Living Together, Happier Together
The annual Happiness Report was published late last March – with highlights including the need for government to take happiness and wellbeing more seriously. This year’s theme, Happier Together, focuses on what we have in common, rather than what divides us. In the wake of current affairs, and the political climate around the world, this theme couldn’t feel more important and on point.
On an individual level, people are told to take control of their own happiness – by giving, exercising, spending time with loved ones, meditating, and sleeping more. he list goes on. All of this is undoubtedly important. However, policymakers and innovators also have a responsibility to improve happiness and overall wellbeing. With more than 55 percent of the world’s population living in urban areas (with that expected to increase to 68 percent in the next 30 years), the role cities have in fostering and improving citizen happiness and wellbeing is enormous.
In an era of the relentless growth of our cities, we should re-examine what it means to have a happy city. We need to pause and ask ourselves: are we doing everything we can to create change and make urban wellbeing a priority? Since our founding in 2010, NewCities has acted as a catalyst to connect all levels of action in cities. The same coordinated and holistic approach needs to be applied when tackling citizens’ happiness and wellbeing.
For example, looking at urban wellbeing from a mobility perspective – we are seeing more and more cities collaborate on innovations to improve mobility options. In a study last year, Inrix estimated that the cost of congestion in the United States alone was $305 billion (USD)! That index combines car transport, tolls, air pollution, and personal stress from sitting in traffic. We are seeing more and more cities moving towards better mobility solutions that are integrated, less polluting, and more efficient. A few years ago, for example, NewCities and Ericsson collaborated with San Jose’s Department of Transport on a year-long study to make commuting less stressful by leveraging various social media tools. How to make transit a happier experience has since been a pivotal part of the conversation at the global LA CoMotion leadership conferences held every November.
We all have a role to play in improving our cities. Cities need to be more vibrant, accessible, and inclusive in order to foster better wellbeing and to have happier populations. At NewCities, we think of wellbeing as a multifaceted notion. We believe there are four key impact areas that are within the ‘gift’ of our city leaders, decision makers, and entrepreneurs: public health, strong communities, a thriving and sustainable environment, and a healthy local economy.
Evidence supports the theory that urban citizens have better health than their rural counterparts. However, the health advantages of urban living are more unevenly distributed within cities, with extreme inequalities existing across short distances . Achieving health and wellbeing at scale is related to a city’s ability to overcome unequal social distributions of health and champion equitable and socially sustainable policies, initiatives, and programs for all. In my hometown of Los Angeles, the Girls Play Los Angeles (GPLA) program strives to get underserved communities involved in sports and living a healthy lifestyle while making friends, building self-esteem and having fun. The program is publicly subsidized so that all girls can participate without any financial pressures.
A sustainable and accessible natural environment in cities has been shown to reduce stress, maintain emotional health, and accelerate recovery from illness – all ingredients contributing to happiness and urban wellbeing. In addition to the well-known environmental benefits of green space, there is a direct positive correlation between an urbanite’s mental wellbeing and a sense of community with access to public green space. In Moonee Valley (part of Melbourne), the city has implemented an urban forest initiative to increase tree canopy cover, and to improve access for citizens to experience everyday green space.
Economy and opportunity for all
One of the greatest challenges for cities in the 21st century is to develop the mechanisms and models for converting wealth and economic growth into happiness. In the ‘pursuit of happiness’ – cities must ensure access to opportunity, skills, and capacity building in order to grow inclusively and for the long term.
The economic wellbeing and opportunity of citizens can define our image of the happiness of a city; access to mobility networks to provide residents with a reasonable commute, affordability of spaces for businesses, and entrepreneurs, and a dynamic street-life and public spaces that contribute to vibrant neighborhood economies. The Lighthouses of Pune, India, is a long-term sustainable livelihood program targeting urban disadvantaged youth and giving them workplace skills and competencies that will allow and encourage a meaningful career.
Community is a powerful vehicle to create inclusion and growth to address equity and social sustainability issues, such as isolation, structural inequities, marginalization, and loneliness. Cities that foster policies and initiatives that strengthen communities and social cohesion are providing citizens with a sense of belonging, inclusivity, trust, and opportunity.
As the population of cities grows and density increases, cities need to be innovative in their strategies to address wellbeing through the urban environment. They must encourage human interactions, enable place activation, and address issues of affordable housing.
Milan’s bottom-up Civic Crowdfunding initiative has been designed to foster public interest projects and gets citizens involved in municipal policy that is inclusive, sustainable and improves happiness, wellbeing, and overall quality of life.
Just as buildings, cars, and national governments have enforceable and measurable standards, so should cities. With the increasing standard of urban life as the ultimate goal, cities must be judged on the activities and investments that promote wellbeing.
To do so, last year NewCities, together with Novartis Foundation and Novartis US Foundation, launched the Wellbeing City Award. We considered more than 100 cities from 26 countries and six continents – and last month announced 16 finalist cities. One laureate city under each of these four categories and one overall laureate, the Wellbeing City 2019, will be announced in May.
We launched this Award because we believe cities focusing on citizen wellbeing and happiness need to be acknowledged. But beyond acknowledging these cities – we need to share successes so that other cities can be inspired to mobilized around ideas and challenges, and advance the global wellbeing movement.
In June, NewCities, together with the City of Montréal, are bringing together more than 300 senior wellbeing leaders, policymakers, and experts from around the world for The Wellbeing Cities Forum: a global conversation and celebration of wellbeing in cities. Together we will explore best practices in city-led action to improve citizen wellbeing. Because that is what it takes – we need to learn together and we need to improve our cities together, in order to be happier together.
1. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision. Available via: https://population.un.org/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2018-KeyFacts.pdf [accessed 03/18/19]
2. INRIX 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard. Available via: http://inrix.com/scorecard/ [accessed 03/18/19]
3. S.Eckert & S.Kohler, Urbanization and Health in Developing Countries: A Systematic Review, 2014, Available via:
https://www.longwoods.com/content/23722//urbanization-and-health-in-developing-countries-a-systematic-review [accessed 03/18/19]