California city using $1M to evaluate its happiness

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — As Eileen Brown and her dog stand on a bluff at Santa Monica’s Palisades Park and survey endless miles of sparkling blue ocean, clear skies and shimmering sandy beaches, she ponders how life could possibly get any better in this corner of paradise.

“Really, it seems just about perfect,” the Los Angeles woman concludes.

There’s a picturesque pier off in the distance with an old-fashioned merry-go-round that stands nearly side-by-side with the world’s first solar-powered Ferris wheel. The sun is shining brightly, the temperature is a pleasant 79 degrees and a light sea breeze makes everything feel just right.

But there’s also loads of traffic and a high cost of living, two things that recently prompted the real estate blog Movoto to rate Santa Monica No. 2 on its Top 10 list of America’s Most Stressed-Out Suburbs.

To do something about that, the city of 92,000 applied last year for a Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge grant, proposing that it create a “Wellbeing Project” to determine just how much people in this picture-postcard town really like living here. Santa Monica beat out 300 other U.S. cities in securing $1 million.

This week, officials will begin asking residents how involved they are in community activities, if they know who to turn to in times of crisis, if they know their neighbors, how healthy they are, how lonely they might be and how good an education they believe their kids are receiving. Then they’ll examine what changes are needed to make life better.

“It’s really about trying to get a much clearer understanding of who the people of Santa Monica are, what they are doing and what we can do on a local government level to help ensure people are thriving,” said Julie Rusk, assistant director of community and cultural services.

Some of the other four cities that won grants are going the more traditional route. Houston, for example, plans on building a better trash-collection system.

Rusk says Santa Monica came up with The Wellbeing Project after the launch of its Cradle to Career Initiative in 2011. That effort, to learn how students felt about themselves, began after a tragic period that included a teenager committing suicide by throwing himself off a high-rise hotel.

“What we found out was only a third of kindergarteners were really ready socially, emotionally, physically, cognitively, for kindergarten,” Rusk said.

In a community where more than three quarters of adults have college degrees, that was a stunning discovery.

About that same time, the city learned its efforts to promote health and fitness might have gotten out of hand when residents complained that commercial trainers had turned Palisades Park into an open-air gymnasium, making it difficult to do anything else there.

After months of debate, the city restricted who could use parks for commercial purposes. And on a recent weekday, there wasn’t a weight machine or yoga mat in sight at Palisades Park.

Instead, it was filled with people having picnics, jugglers, skateboarders, strollers, dog walkers, musicians and someone operating a bubble-making machine.

If The Wellbeing Project works as they hope, city officials could tweak other public services.

Brown, who loads her dog into the car a couple times a month and travels to the park to unwind, couldn’t see too many things to improve. The site of numerous homeless people sprawled out in the shadow of beach-front condominiums did trouble her, however. Brown said she avoids the city’s notoriously traffic-choked freeway by taking surface streets from downtown LA.

The locals cite the traffic jams, the homelessness and the cost of living as problems that make Santa Monica not quite as pleasant as outsiders think.

“We’re choking on gridlock from overdevelopment,” says 30-year resident Tricia Crane, who complained of watching the city transform from a quiet beach town of cottage-style homes and modest two-story apartments to one of high-rise condos and apartments with high mortgages and rents. The median price of a home is $992,000.

Soon, says street musician Charles Baker Jr., paradise could become the province of just the rich.

“The way it’s going, nobody is going to be able to afford to live here anymore,” he said as he sat in the park with his keyboard.

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