By Hector Gonzalez
April 28, 2015 -- Sure, the usual complaints about traffic congestion and the unaffordable housing surfaced.
But a $1 million study into the overall wellness of local residents also revealed that people 65 and older feel better living in the City than do younger people, officials said Monday in announcing some surprising results of Santa Monica’s first-ever Wellbeing Index.
That’s unusual, officials said, because seniors in other cities typically have lower levels of wellbeing than younger people, officials said.
Local residents ages 45 to 54 had the lowest level of wellbeing -- one of dozens of findings that researchers from the Santa Monica-based RAND Corporation and other partnering institutions uncovered during the “groundbreaking” two-year-long project that used unique sets of data to come up with an overall wellness snapshot of Santa Monica, officials said.
“Groundbreaking is a term that often gets overused. But here, I believe it’s relevant,” said Anita Chandra, who headed up the study for RAND. “Santa Monica is the first City to relate both subjective information on wellbeing -- personal experiences on wellbeing -- with the specific conditions within a community that enhance or detract from that wellbeing.”
Funded by a $1 million grant that Santa Monica won in 2013 in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ first Mayors Challenge, an innovations competition for cities, the Wellbeing Index represents the first in-depth scientific measurement ever undertaken by a city to gauge the wellness of its residents, said Mayor Kevin McKeown.
“Cities haven’t had a sophisticated method of determining whether their policies actually led to their residents living well,”McKeown said at a news conference at RAND’s Santa Monica headquarters announcing the index’s results.
“For thousands of years we’ve relied on common sense, compassion and good intentions to create well being. Here in Santa Monica that’s about to change in a way that will profoundly change local government. We will now actively evaluate wellbeing and use what we learned to shape public policy,” the mayor said.
Researchers collected and examined information gleaned from a range of City departments, combining it with data collected from a survey of 2,200 residents as well as information gathered from local social media sites to come up with specific areas where wellbeing can be improved, Chandra said.
Broken down into several charts and graphs, the index measured such wellness factors as the environment, health, economic opportunity, learning and community connectedness, she said. It includes demographic information and measures wellbeing across economic levels and among different ethnic groups, Chandra said.
“We also underwent an unprecedented examination of City administrative data,” she said. “Cities collect a lot of information all the time, but how to make sense of that information, how to inform government decisions that actually support wellbeing, that’s novel.”
The result was a “more holistic view of the wellbeing environment,” Chandra added.
Although measuring and collecting data was central to the index, “data alone are not enough,” Chandra said.
“They have to be translated into something consumable and usable. So once the information is gleaned from the data, we then need to take time to make meaning from that information so that the City can learn from the findings and take action upon them. So what we’re embarking on now is the action phase.”
One of the study’s key findings was that all parts of the City could benefit from improvements in their wellbeing.
“When you look at populations, when you look across subgroups, when you look across zip codes, there’s great variation and great diversity overall in terms of wellbeing. That’s one thing that we found that allows for targeted investment,” said Chandra.
Revealing a somewhat mixed bag of results, the index also showed that while civic engagement is strong among residents -- 79 percent of Santa Monicans regularly vote in elections, while 38 percent volunteer in the community -- 41 percent feel powerless to change City Hall, and another 36 percent of residents feel “disengaged” from City affairs.
Most residents -- 66 percent -- live within a five-minute walk of goods and services, but only about half said they could count on their neighbors in a time of need, “well below the U.S. average of 80 percent,” the index showed.
One in five residents ages 18 to 24 reported feeling lonely all or most of the time, while one third of residents worry about missing a rent or mortgage payment, according to the index.
Researchers also used social media outlets to gauge local wellbeing, analyzing more than 159,000 tweets related to economic opportunity in Santa Monica. They found that more than 16,000 tweets talked about income and affordability. Of those, the vast majority were about jobs, the index found.
Traffic and getting around the City was the No. 1 concern for residents overall, with 23 percent of Santa Monicans citing it as a problem on an open-ended question about ways to improve wellness.
More Santa Monica residents are ditching cars for bikes, the study found, with bike use up by 67 percent in the City from 2011 to 2013, and more people are riding bikes to work.
Although the sea-side City of about 90,000 people “is often cast as an idyllic place,” Santa Monica has room to improve its Wellness levels, Chandra said.
“Our goal when we set out was simple: If we could infuse how the people of Santa Monica were doing with traditional forms of data, we could act upon that data in a meaningful way,” said Julie Rusk, assistant director of Santa Monica Community and Cultural Affairs, who spearheaded the project for the City.
McKeown said the index’s findings already were beginning to influence how he views the City’s needs.
“Finding out that older resident feel more connected to the community than those who are younger -- for me as a policy maker on the City Council that speaks to the need to look at what activities we can encourage in the City that will counter isolation and alienation to help young people connect to their community,” said McKeown, promising that the Wellbeing Index won’t be just another City report that dies on the vine without action.
“We’re going to take this information very seriously,” said McKeown. “It helps us target what resources we have and helps us understand what outcomes we should expect if we shift our policies, and that’s tremendously important for us as policy makers.”