About 900 people attended the city of Santa Monica’s inaugural Wellbeing Summit last Saturday, according to event organizers.
The free event aimed to spark conversation and action around community wellbeing, a concept the city embraced six years ago when it started measuring residents’ health and happiness using a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The city has since created an Office of Civic Wellbeing, becoming part of a growing collection of local governments who are evaluating and designing the services they provide by analyzing their impact on community health and happiness.
The city council voted in February to host a summit to bring together local, national and international thought leaders to discuss their work and how it could apply to Santa Monica.
On Saturday, attendees heard lectures from wellbeing experts, including Dr. Xavier Amador, who discussed why people with mental illness often refuse help, and Kinga Tshering, who co-founded the Institute of Happiness in Bhutan, the only country to measure Gross National Happiness.
The event also provided information on how to apply for local programs, arts workshops, meditation classes and plenty of free food.
Local officials used the summit as a platform to explain what wellbeing is and how it pertains to Santa Monica, referencing criticism from some residents that the city’s wellbeing efforts do little to tackle Santa Monica’s most urgent problems.
In a panel with City Manager Rick Cole titled “Walking the Talk: What’s Next for Wellbeing?,” Mayor Gleam Davis said investing in wellbeing addresses the root causes of issues such as homelessness, crime and affordability.
“Obviously we need to put officers on the street and find permanent supportive housing for homeless people — we need to do these immediate steps to reduce the impact of these scourges on our society,” she said. “But if we don’t get to the underlying problem, which is a lack of wellbeing, then we’ll be faced with the same symptoms over and over and over again.”
Wellbeing work requires a partnership between the city and the community, Cole said. Over the past decade, he said, the Pico neighborhood has come together to transform Virginia Avenue Park from a place “people were afraid to go to” into a beautiful park with a library, farmers market and youth programs.
“If you want to ask, “What’s this wellbeing stuff?,” go to Virginia Avenue Park,” Cole said.
Davis said the city’s Wellbeing Index has given officials the ability to detect issues that would have otherwise gone discovered, such as that more than a third of Santa Monica children entering kindergarten are not developmentally on track for school.
Cole said the 2019 Wellbeing Index, which will be released soon, found that the percentage of residents who believed they could influence City Hall declined from 29% in 2017 to 20% this year.
That attitude was apparent in many of the residents who questioned the Mayor and City Manager about the city’s responses to homelessness and crime.
Some also balked at the cost of the summit — $242,500, or about $269 per attendee. Sponsors such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, UCLA Health and Santa Monica Travel & Tourism funded most of the event, with the city council providing $19,500 in discretionary funds.
“It was a very expensive event that only reached a small, self-selected group of residents,” said Linda Piera-Avila, an environmentalist active in city politics. “If they’re going to spend all that money, it seems like it should have been a series of activities and events spread out over a week so more residents could have taken advantage of what they had to offer.”
Other residents, such as educator Laila Taslimi, said they felt the summit encouraged civic engagement and were eager to participate in future wellbeing work.
“What was most helpful to me was to be able to meet and hear from people who have been working on issues that relate to our lives here in Santa Monica,” Taslimi said, citing a workshop from The Los Angeles Play Streets Program on how to transform streets into places for play. “It was a smorgasbord for anyone who wants to be a doer in our city.”