Is it always sunny in Santa Monica? The city works to improve citizens' well-being

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The City of Santa Monica seems to have it all: gorgeous beaches, tree-lined streets, smooth roads without potholes.

But the city is worried about people’s happiness, and has founded an Office of Civic Wellbeing. It is taking cues from a growing global movement to elevate quality of life as a societal goal and has its roots in Bhutan and the king’s “gross national happiness” index. 

So does it have anything to do with the personal wellness enjoyed by many Santa Monicans, such as yoga, mindfulness and spas?

Well-being has more to do with social connection, says Julie Rusk, director of the office. She tells DnA, “We live in an incredibly beautiful, connected place and we're really lucky to be here. And I think we have a responsibility to figure out how we can address some of the things that aren't so good.”

These challenges include young people’s mental health. The office was founded in 2014 following a string of deaths among Santa Monica highschoolers. It is funded by a mix of taxpayer and private foundation dollars. It measures community well-being with tools including surveys and watching trending topics on social media.

It has held a big public conference on well-being and it gives out micro-grants to stimulate community connection (the deadline for this year’s micro-grant applications is January 15.)

DnA talks with Julie Rusk about the goals of the office and what it is able to achieve. On the one hand, it is on track to create a community park that grew out of a microgrant project. It is concerned with “place-making” from the vantage point of “the amenities, the adjacencies, the light” as opposed to the technical and programmatic needs alone, and the city has set “wellbeing standards” for buildings.

On the other hand, while the office has data on Santa Monicans’ housing anxieties, it cannot intervene to provide housing, though it can try and influence city policy. It is very concerned with loneliness but cannot, for example, mandate that landlords permit renters to have pets, despite findings that dogs and cats provide company and comfort.

It has also elicited criticism from skeptics in Santa Monica who see well-being as an ill-defined project indicative of more government bloat; and those that argue that the city already has a good track record in providing civic connection — its public schools, its support for the homeless, its libraries and services for the elderly. 

Rusk says that despite all this, “I think we need to keep equity and the sort of inequalities that we're all living with front and center, because there are many people that don't really have the access that they need to live a good life with their family. And that's what we have to work on.”