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Survey That

By Frank Gruber

Over New Year's we had a family event and about 50 out-of-town relatives and friends descended upon Santa Monica and did their part to help the local economy.

If you are a no-growther, you will not be happy to learn that another 50 people want to live here.

The weather was perfect, the beach was sublime, they went to the Getty (by bus!), they shopped, but what these tourists most liked was the neighborliness. Everything was so close, they were constantly bumping into each other as they wandered around town in search of the perfect breakfast.

Many Santa Monicans may not realize how rare it is in America to be able to have your guests stay in three different hotels that are within walking distance of your house, or in how few cities your guests can merely walk down the street and have a good time.

Nonetheless, it's clear that Santa Monicans appreciate the place they live in.

How do I know that? Last week the City released its annual Resident Survey, and, although there were no questions about the ease of family reunions, once again the happiness of most Santa Monicans found statistical expression.

You can read about the survey in The Lookout ("Santa Monicans Satisfied, Poll Finds," Jan. 9, 2003), but if you have a few minutes for downloading, I suggest getting your own copy of the Resident Satisfaction Survey from the City's Web site.

In this year's survey, 83 percent of respondents said that they were satisfied with City services, and only 11 percent were dissatisfied. Eighty-two percent said that the City did at least a fair job of responding to neighborhood concerns (56 percent said good or excellent).

While these survey questions focused specifically on how local government is working, the responses bespeak an amazing and surprising level of happiness with the city -- amazing given the tendency of people everywhere to blame government for everything, and surprising given the whining that characterizes our local discourse.

Given two chances to identify the "most important issues facing the city," no issue proved dire enough to engage more than a fraction of the population. Most respondents didn't even mention two issues.

The most often identified issue, "too many homeless," rang just 25 percent of the citizenry's bells. Issues like traffic, growth, parking, and crime -- the issues our politicians often use to measure their concern for "residents" -- all scored less than 20 percent, with parking and crime in single digits.

These results are consistent with those of prior surveys -- so consistent, in fact, that in tight budget times, it hardly makes sense for the City to conduct a survey each year.

This year, however, the City added a new question. In addition to asking respondents to volunteer what issues they consider important, the poll-takers ran down a list of issues and asked respondents to say whether they thought the problems mentioned were serious or not.

Perhaps whoever was in charge of the poll was concerned that the complacency exhibited in prior surveys inadequately justified enacting new laws and hiring more staff, but in any case, by identifying a problem, the poll-takers predictably instigated more of a response.

The same issues -- homelessness, lack of affordable housing, parking and traffic -- that only a minority of residents mentioned on their own, all registered above 50 percent when the respondent was asked if the problem was "serious" or "very serious."

The juxtaposition of these two types of questions -- one open-ended, one directed -- is illuminating, because it tells us something about how people think. No matter what one believes about homelessness, for instance, one is likely to view it as a serious problem -- accordingly, 73 percent of Santa Monicans do so.

The same goes for the other "serious" issues -- anyone who has ever had to climb to the top floor of a parking structure, for instance, is likely to call "parking" a serious problem.

But this begs a big question. If, as the survey finds, 63 percent of Santa Monicans believe the lack of affordable housing is a serious problem, 58 percent believe that parking is a serious problem, 57 percent believe traffic is a serious problem, but 83 percent of them are satisfied with city services, then what about living in Santa Monica is it that people like so much?

The problem with the survey is that it finds a happy population, but doesn't ask why people are happy.

The survey does not ask residents, for instance, to identify up to two of the most important benefits to living in Santa Monica, as opposed to the two "most important issues."

Nor do the poll-takers ask respondents to react to a list of "good things," as opposed to "problems," and opine whether each good thing is a "serious" good thing.

Call me a Pollyanna, but if a goal of government is to increase happiness, or at least to improve the prospects for its pursuit, then government might learn more by asking what makes people happy, and improving on that, then asking what makes people unhappy. Happiness can go a long way in alleviating complaints -- complaints that in many cases will not ever be resolved on their own terms.

Those 50 relatives of mine who want to move here fell in love with Santa Monica for reasons that don't appear on the City's survey, and despite the fact that they didn't like the panhandlers or the traffic.

Over 20 years, measured at least by all the people who want to live here, Santa Monica has become an increasingly desirable place to live -- notwithstanding much wringing of local hands about how much Santa Monica has changed. Cities all over the country have studied and tried to emulate the reasons why. Perhaps the City should survey that.

Upcoming meeting:

Monday, January 13, 6:30 p.m., Ken Edwards Center: Scoping session for the Environmental Impact Report on the City's downtown parking plan. The City will be preparing an EIR for its downtown parking plan -- the issues addressed by the EIR may be limited by what issues the public raises at this meeting or in writing.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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