Here’s How Cities Are Committing to Wellbeing — and How Yours Can, Too

For much of the last decade, the Smart Cities movement received much attention from policymakers by offering to improve the efficiency, accessibility, and cost-effectiveness of city services by optimizing  data management. But for all of these promises of radical improvements, have the proponents of smart cities actually managed to improve life in cities? Has optimization and efficiency cracked the code? Has it made life easier, healthier, or more sustainable for urban residents? We have our doubts.

As an organization dedicated to shaping a better urban future, we believe that if we want to improve the quality of life in cities, we have to stop seeing it as an afterthought. Wellbeing should be at the heart of how we plan, assess and design our cities.
For that reason, we introduced the Wellbeing Cities Award in 2019 to recognize cities that are transforming urban life by investing in public health, in strong communities, in a thriving and sustainable environment, and, in the local economy.

As we launch the call for applications for our 2020 edition today, we wanted to reflect on the top five lessons learnt from our 2019 international laureates: Milan, Santa Monica, Lisbon, Pune and Kigali.
Could your city be next? We encourage worldwide cities to demonstrate how they are working to improve urban wellbeing. By applying, they will compete with other like-minded champions to share, discuss and challenge existing ideas.

1. Wellbeing cities work hand in hand with citizens

Public consultations and crowd urbanism are increasingly popular — while harnessing a spirit of local ownership, they also allow policymakers to identify new perspectives and solutions.

Milan’s bottom-up crowdfunding initiative, Civic Crowdfunding, was designed to foster the implementation of innovative public-interest projects with a high social impact. Through the pooling of public and private resources and the promotion and encouragement of citizens’ involvement in municipal policy, Milan is funding initiatives that work toward inclusivity, sustainability, and improved quality of life. After four rounds, 16 local projects were shortlisted including the installation of a cinema in a hospital (Medicinema), and the creation of a community carpentry studio allowing locals to build and repair objects while connecting with neighbors (Gallab).
As mayor Giuseppe Sala of Milan said, Civic Crowdfunding has helped to “foster a dialogue on new scenarios of change, enhancing key spaces and experiences that are pivotal to the city.”

2. Wellbeing cities know how to work with different stakeholders

Bringing in the private, academic, or non-profit sector can open up important new possibilities for cities. The city of Pune, India, ran its Lighthouse Project — a mentorship program for disadvantaged youth in urban areas — in partnership with a set of local organizations who provide courses, workshops and support to its enrolled students. Working with a total of 25 partners offering various training programs, Pune’s Lighthouse Project has been able to provide students with a wider choice of disciplines and more flexibility in placement.
The lesson here is that transformational change happens when the entire ecosystem works together towards a common goal.  Bringing in a variety of relevant stakeholders can allow cities to work much more effectively.

3. Wellbeing cities are not  afraid to look far ahead

Santa Monica in California published its first Wellbeing Index in 2015. Shifting the focus away from GDP and closer to the lived experience of Santa Monica’s residents, the Index helps identify specific needs of the population to create new policies and programs. Initiatives such as a healthy lifestyle program with FitBit or the Pico Wellbeing Project were just the beginning.

Currently, the Index monitors the performance of services and measures the policy’s impact across city departments. In the long term, the city plans to adopt a wellbeing-oriented budgeting approach and use the Index to determine priorities for future strategic plans.
The city successfully earned support and enthusiasm from citizens by working step by step to set an ambitious vision of wellbeing for Santa Monica’s future. In fact, city residents are now quoting the Index to argue for improvement in front of City Council, proving that they are rallying to the cause.

4. Cities recognize (and leverage) the holistic nature of wellbeing

Every other Sunday, the City of Kigali in Rwanda offers its citizens free medical check-ups and advice. And  on the same day, residents are invited to park their cars and to engage in sports, meet with their neighbors, and participate in neighborhood events. Attended by nearly 6000 participants since 2016, the Kigali Car Free Day was primarily designed to prevent and fight non-communicable diseases, and to promote healthy lifestyles. In the meantime, it has become an occasion to decrease traffic and local greenhouse gas emissions, all the while increasing social connectedness by promoting community activities.

Perceived quality of life as felt by individuals is affected by the many threads of the complex city fabric: factors such as the social systems and the organization of communities, the surrounding physical environment, distribution of time between work and play, access to transportation, housing and medical care, to name a few.

Approaching wellbeing as a policy and planning goal provides an opportunity to look at the urban living experience as a whole, and tackle challenges transversally.

5. Cities learn from others’ experiences

Lisbon’s Sustainable Environmental Strategy, 2019 laureate in our Sustainable Environment category, has been designed to address an overall vision of a green transformation towards a livable, creative, healthy and innovative city.

Within this plan, the City promotes making spaces safer and more accessible for pedestrians alongside other urban mobility initiatives. Dissatisfied with the level of information and guidance given by national policy on the subject, Lisbon conducted a thorough review of other cities’ accessibility policies, including San Francisco and Barcelona.

Lisbon has also made its mark sharing its own experience and best practices through various networks — a characteristic common across all our laureate cities. Kigali has inspired other African cities to take the leap towards a car-free day and five Italian cities modeled their civic crowdfunding initiatives after Milan’s; Santa Monica’s Office of Wellbeing has traveled all the way to India to share their story; and so on.

Knowledge-sharing and inspiration across a global community of dedicated experts, city leaders and policy makers are just what the Wellbeing Cities Award aims to do. As we launch the call for applications of the 2020 edition, we are excited to discover more compelling and impactful stories of urban wellbeing that we can highlight on a global stage — moving further away from smart cities to advance the global movement of wellbeing cities. — John Rossant

Find out more and apply here.

The Wellbeing Cities Award recognizes cities that are transforming urban life by investing in public health, strong communities, a thriving and sustainable environment, and the local economy. The Award cumulates in the annual Wellbeing Cities Forum (June 16-17th, 2020 in Montréal, QC), attracting 300 leaders from around the world to explore the best practices in city-led action to improve citizen wellbeing and to celebrate the laureates of the Wellbeing Cities Award. The Wellbeing Cities Award and Forum are initiatives powered by NewCities. The call for applications of the Wellbeing Cities Award is now open until February 5th, 2020.