San Luis Obispo has recently made news as “the happiest city in America” according to author Dan Buettner in his latest book, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, and as featured on Oprah. But happy communities don’t develop in a vacuum. San Luis Obispo County, as a whole, embodies many of the criteria Buettner identifies as necessary for civic happiness. As if endless pristine beaches, some of the best wine in the world, and a near-perfect climate weren’t enough to please visitors and residents of San Luis Obispo County alike, here is a look at just a few of the ways “Wine Coast Country” provides the context for America’s happiest city.
Citizen Empowerment – Buettner references a city’s ability to come together to effect change as a contributor to the happiness of its residents. Throughout San Luis Obispo County, groups have gathered to ensure the protection of open space in such areas as Hearst Ranch in San Simeon and Fiscalini Ranch in Cambria (which is run entirely by volunteers), while others have banded together to build civic auditoriums and theaters such as the first-rate Clark Center performance space in Arroyo Grande.
No Drive-Throughs – Buettner declaims drive-throughs as obstacles to civic engagement and community-building, and praises San Luis Obispo for its ordinances to prohibit them. But visitors to Wine Coast Country would be hard-pressed to find a drive-through restaurant in most of the smaller cities along the coast, such as Cambria, Cayucos, Oceano, and Avila Beach. In fact, it is often easier to find a farmers’ market than a drive-through restaurant; San Luis Obispo County embraces the farm-to-table lifestyle by hosting at least one farmers’ market every day, all year long.
Build a Greenbelt – San Luis Obispo County makes open public space a priority, as evidenced by its 11 state parks including the Oso Flaco Dune Preserve in Nipomo, the Oceano Dunes State Park, gorgeous Montana de Oro, the Estero Bluffs, and Harmony Headlands. In addition, plans are underway to carve the 18-mile Wild Cherry Canyon hiking trail connecting Avila Beach to Montana de Oro in the near future.
Support the Arts – The fine and performing arts are alive and well in Wine Coast Country. In fact, San Luis Obispo County has one of the highest ratios of non-profit arts organizations per capita in the state. For first-rate painting, ceramics, sculpture, and glass-blown wares, nothing beats Hearst Castle in San Simeon, the galleries of Cambria, or the tiny town artisan of Harmony. As for the performing arts, professional theater companies like the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano and community theaters like Cambria’s Pewter Plough Playhouse thrive with support from patrons across the Central Coast; while music venues such as the Avila Beach Golf Resort host performances from local groups like the San Luis Obispo Symphony to international sensations like MGMT and Bonnie Raitt.
Favor the Pedestrian – Buettner highlights the importance of safe options for the pedestrian and cyclist in happy communities, emphasizing that when active options are made easy, people choose them time and again. Along those lines, the Morro Bay Harbor Walk was recently completed, connecting pedestrians and cyclists from the charm of the Embarcadero to the iconic Morro Rock with a one-mile round-trip boardwalk. In Avila Beach, the Bob Jones Bike Trail is a 1.5-mile dedicated walking and cycling trail to the beach, perfect for strolling, cruising, or skating. And the Moonstone Beach boardwalk in Cambria is a 1.5-mile round-trip walk along one of the most beautifully dramatic stretches of windswept coastline in the world.
Work for Yourself– Small businesses thrive in Wine Coast Country. In fact, many if not most Central Coast businesses are independently-owned and operated, from myriad farms like Huasna Valley Farm to multi-generational wineries like Kynsi Winery in Edna Valley, to any number of family-owned lodging properties and boutique restaurants. Additionally, as the birthplace of such companies as Jamba Juice, The Spice Hunter, and as the seat of multiple high-tech start-ups, San Luis Obispo County is an incubator for creativity and alternative solutions, perfect for those who want to set up shop and work for themselves.
Build a Town Square– Buettner argues that a downtown center provides happiness as a space for socializing, arts performances, and civic pride. Nearly every city in Wine Coast Country finds its heartbeat where the locals gather for year-round, regular farmers’ markets and annual festivals. In Avila Beach, it’s the beach-front boardwalk along Front Street, while in Arroyo Grande, it’s Village Green Park.