Ask Palo Alto residents how they feel about their city, and many will praise its bountiful nature preserves, job opportunities and educational offerings.
But after two years of pandemic-related disruptions and isolation, a growing number also feel that the city is failing them when it comes to providing mental health services, according to the newly released city of Palo Alto Community Survey, an annual gauge of public opinions.
Of the nearly 400 residents who responded to the survey, just 26% gave the city "good" or "excellent" ratings when asked about availability of affordable quality mental health care, down from 44% in 2021 and from 63% in 2014, the first year in which this question was asked.
That's just one of the topics that nearly 400 Palo Altans weighed in on when they took the survey, which the City Council plans to discuss at its Jan. 23 meeting, five days before it meets at its annual retreat to set its priorities for 2023.
According to a report from City Manager Ed Shikada, the survey is used to "gain insights into residents' perspectives about the community, including local amenities, services, public trust, resident participation and other aspects of the community."
"Survey information is used to support budgeting, land use and strategic planning and communication efforts with the community," the report states.
Currently, the city's list of priorities includes "community health and safety," which includes mental health support. The survey results underscore the city's challenges in addressing this topic and suggest that the priority, as it relates to mental health, will likely be retained and expanded on in the coming year.
While the subject of mental health has come up from time to time over the course of the year, the council has not taken up any new initiatives to directly address the pandemic's impact on the mental health of local residents. Council member Pat Burt, who served as mayor in 2022, highlighted the issue in his "State of the City" speech last April when he suggested that the city has entered the "post-trauma" period of the pandemic, a particularly difficult time for local youth.
Many kids, he noted, had to be "basically at home for the better part of two years."
"This is a big impact, and we as a community have to figure out how we're going to help these kids transition as we'll try to come out of this period and recover," he said.
Many seniors, he added, were also homebound for much of the pandemic and did not have normal opportunities to socialize and make connections, he said. "Those two ends of the spectrum of our community are ones that we have challenges with right now that are greater than we've had in a long while," Burt said.
The topic of mental health also came up during the recent council race, with newly elected council member Julie Lythcott-Haims listing it as a priority during her campaign and suggesting that the city form a task force that includes clinicians, nonprofits and school administrators to expand services for youths.
Vice Mayor Greer Stone, a high school teacher, said mental health services, especially for youth, should be a "critical priority for the city moving into 2023."
"We should take the results of the community survey seriously and help it inform what our next steps are going to be," Stone said. "The data is clear."
Cultural activities, parking get high marks
Availability of mental health services isn't the only area in which local opinions have shifted in the past year. The survey also suggests that many people believe the city can do a better job in getting them involved in government decision-making.
According to the survey, 46% of responders gave the city high marks for welcoming resident involvement. That's down from 56% in 2018 and 51% in 2021.
Not all news, however, is bleak. Much like in the past, the survey shows an overwhelming majority of Palo Alto residents giving the city high marks as a place to live (88% gave it high ratings), to work (79%) and to raise children (87%). A higher percentage of responders also gave the city positive ratings when it comes to opportunities to attend cultural, arts and music activities, with 78% ranking them good or excellent, compared to 71% in 2021.
In one of the pandemic's few bright spots, public parking now appears to be less of a concern as more employees are working remotely. In 2017 and 2018, the percentage of surveyed residents who gave the city high grades for ease of public parking was 33% and 32%, respectively. That went up to 59% in 2021 and to 67% in 2022, according to the survey.
Schools, meanwhile, are continuing to get high marks, with 88% of responders giving them "good" or "excellent" grades, roughly similar to prior years. At the same time, however, more residents are expressing concern about availability of affordable quality child care or preschools. Just 34% gave the city high scores in this category in 2022, down from 44% in 2021.
The survey also shows that while residents generally give high ratings to their quality of life, a growing number no longer see Palo Alto as a great place to retire, with only 46% rating it "good" or "excellent," down from 52% last year and from 68% a decade ago.
Since the city began its surveys in 2003, only one year had lower retirement scores: 2018, when just 40% gave the city high marks in the retirement category.
Anxiety over housing may play a role. Much like in the past, Palo Alto continues to get dismal scores when it comes to housing availability and affordability, with only 5% of responders giving the city high scores when asked about "cost of living" and just 6% giving rating it highly when asked about "availability of affordable housing." In both categories, Palo Alto was near the bottom in the list of nearly 300 jurisdictions surveyed by the National Research Center.
And when residents were asked what one change the city could make to make them happier, 24% of those who responded focused on housing (concerns about street conditions, which were the subject of 14% of the responses, were a distant second). "Build more housing" was a common refrain in the open-ended answer section. One person said they wish they could find cheaper rent as a graduate student; another requested "fair housing for everyone, with dignity"; while another asked for "more housing for teachers, fire fighters, service people, artists & musicians."
"The current high-rises are quite ugly; maybe something a little nicer looking?" they added.
The community survey also showed a growing demand for city services in 2022, compared to the prior year. Library use went up, with 72% of the responders reporting having used a library over the past year, up from 62% in 2021. In addition, 47% said they had used a recreation center over the prior 12 months, up from 39% in 2021.
But even though 45% of the residents said they had attended a city-sponsored event in 2022, up from 30% in 2021, fewer people expressed interest in shaping city decisions. The percentage of residents who reported that they had voted in the most recent election, attended a public meeting or watched a public meeting on their screens went down between 2021 and 2022, according to the survey.
"While residents value city services, civic participation has decreased," the survey concludes.
The survey, administered by the company Polco, was conducted between October and December and involved sending out 3,600 surveys to randomly selected households in all sections of the city.
According to Polco, 398 people completed and returned their surveys, for a response rate of 12%. Of those surveys sent, 7% were returned because the residence was vacant or the postal service was unable to deliver the survey.