Fitness trainer Angela Parker, center, leads a class at Palisades Park… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Money can't buy happiness, but Santa Monica just won a million dollars to measure it.
On Wednesday, the seaside city was named a winner in the first-ever Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge, with an idea Santa Monica Mayor Pam O'Connor called a "game-changer." As one of four runners-up in the nationwide competition, the city will receive the award as seed money to develop its "Wellbeing Project."
The idea is to create a well-being index using data that measure various aspects of civic life. For example, officials say that if they can measure how connected residents feel to their community, they can predict how well they will bounce back after a natural disaster, mass shooting or some other catastrophic event.
Once city officials know just how residents are doing, they say they can focus money and attention on the things that people need most.
"It's about building a resilient community," O'Connor said. "And that resilience will help people thrive."
Santa Monica officials have been working on their proposal for months. It was among those of more than 300 cities that submitted ideas to Bloomberg Philanthropies, led by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who called on cities to "find and spread innovative local solutions to national problems."
In the fall, Santa Monica was named one of 20 finalists. City employees flew to New York for "Ideas Camp," where they got help refining their projects.
On Wednesday, Providence, R.I., was awarded the grand prize of $5 million for its "Providence Talks" program. The city hopes to improve the language skills of children born into low-income homes.
Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia were also named runners-up alongside Santa Monica. They too will receive a $1-million prize to kick-start projects such as a "one bin for all" recycling program and an analytics platform that will make city government more efficient.
"The competition has provided evidence that cities are really the new laboratories of democracy," Bloomberg said. "If we can help them along, we can sleep well at night."
Santa Monica's project will be carried out over the next two years, and its creators hope to develop a model that can be used nationwide, said Santa Monica city staff member Dean Kubani.
Work with Rand Corp. and other experts will continue as the index develops, Kubani said. The city will need to gather data on factors that drive well-being, such as economics, education, health and social connectedness, and ultimately that data will be funneled into an overall well-being score. In the second year of the project, officials said they will use the index to frame decisions by city government, neighborhood groups and nonprofits.
Much of the prize money will be paid to consultants who help develop the index, Kubani added. He said the city is contributing about $750,000 in contributions of staff time, but no additional dollars.
Fitness trainer Angela Parker lives and works in Santa Monica and called her city a "very special neighborhood." She said she was pleased that the city wants to examine nontraditional metrics such as connectedness.
Parker walks around town — to get her morning coffee and dry cleaning — and sees acquaintances along the way. In the city parks where she runs her fitness classes, most of the trainers know one another too.
"You see these people that feel so connected to the people they are exercising with," Parker said. "I think they're going to find that across the board. I'm not surprised that Santa Monica was given this grant, because I think the results will be exemplary."