Blue Cross/Blue Shield with the counties of Dakota and Hennepin and the Arrowhead Region in Northern Minnesota. It promotes community designs that encourage walking, biking and other activities.

Dubbed "Active Living Community Vision," the project aims to counter trends in which people drive for short trips rather than hoof it or pedal.

To promote community designs that incorporate walkways and trails, the project fosters collaboration among state and local officials such as city planners and engineers, as well as housing authorities, public health professionals and developers.

"It promotes the thoughtful intersection of planning for communities -- the cities and neighborhoods -- with an active lifestyle to promote health and well-being," Miller said.

Dakota County is working on the project in partnership with Eagan and Apple Valley, which both made the list of the top 25, as well as Rosemount and School District 196. Project leaders want to include other communities, too.

Meanwhile, a greenways collaborative is working to provide more paved trails that not only link residents with places they want to go but also provide recreation and protect wildlife habitat.

The intersection of those three goals, Miller said, is just one factor that "makes this a great place to live long term."

"Once that infrastructure is there, it's not going to go away. And it's not just to promote individual health, but also community connectiveness."

The paved greenways are good for people in wheelchairs and provide not only links to parks but also a way for those who are aging to get from residential areas to stores, clinics or eateries without having someone pick them up, Miller said.

Nancy Schouweiler, chairwoman of the Dakota County Board of Commissioners, said leaders strive to make this "a premier county in which to live and work."

Money Magazine is among those recognizing a high quality of life in Dakota County, she said. Its proximity to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul provides good access to jobs, and the county's property taxes are among the state's lowest.

She lauded the Public Health Department's education efforts to prevent falls, obesity and sexually transmitted disease.

Schouweiler said an innovative health department staff has built partnerships with schools, nonprofits and others to help residents stay well. Initiatives include a program called "Living Longer and Stronger."

Many of the programs have been funded by grants. Often, when the outcomes are achieved, the county picks up the funding, recognizing the benefits of keeping such initiatives going.

"The healthier you are," Schouweiler said, "the better able you are to contribute to society, and to work and recreate and enjoy a good quality of life."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017