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‘Nobody does that.’ Santa Monica, CA, makes wellness a priority by doing the unexpected.

This feature was produced by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and does not reflect the opinions or point of view of Vox Media or Vox Creative. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Visitors to Santa Monica, CA, might think the city begins and ends with the iconic Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade of shops. But for the 93,000 people who live there, Santa Monica is a complex city wrestling with the same complicated issues as its bigger neighbor, Los Angeles.

"Santa Monica is much more than the stereotype of a beach community," says Julie Rusk, who steers the city's Wellbeing Project. "We are a real city with real people facing real challenges every day."

Four years ago, Santa Monica set out to measure what was helping or hampering the well-being of residents. How healthy were they? Were people thriving economically? Did they have opportunities to learn and grow? Did they have a strong sense of community and connection? Did the physical attributes of the city promote their well-being? Explore the links throughout this story to learn more about Santa Monica's work.

Staff member Jennifer Zapata (left) aids client Cheri Armstrong (right) at the Annenberg Access Center.

[How a once-threatening block became a green town square]

The answers led to the Wellbeing Index, the first attempt by a city to produce a data-based guide for steering policy. To launch the project, Santa Monica received a grant of $1 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies in New York City and guidance from experts at Santa Monica's own RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research center. Combining existing information gleaned from city departments and fresh input from surveys, the index sets a framework for priorities and shapes initiatives on health and wellness. It shows where things are going well and where there are gaps that need attention.

This call to action, grounded in data, is one reason Santa Monica was selected for the RWJF Culture of Health Prize. "It's really recognition for the ways that we've been at the forefront of trying to make a city that works for everyone," Rusk says.

The city takes pride in its diversity. "In the popular imagination, Santa Monica's known as an exclusive, wealthy community," says Andy Agle, the city's director of housing and economic development. In reality, one in five households earns less than $20,000 a year, and 70 percent of residents are renters, a result of the strict rent controls that have been in place since 1979.

[A city that insists on making space for affordable housing]

Santa Monica has pushed for change on multiple fronts, including improving wages, increasing affordable housing options, supporting public education, addressing homelessness, and offering "cradle to career" opportunities for young people.

"Santa Monica's DNA is really fused with this idea that we're not interested in doing something for a few people," says city manager Rick Cole. "We want the impact to reach down to the most vulnerable people, the most marginalized people."

[Raising the grade on the community's youth well-being report card]

For example, the Santa Monica City Council recently approved raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 for employees at most businesses and even sooner for hotel workers, who will make $15.37 an hour by 2017. The state of California also is increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but over the course of six years.

Darius Popenhagen commutes to his job at a local bike shop in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica residents pay an additional 0.5 percent in a sales tax that steers more funds to schools. The city also collaborates with the school district and community college to share facilities such as playgrounds and swimming pools.

On housing, Santa Monica stands apart for its commitment to adding affordable units and reducing homelessness. When the RAND Corporation vacated its headquarters near the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, it sold about 10 acres to the city. A flat parking lot was converted into the six-acre Tongva Park, with manmade hillocks, water features, pathways, and observation decks facing the ocean. Another block was converted to housing. The city partnered with a private developer to build more than 300 units, half of which had to be reserved for lower-income families.

"Nobody does that," Agle says. Santa Monica took the unusual step of bringing affordable housing to an oceanfront block, he explains, because it values diversity in its neighborhoods.

[This LA neighbor has a new model for mobility]

The problem of homelessness harnesses the attention of government agencies, law enforcement, and social-service providers like the Ocean Park Community Center and Step Up. In one move, the city compiled a registry of the most vulnerable people living on the streets so they could receive intensive outreach. "By ‘most vulnerable,' that basically means most likely to die on the streets in Santa Monica," Agle says.

Of 369 individuals on the registry, 227 have been placed in permanent housing with access to services to help them succeed. The city embraces this "housing first" approach to homelessness, where step one is finding someone a permanent place to live and step two is dealing with other needs, such as access to mental health or substance abuse counseling.

[Chronic homelessness demands innovative solutions]

In measuring the well-being of people, the city turned up a number of troubling findings relating to youth — from the low percentage of five-year-olds who were ready for kindergarten to the prevalence of depression and other mental health concerns among teens.

"It required a lot of courage on the behalf of our institutions, our policymakers, and the community to face this head on and to deal with it," says Jonathan Mooney, an adviser to the Wellbeing Project. "The data tells us that there's more work to do, so it's time to do it."

In response to the findings, schools have stepped up services to meet adolescents' behavioral health needs, and Santa Monica High School will open the Thrive Center, a school-based health center. The city also started what it calls youth resource teams, a collaborative approach to helping the most vulnerable young people, who face academic, social, or emotional challenges.

Santa Monica aspires to be a leader for other cities grappling with the same issues. Agle says, "I hope they look at Santa Monica and say, ‘That's a model that makes sense. What can we do to replicate that success?'"

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This feature was produced by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and does not reflect the opinions or point of view of Vox Media or Vox Creative. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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