For his 2008 best-seller, The Blue Zones , Dan Buettner searched the world for the truth about longevity. In his new book, Thrive, out Oct. 19, he tackles the topic of happiness. What are the happiest spots on Earth—and what secrets can we glean from them? One utopia his travels took him to is San Luis Obispo, near California’s Central Coast, where joy seems to be in the tap water. In a 2008 Gallup-Healthways poll, the city’s 44,000 residents ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in overall emotional health. Here are some lessons that Buettner learned—and that we can try out in our own communities.
Support the Arts
Former mayor Ken Schwartz likes to quote this Persian proverb: “If you have but two coins, use one for bread to feed the body and the other for hyacinths to feed the soul.” Art, like flowers, nourishes the soul. Happy people usually have access to art—painting, film, sculpture, theater, music—and live in places that are attractive to the eye. A city must provide venues for artists to create and exhibit their work, so San Luis Obispo created a center that houses galleries and hosts concerts and film seminars.
Boost Biking and Walking
Research shows that if city planners make the active option the easy one—by providing good sidewalks and bike lanes and taking steps to decrease and slow car traffic—activity levels go up. San Luis Obispo has all of these features, and new office buildings are required to have bike lockers and showers so people can freshen up before work. Public-transit use is also encouraged: Bus stations are conveniently located, and people who work downtown can ride for free.
Create a Greenbelt
San Luis Obispo has an aggressive greenbelt plan and an ordinance limiting housing growth to 1% a year. With help from its county’s Land Conservancy, a city manager raises funds to purchase green spaces that come up for sale close to town. The result: Since 1994, the city has acquired 3000 acres of open space, and suburban sprawl has been minimized. San Luis Obispo is now surrounded by parks, hiking trails, mountain-biking trails, and wildlife preserves—beautiful areas to enjoy and to get the body moving.
The city banned drive-through restaurants in the 1980s. Since San Luis Obispo is a college town, the law was originally written to reduce traffic, but it has had beneficial effects on public health, especially on helping contain obesity and its associated costs. The obesity rate there is 17.6%, versus the national average of 26.5%.
Stamp Out Cigarettes
As Gallup poll data have shown, it’s hard to be happy without your health. In 1990, San Luis Obispo became one of the first municipalities in the world to enact antismoking legislation in bars. More recently, it has placed citywide bans on smoking in front of office buildings and in parks and playgrounds. The idea is to “de-normalize” smoking—so smokers are reminded wherever they go that it’s not a smart thing to do. Smoking rates stand at around 11% in San Luis Obispo, among the lowest in the U.S.
Signs tend to beget more signs—as one sign gets bigger and blinkier, other businesses feel forced to make theirs even bigger and blinkier. In 1977, Mayor Schwartz imposed limits on the size and type of signage, making the city more aesthetically pleasing, ratcheting down marketing, and decreasing the urge to buy.
Empower the People
Having a project that people can comment on and rally around sends the lasting message that citizens have a say in how their city grows. In 1968, San Luis Obispo residents and businesspeople engaged in a heated debate over whether to close a street in the city center and create a plaza. The issue was ultimately put up for a public referendum, and voters overwhelmingly approved the plaza project. Since its construction, Mission Plaza has become a symbol of the city, an icon of civic pride, a place for social gatherings, and a spot for the arts and farmers’ markets.