Aug 18, 2015 by


With sun and sea, prosperity and progressive politics, residents of this enclave west of Los Angeles appear blessed indeed. Yet research by the Wellbeing Project has exposed tensions that carry interesting implications for cities everywhere
Santa Monica is home to miles of coastline, the Santa Monica mountains and striking southern-Californian architecture.
Santa Monica is home to miles of coastline, mountains and striking southern-Californian architecture. Photograph: Wendy Connett/Alamy
Colin Marshall



Those who envision themselves living in Santa Monica, the wealthy and politically progressive coastal enclave west of Los Angeles, no doubt envision themselves living happily there. It would seem to have everything: miles of coastline with beaches open to all, the striking Santa Monica mountains just to the north, plenty of equally striking southern-Californian architecture (its many celebrity residents include the illustrious architect Frank Gehry), top-rated schools, police and firefighters, and, of course, that world-famous pier.

It has also avoided some of the problems that plague Los Angeles, from the financial (its general fund reserve exceeds that of LA, which has over 40 times Santa Monica’s population) to the cultural (that population itself – among which you more often hear British accents than the babel of tongues that characterise the big city just east – appears to get along without much visible conflict). Given this sun, sea, stability and prosperity, one would imagine that one’s wellbeing would take care of itself.

However, starting in 2013, the city of Santa Monica began developing a means by which to gauge, both objectively and subjectively, whether its citizens really do enjoy such a famously high quality of life. The Wellbeing Project, funded by a million-dollar grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ first Mayors Challenge, a competition meant to spur city leaders to come up with, in the words of founder and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, “innovative new ways to address urban challenges – and then share what’s working with the world”.

The same year the Mayors Challenge awarded a grant to Santa Monica for the Wellbeing Project, it also awarded grants to four other American cities – Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Providence – to fund their own ideas. As the smallest in that cohort by a wide margin, Santa Monica looked like an outlier from the beginning, but its modest size also made its proposal more viable, given its stated ambition of not just breaking down overall quality of life into a set of measurable factors, but actually going out and measuring them in its population of 93,000.

Santa Monica’s impressive branding of the Wellbeing Project, an effort with serious resources behind it, begins with the word “wellbeing” itself – who, anywhere, could argue they don’t want more of it? But its wide range of meanings is also something of a liability, as the Wellbeing Project has faced the challenge defining it both as precisely and as unobjectionably as possible. The resulting Wellbeing Index measures Santa Monicans’ quality of life across six broad categories: outlook, community, place, learning, health and opportunity.

If Santa Monica can’t be an exemplary model then what hope is there for Jakarta or Johannesburg …
Rick Cole

The Wellbeing Index measures Santa Monicans’ quality of life across six broad categories: outlook, community, place, learning, health, and opportunity.

The Wellbeing Index measures Santa Monicans’ quality of life across six broad categories: outlook, community, place, learning, health, and opportunity. Photograph: P Eoche/Getty

Undergirding these feel-good words with suitably rigorous methods of data collection – as well as determining what data to collect in the first place – called for a series of high-profile partnerships. The City of Santa Monica enlisted as its research partner the Rand Corporation, a policy thinktank known for its sternly cerebral image and history of work with the US military (and conveniently located in an office across the street from Santa Monica’s city hall). Rand, in turn, partnered with the New Economics Foundation, another thinktank, based in London, with experience in the emerging field of happiness research and its integration with traditional forms of economic assessment.

This alliance assembled the Wellbeing Index by gathering information on three fronts: conducting a survey of 2,200 adult Santa Monica residents in autumn of 2014; assembling relevant administrative data already held by the City of Santa Monica (from, for example, the police department, the bus system, or the libraries) and other entities (such as the American Community Survey and the California Health Interview Survey), and tracking the opinions (or, in the Wellbeing Project’s terminology, “sentiment data”) of Santa Monicans aired directly on social media services such as Twitter and Foursquare.

The Wellbeing Project released its first report, Creating a city for wellbeing, in April, which offered a host of encouraging, if unsurprising, findings – “Residents are generally satisfied with life and most have time to do things they enjoy” … “engaging in more frequent social interactions and spending time outdoors are highly correlated with higher personal wellbeing” – as well as such mild causes for concern as “middle-age groups report greater stress and difficulties with work-life balance”.

But one category of finding has taken many involved with the Wellbeing Project by surprise: Santa Monicans “reported high levels of trust in the neighbourhoods in which they live, but still not enough day-to-day connection with neighbourhoods”. Indeed, few “felt they could actually count on the people in the neighborhood” if it came down to it, relative to the responses given in similar surveys nationwide.

The research also discovered that, “while many residents were engaged in volunteering and voted in general elections, relatively few felt they had influence in affecting decisions in Santa Monica”. Their “high number of neutral positions on these questions” suggested “a certain level of apathy with regard to these issues” – a troubling revelation, surely, for a city that prides itself on its reputation for high civic engagement.

Ana Jara, a Santa Monica-born community leader, worked on Cradle to Career, a data-driven project focused on youth wellbeing, which could be considered the Wellbeing Project’s predecessor. She recalls her surprise upon first reading of the Wellbeing Index’s reflection of this widespread sense of civic disengagement – especially among the young and more recent arrivals to the city – so starkly did it contrast with her own personal experience of Santa Monica as place of classically tight-knit small-town social fabric.
Santa Monica has remained a city where each person is stuck in a car.

Santa Monica has largely remained a city where ‘each person is stuck in a car’. Photograph: George Rose/Getty

To explain this fragmentation, Jara points first to the way Santa Monica has, on the whole, remained a city “where we’re each stuck in a car”; one where, according to the Wellbeing Project’s data, most residents (44% of whom don’t live within five minutes’ walk of either goods or services) drive alone to work. Despite Los Angeles County’s ambitious construction of urban rail over the past 25 years, much of Santa Monica – whose first and only planned link to the system won’t enter service until next year – has held to the stolid suburban car dependence of the region’s affluent west side. (It lends a certain irony to the Wellbeing Project’s Mayors Challenge entry video, set entirely on city buses.)

The city also suffers from a long-standing aversion to high-density development, which contributes to the problem Jara laments even more emphatically: housing. Approximately one-fifth of the Wellbeing Project’s survey respondents expressed worries about paying their rent or mortgage, but they, by definition, are the lucky ones, those who manage to live in Santa Monica at all. Many, no matter how rooted in the community, have had to move outside the ever-more-expensive low-rise city’s boundaries and work on “trying to find a way back in” — including no less a dyed-in-the-wool Santa Monican than Jara herself.

Jason Islas, editor of Santa Monica Next, a news site oriented toward the city’s future and with a younger demographic than the Santa Monica median age (40.2, according to the Wellbeing Project), points to a variety of factors that make life unnecessarily difficult for that generation of residents. The list begins with a forbidding political culture characterised by deeply acrimonious five-hour city council meetings and culminates in the persistent “urbanophobia” that has kept the city’s housing stock artificially low, scarce and expensive.

“As someone who grew up in Santa Monica, I would say the single hardest thing is the cost of living,” says Islas. “Yes, Santa Monica is one of the more desirable places to live, so rents are always going to be higher than other places in the county, but if you have a political culture that’s resistant to building housing, you’re adding to the pile of affordability issues. Here, you spend most of your twenties trying to keep your head above water; you don’t have time to start a family. That affects our wellbeing. If you’re spending 50%-60% of your pay on rent, you don’t have money to go to concerts with your friends, to go out and eat – the things that help us socialise and make connections in our community.”

As someone who grew up in Santa Monica, I would say the single hardest thing is the cost of living
Jason Islas

‘Santa Monica is one of the more desirable places to live, so rents are always going to be higher than other places in the county.’

‘Santa Monica is one of the more desirable places to live, so rents are always going to be higher than other places in the county.’ Photograph: Jon Hicks/Corbis

Islas cites such Wellbeing Project statistics as the 53% of Santa Monicans who report concern over their children’s prospects of affording life in the city. But how to bring this information to bear on these issues? The short history between happiness measurement and governance offers few encouraging examples. Early materials from the Wellbeing Project looked to Bhutan, the poor Himalayan kingdom that famously declared its commitment not to gross domestic product (GDP) but “gross national happiness” – which critics such as the Financial Times’ Alan Beattie call “a deeply illiberal means of legitimising undemocratic rule [that] has distracted from much more constructive and democratic ideas of running countries in the interests of their citizens’ wider wellbeing”.

Though it may boast an actively left-leaning city government, the People’s Republic of Santa Monica – as both its loudest critics and fans call it – hardly counts as similarly autocratic. More than a world away from the subsistence farmers of Bhutan, the Wellbeing Project’s report recognises (albeit in passively bureaucratic language) where its own challenge lies: “While there has been increasing national, state and local focus on wellness and to some extent even wellbeing (see Seattle’s Happiness Index, the Gallup Healthways Well-being Index), there has been far less focus on how to translate that information into meaningful action that can be executed by communities as a whole.”

Very few officials, in other words, have actually chosen to steer by the “wellbeing measurement dashboards” so far engineered. Will Santa Monica’s choose differently? With the data collected and the findings released, the operation seems to have entered a wait-and-see phase – or, as the report puts it, a time “to ensure the data motivate community discussions about potential solutions”.

“The Wellbeing Project is equipped to inform,” says Islas. “It’s really a question of what leaders do with that information. My concern is that ideology would trump good decision-making … People talk about the need for affordable housing, but what policies have we adopted that would actually make that a reality?” In fact, the city recently voted to remove the option of building new four- and five-storey mixed-use residential buildings along its major boulevards.

Some decision-makers have their own ideas about how to use the Wellbeing Project’s data: mayor Kevin McKeown (an opponent of those new residential buildings) mentions that its documentation of the high stress felt by residents of houses in the vicinity of Santa Monica airport will provide valuable evidence in his case against the city’s obligation to run an airport at all.
The city recently voted to remove the option of building new four- and five-story mixed-use residential buildings along its major boulevards.

The city recently voted to remove the option of building new four- and five-storey mixed-use residential buildings along its major boulevards. Photograph: Getty Images/Lonely Planet/Jean-Pierre Lescourret

“We’ve always had to rely on intuition, common sense and good intentions,” says McKeown. “Now we have data.” The Wellbeing Project has, at least at this early stage, looked like an important step toward putting Santa Monica at the forefront of the much-discussed age of the ‘data-driven city’, where constant streams of precision-collected information curated for maximum relevance – a kind of perpetually updated Wellbeing Index – would enable both residents and officials to make more beneficial choices for the community and for themselves.

This ideal harmonises well with Santa Monica’s recent hiring of Rick Cole as city manager, who is a well-respected if peripatetic Southern California city official and high-profile advocate of “data-driven governance”, who has spent the last two years as Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s deputy for budget and innovation. He, too, sees setting a global example as a significant part the city’s mission: “If, with all of our educational and financial resources, Santa Monica can’t be an exemplary model,” he said in an interview with Islas, “then what hope is there for Jakarta or Johannesburg or Manila or Kinshasa or, for that matter, Shanghai and Shenzhen?”
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Los Angeles, as Cole put it in a much-quoted parting shot, “is not designed to work”. Santa Monica, by contrast – or so its well-established community partisans might tell you — is. McKeown tells of receiving complaints that the city fixes potholes too frequently, which would certainly never make the long list of resident grievances in Los Angeles.

The Wellbeing Project could, it seems, have no more suitable proving ground than this compact, manageable (in Cole’s words) “cool city that has money” – but what about the larger, considerably more troubled metropolises of the world, starting with the one just past Santa Monica’s city limits?

That question interests Bloomberg Philanthropies above all others. “Santa Monica is regarded as a fairly special place,” says James Anderson, leader of Bloomberg’s public sector innovation programmes, “but the idea is one that mayors everywhere are contending with. Is this a solution that addresses issues many cities face? Does it require any ‘special sauce’ that may be present in one locality but not others? We actually think this idea very much passed those tests. It’s an idea other cities can readily implement, and Santa Monica is creating a toolkit, a playbook, that will allow other cities to follow.”

Or, in Islas’s words: “If Santa Monica can’t do it, what hope is there for places that don’t have the resources it has?”



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