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Why Santa Cruz, CA is One of the Best Places to Live in America

“One-in-a-million” city offers natural beauty, culture -- and fun

By Laura Hill on July 5, 2016

Santa Cruz CA
Santa Cruz / Courtesy of Peter Andersson under a CC 2.0 license.

There are a very – very – few places where you can surf world-class waves before breakfast; hike among giant redwoods in the morning; enjoy a gourmet, organic lunch; work on your Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in the afternoon; catch whales frolicking off the coast; and then enjoy a bit of Shakespeare in the evening.

Santa Cruz, CA is one of those rare places, and its unique amenities helped land it once again on our list of 100 Best Places to Live in 2016.

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This city of 62,000 people on the Pacific coast of northern California, enjoys 250 days of sunshine annually in which to enjoy one of the world’s great surfing beaches. It’s also nestled next to the Santa Cruz Mountains, where spectacular hiking trails afford sweeping views of the ocean. And the iconic, ancient redwood forests provide another natural habitat that residents cherish and visitors gaze at in awe.

“I think what draws people initially is the natural resources, and then the uniqueness of the community. It’s a one-in-a-million place, with something for everyone,” said assistant city manager Scott Collins, who graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz, moved away and then returned five years ago to the city he unabashedly admires. 

Natural Beauty, Lots to Do

Collins lists what makes Santa Cruz so attractive and accounts for its steady growth. There’s the beach, of course, whose fame as a surfing destination made Santa Cruz the natural home of the Surfing Museum. There’s the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Whale watching. The longest wooden wharf in the country. A  delightful boardwalk complete with roller coaster. A vibrant downtown with historic architecture, a thriving culinary scene and an arts community that rivals that of Santa Fe, NM. Any wonder Santa Cruz was named a Livability Best Spring Break Destination for Families?

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Wrapping up the entire package: a shared, community sense of Santa Cruz as something to be appreciated and preserved.

 “Santa Cruz has a sense of itself – there is a uniqueness to it, an identity that people can recognize,” Collins said. “We’re not your average run-of-the-mill city.” 

Highly Rated Education

Given the presence of UC Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz scored unsurprisingly high as an educational community. A highly rated public school system includes nationally recognized public and charter high schools such as Pacific Collegiate, one of the nation’s top schools. Secondary school students can pursue a degree right at home, either at UCSC , which offers 65 undergraduate majors and 41 grad programs, or the well-respected Cabrillo College. 

Santa Cruz’s health care also received high marks, which Collins credits significantly to an emphasis on preventive health and wellness options.

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“First, we have good access to healthy food for everybody, a big thing, through our partnerships with nonprofit organizations, to make sure that all income levels have access to good, healthy food,” he said. “And we have a good, active community, which we encourage with lots of recreational activities and facilities.”

Health Care

When medical treatment is necessary, Santa Cruz is served by Dignity Health Dominican Hospital, which offers sophisticated cardiac care, a stroke center, cancer center, a level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and many more services. Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Westside Center’s services include family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, urgent care, radiology/imaging and laboratory.

Housing, which also ranked high among Santa Cruz’s strengths, offers varied options, but tends to be expensive – the average home price is north of $645,000, as is the case with much of northern California, especially in the Bay Area. But the city is working hard to meet the demand for more affordable housing.

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“We’re looking at many alternatives, working with the business community, the university, nonprofits, the development community and hospitals — we’re all in this together,” Collins says. “We want to make sure they can keep their employees here.

“We’re a beach town at heart, but it’s changing and we want it to change in a way that makes sense. We want to develop in a way that maintains our identity and livability.”

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