Santa Cruz and the pursuit of happiness
Santa Cruz County has a problem. Some would say there isn’t enough affordable housing, due to Silicone Valley’s commuters, UC Santa Cruz’s growing student population, our slow-growing policies of the 1960s and 1970s, and preservation. historical.
The housing crisis, however, is a national problem, and over-building places like Silicone Valley haven’t solved the problem, but have higher house prices than Santa Cruz County. Slow growth policies did cause our problem, but it was a “problem” they meant to cause. It was born out of community activism and the election of officials in the slow growing city.
They created a model of sustainable growth, protected the village quality of our cities, prevented the expansion of highways from dividing and destroying neighborhoods, used historic restoration to beautify the existing housing stock as a tourist destination. Santa Cruz prevented skyscraper construction from transforming the waterfront into Miami Beach, called for solar access through height limits, greened the city, protected open space, became a Tree City USA, banked our agricultural areas against sprawl and conserved nature. Even with slow growth, it was expected that we would have fully built the city by the millennium.
If it doesn’t seem like Santa Cruz has done anything in the past 50 years, that’s the problem. When post-war development pressures were greatest in the 1950s and 1960s, instead of giving in to the automobile culture of decentralized cities along the highway corridors of suburban sprawl, Santa Cruz took chose to preserve the pedestrian culture and the atmosphere of the village.
As automobile culture merged cities with industrial sprawl, Santa Cruz and the rest of the Monterey Bay area became unusual for retaining its quaint pedestrian qualities and humanistic architecture, which have served our tourist economy.
My generation’s intention was to pass on to future generations the cities we love and the values we learned in an era of overdevelopment. We have promoted our region as a place that visitors and residents alike would love. And our sin was to keep Santa Cruz lovable and liveable. So it’s not the lack of supply that’s the problem, but the over-demand for the Santa Cruz that exists today.
Even for those who love it, Santa Cruz is not always an easy place to live. We have droughts, forest fires, floods, landslides, earthquakes and tsunamis. Yet instead of dividing us, disasters bring us together and focus us more on the qualities we wish to retain during the rebuilding process. Our seasonal economy of agriculture, tourism, and college has rarely provided many good jobs, so some people commute or take a pay cut to live here or create their own jobs.
But during the pandemic lockdown, some “COVID-19 refugees” have moved from larger, more densely populated cities to less crowded places like Santa Cruz County because if you’re going to work from home on Zoom, you’d rather live in a place that favors beauty, leisure, open-space and village culture, rather than impersonal highways, apartments and concrete.
Science of happiness
In 2011, Dan Buettner continued Oprah by promoting her book “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zone Way”. He coined the term “blue zones” in a 2005 National Geographic article, to refer to regions of the world with a higher human longevity ratio. These inhabitants thrived on a life of moderate exercise, a healthy diet, a strong social life, good coping skills and an optimistic spiritual outlook. In other words, they were happy. Buettner began to study the places that created these blue zones and realized that some communities were already designed to encourage a healthy and happy lifestyle.
Buettner introduced San Luis Obispo to Oprah as “one of the happiest cities in the country”. Like Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo has an agricultural / tourist / university economy. To compensate for the sedentary and polluting fast-food lifestyle of automobile culture, social isolation and stressful commuting, in 1970 San Luis Obispo underwent a pedestrian makeover. They widened sidewalks, created a plaza, bike paths, sidewalk cafes, banned fast food and drive-thru and smoking in public. The poor job market made a sacrifice to live there, but it was worth it to enjoy a pedestrian lifestyle in a beautiful location. They promoted cultural values with their own orchestra, concert hall, museums and entertainment venues. The arts and beautiful architecture enrich community life.
As well as being a return to the concept of a village, it created a trend for designing blue zone communities for optimal happiness, de-imprinting elements of automobile culture, and improving pedestrian amenities. Having things within walking and cycling distance puts people in a position for social interactions. The more you got to know your neighbors and the townspeople, the safer you felt and happy neighbors increased your own happiness.
How to compare?
The similarities to Santa Cruz made you wonder how we stacked up. Since 2007, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has received the Golden Ticket Award almost every year as America’s Best Boardwalk, as a delightful architectural fantasy in a natural setting. UC Santa Cruz was declared the most influential college in astrophysics in 2008 (Cornell / UC Regents), sixth most influential in finance (2010), and Forbes called it one of the 14 most beautiful campuses in the world. . Founded in 1965, UCSC was already designed with Blue Zone elements, such as a cluster of colleges on a walking campus cycling in a state of nature. Meanwhile, the Atlantic declared Santa Cruz the fifth most artistic city in America in 2011 and the second healthiest city in America the following year.
Then in 2017, social scientists at Dan Buettner and Gallup created an index to rank America’s 25 happiest cities for National Geographic. San Luis Obispo placed No. 5. Yet Santa Cruz-Watsonville has become the second happiest city in America, after Boulder, Colorado. They were followed by No. 6 San Jose; # 13 Salinas and # 17 in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The 25 cities listed have one or more colleges, and all but three are liberal. The liberal factor was not part of the National Geographic study, but of a Crowdpac survey of those in 378 cities who donated to conservative or liberal causes. Berkeley was 98% the most liberal city in America; Santa Cruz is No. 16 at 95.1%; ahead of San Francisco No. 17 at 93.5%; with Boulder, Colorado, No. 36 at 92.4%.
In the 1950s and 1960s, historic city centers were losing their businesses, replacing artistic facades with bland upgrades or demolitions, while competition came from chain stores built along highways that could only be reached car. Closed suburbs were created without city centers, churches or community centers. Our county town centers have experienced a revival through historic restorations, which have turned dying business centers into thriving tourist attractions and community gathering points.
Santa Cruz established the Pacific Garden Mall in 1968 as a historic open-air shopping district, with wide sidewalks and lush landscaping. The Cooper House was the recognized centerpiece of the city center, the 1895 County Courthouse converted to Victorian shops and restaurants, as well as a popular sidewalk cafe with live entertainment. The monument was demolished after the earthquake of 1989, a loss so heartbreaking, that it spawned the downtown design guidelines for new construction in an attempt to retain the humanistic character that the old downtown embodied.
With the National Geographic ranking of Santa Cruz as the second happiest city in America, it seemed that the long and difficult process of reconstruction had paid off. One of the characteristics of the blue zone is a people who feel equal in status and access to power. Santa Cruz is democracy in its most committed form. The spirit of volunteerism and activism can sometimes be difficult to embrace, but it is what has shaped our community.
The return of Santa Cruz
As COVID-19 restrictions disappear, Santa Cruz is heading for a strong revival. This is based on one of the defining elements of a Blue Zone community: that experiences are more valuable to happiness than money or things. People are willing to earn less, or to live in smaller homes, for the privilege of being in Santa Cruz. My father, who grew up in poverty in old Santa Cruz, said, “If you can pay your bills and do your groceries, you’re as well off as the richest man.”
Santa Cruz is an experience. There is no zoom equivalent to being there. Even in the midst of the pandemic, people have come from all over to visit the redwoods, surf, walk the beach and cycle or stroll along West Cliff Drive. In an experiential economy, a historic plaque does not replace a landmark, a conveyor belt does not replace a park, an image does not replace a landscape, and the glare of a glass building does not replace sunlight.
The Tannery Arts Center aimed to welcome artists, a segment of the population that contributes greatly to our cultural life, but which was in the process of being ousted. It is a tourist attraction, which showcases the history of its region, creating a preferred model of culturally enriching development, especially at a time when our monuments are wasteland.
Save the legacy of the blue zone of America’s second happiest city.
Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.