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Santa Monica Is The Best Place To Be

October 19, 2016 9:30 AM
by Rick Cole

Santa Monica Is The Best Place To Be

“The next time you’re bombarded with over-the-top claims about how our country is doomed or the world is coming apart at the seams, brush off the cynics and fearmongers,” writes the guest editor of the November issue of WIRED Magazine in a powerful opening essay.  “Because the truth is, if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one.”

The guest editor is Barack Obama. 

Our President makes a powerful case.  “By almost every measure, this country is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, 30 years ago, or even eight years ago,” Obama writes, ticking off America’s advances in social justice and inclusion; life expectancy; educational attainment; health security; advanced technology; and the dawn of a “clean-energy age.”  Across the planet, he notes: “More countries know democracy. More kids are going to school. A smaller share of humans know chronic hunger or live in extreme poverty.”

If this is the best time to be alive, I would contend that Santa Monica is the best place to be

Let me share why . . .

Some might point to the crowded cafes, bustling Farmer’s Markets, thronged sidewalks and chic shops that superficially symbolize our prosperous, sun-drenched Southern California lifestyle.  Yet we know that many Santa Monica residents are squeezed by the rising cost of living.  Two-thirds of those who live here are renters; soaring market demand and loopholes in State law have eroded rent control protections that have sustained Santa Monica’s diversity.  More than one in ten Santa Monicans lives in poverty. 

One cannot overlook how far we have to go to be a city that works for everyone.  Still, it is the potential all around us that makes Santa Monica the best place to be in the best time to be alive.

Santa Monica has long occupied an iconic role in the California Dream.  We were the place where Army fliers embarked on the first ever circumnavigation of the globe by airplane.  We were the end of the line for Route 66 when migrants arrived in California fleeing the Dust Bowl and Depression. We were the end of the line for Interstate 10 (known locally as the “Santa Monica Freeway”) when those ribbons of concrete symbolized America’s intercontinental economic powerhouse and freedom to travel – and start anew.  And now we are the end of the Expo line, connected to the emerging rail transit network linking all of Los Angeles County.

When we look west from Palisades Park, we not only experience sparkling white sand and gorgeous Technicolor sunsets; we are standing on the edge of the Pacific Rim.  We are part of a string of North American cities (San Diego; San Jose; San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver) connected to the rise of Asia that is remaking the world map of trade and commerce. 

We are the epicenter of Silicon Beach, the emerging hub of one of the most vibrant tech centers on the planet.  Old Hollywood and new tech are fueling the explosion of digital content, changing at warp speed how the world spends its time. 

In this sprawling Southern California region of 38,000 square miles, our 8.3 square miles are among the most vibrant and dynamic.  “Los Angeles” over the past century redefined the very idea of “city” – a megacity that sprawled over artificial borders.  Now this pulsating region is ground zero for the urban future – and our Pier, our Promenade and our new Esplanade are celebrated models of places for people that cities all over the world are striving to create, preserve and enhance.

We are the most diverse aggregation of peoples on the planet.  More than 100 languages are spoken here; not only is Los Angeles the second largest municipality in our nation – the ethnic populations in our region would be the second largest city in dozens of their countries of origin.  LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, evokes our diversity in a memorable way: “Los Angeles is the only place in the world where you can arrive at LAX from anywhere on earth and within 20 minutes be in a place that feels like your home – the same food, language and culture – and as a fourth generation Angeleno you can strike out on a journey and within 20 minutes find a place like nowhere you’ve ever been.”

Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne writes vividly about the “Third Los Angeles” that is emerging from our dynamism and diversity, “a new civic identity that Los Angeles is working – and often struggling to establish.”  In his view, we no longer dream of “infinite expansion, of growing our way out of every problem.” The most vivid marker of this transformation, he says, are the new ways we are creating to get around in Southern California. 

Santa Monica is at the forefront of forging this “new model of mobility.”  It’s one of our City Council’s five Strategic Goals.  We see the dawning everywhere -- not just the arrival this May of Expo (which is already 70% of its way toward hitting 2030 ridership projections).  Santa Monica was the first in Southern California to launch bikeshare – and now those bright green Breeze bikes are everywhere.  We’ve revamped our city bus system that covers 56 square miles on the Westside – the Evolution of Blue connects every line with the countywide rail system.  So great was the success of this summer’s Twilight Concert series on the Pier that we had to establish, not one, but three, drop off and pick up sites for Uber and Lyft.  We’ve started #CarFreeFriday to encourage more people to seek out healthier, faster, cheaper and more environmentally sustainable ways of getting to, from and around Santa Monica. 

Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project has garnered national attention as we reshape local government for the challenges of the 21st Century.  In the industrial era, cities organized distinct departments to meet the challenges of their time – police, fire, parks, recreation, library and planning.  We are still organized that way a century later.  Yet it is increasingly clear that the public sector is as vulnerable to the disruptive forces of innovation as traditional private industries.  To adapt, we need to think beyond our role as providing traditional services.  To demonstrate that we are providing value to our residents, we need to ask: what outcomes we are producing?  Are our residents safer?  More engaged? Healthier? Happier?  Today’s problems, like curbing homelessness, don’t necessarily call for new or expanded government services.  Instead, government can be a catalyst for partnerships among, for example, community non-profits, health care providers, businesses and faith-based efforts.    

The nation’s largest health philanthropy recently recognized Santa Monica’s leadership in fostering these kinds of community initiatives with their “Culture of Health Prize.”  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation noted that “Santa Monica has been building an inclusive, equitable, and diverse community for more than 40 years, deploying creative solutions and strong cross-sector partnerships to drive exceptional progress,” bringing a “data-driven approach” to a range of key priorities including mobility, affordability and improving the lives of children and families “to become a true City of Wellbeing where everyone thrives.”

Yet, for all these exciting prospects, it’s the citizens who live here who make Santa Monica the best place to be in the best time to be alive.  Our Latin motto proclaims we are “a happy people in a happy city.”  In the nearly 250 years since the Spaniards named this place “Santa Monica,” people have always come here seeking a fresh start, an opportunity to reinvent themselves. We are a community of dreamers, doers and makers.  In our personal and public lives, we embody audacity, optimism, and hope. 

This is our time, our place.  As another visionary president proclaimed many years ago: “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”


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