The “happiest city in America” tag seldom gets invoked in San Luis Obispo — except in the context of an argument against it. It provides a handy rhetorical backdrop, useful for making any civic shortcoming pop out in high relief and allowing the commentator to grab some easy irony.
But the appellation was not invented by the Chamber of Commerce, nor did it spring fully formed from the lips of Oprah to commemorate a nice day she had in town. It was the conclusion of the 2010 book “Thrive,” by Dan Buettner, in which the author reported his findings after reviewing 70 years of data covering 95 percent of the world’s population and interviewing psychologists, social scientists, demographers, economists and “the one sure source of knowledge about happiness: the people who are verifiably experiencing it.” His report arrived at the conclusions dictated by the data.
A significant factor in the off-the-charts quality of life he found in San Luis Obispo were “protected green spaces” and “access to outdoor recreation.” Underscoring the point, an extensive survey of city services was circulated in 2012 in advance of the update of San Luis Obispo’s Land Use and Circulation Element, asking residents what services they valued most. The response clearly revealed the highest priority of residents: protecting natural open space — creeks and marshes, hillsides and peaks, and the greenbelt. In survey responses, this outranked housing, police and fire, traffic management and every other category of city service. Open space was the only category for which a majority of respondents said they would be willing to pay more than current funding levels.
The response clearly revealed the highest priority of residents: protecting natural open space — creeks and marshes, hillsides and peaks, and the greenbelt.
On June 23, the city’s Natural Resources Program wrapped up a six-month series of roundtables commemorating the 20th anniversary of the creation of the greenbelt. A stakeholder group engaged in monthly sessions at the Mitchell Park Senior Center that were dedicated to various aspects of the open-space program (trail designation, creeks and streams, agricultural lands, etc.) and lively discussion on how to proceed for the next 20 years.
At the first meeting of the roundtable in January, it was clear that all participants understood what it means that San Luis Obispo gives people of all income levels the ability to be in a place of protected nature and experience the quiet of the natural world — a resource that will become more precious as the city becomes more dense, and we and our children become even more hyper-cyber-connected and increasingly vulnerable to “nature deficit disorder.”
By the last meeting in June, there was general agreement on maintaining the primary reason for the designation of open space and natural reserves in the city’s farsighted general plan: not to lure tourist crowds and provide venues for large-scale recreational events, but to protect habitat. The city’s governing documents make the point that parks and open space are different animals. The motorized mountain bikes and large gatherings prohibited in the city’s natural reserves can be a good fit in city parks, which are designed for active sporting events and competitions. Opportunities for new city parks increase as the city expands.
The consensus extended to the establishment of an Open Space Committee, long called for in the city’s Conservation and Open Space Element. That committee should be wholly separate from and nonduplicative of the Parks & Recreation Commission. Its formation should include consultation with representatives of trailhead neighborhoods, and the resulting committee should inform the process of setting land conservation priorities, program initiatives, funding strategies and sustainability measures for the next 20 years.
The city’s open-space program has been a notable success story. Much of that success can be traced directly to the work of a General Plan Open Space Element committee that convened in the 1990s and created many of the policies that gave the city what it has today. To maintain that success, in addition to establishing an Open Space Committee, the city needs to:
▪ Enforce the Open Space Ordinance’s wildlife and habitat protection requirements.
▪ Set measurable benchmarks for the health of natural open spaces and the wildlife they support.
▪ Set up an effective feedback loop from the neighborhoods adjacent to open space and trailheads so that residents’ 24/7 observations of the management of the city’s natural reserves can provide input toward benchmarks.
As brokers say, past performance does not guarantee future results. As the Sierra Club says, the protection of nature can never be taken for granted. This is what needs to happen if San Luis Obispo is to avoid slowly and imperceptibly losing what the majority of residents value so highly: the protected natural places that are essential to their quality of life.
Karen Merriam, Cal French, Patrick McGibney, Lindi Doud and Sue Harvey serve as the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Santa Lucia Chapter.