'If you want to solve poverty and marginalization, the smartest approach is to get the experts — the poor and marginalized — to help with solutions'
It’s become a spring ritual. Every March, the release of the World Happiness Report — which ranks countries according to citizens’ self-reported life satisfaction — triggers a storm of tweets from pundits bragging or complaining about their place on the list.
And then we all forget about societal happiness for another year.
That’s a mistake. The authors of the report offer a mountain of evidence that human happiness is a much smarter measure of success for cities and nations than just economic growth. Happy people are healthier than unhappy people. They perform better at work. They are less likely to kill themselves — or other people, for that matter.
What are the conditions that predict societal happiness? According to the 2019 World Happiness Report, released this week at the United Nations, wealth does matter, but so does a long and healthy life, and so does the feeling that one lives in a generous society. Freedom to make life choices and freedom from corruption matter, too.
Above all, though, happiness depends on positive social relationships. Happiness used to be seen as a personal pursuit. But scientists are realizing that the environments and systems that surround us have a huge impact. The cities we live in (about 4.2 billion, or 55 per cent of us, as of 2018) are particularly important.
For example, researchers have found that when people move to cities planned around cars, they gain weight; that some public park designs actually repel women and girls; and that drivers in heavy traffic experience the same stress response as fighter jet pilots.
Some cities have embraced the so-called “happiness movement.” Santa Monica has developed its own wellbeing index. Dubai created a tool to measure the success of all new projects at nurturing long-term happiness. But few of the people who design, plan and run most cities understand the wellbeing connection.
Those of us who study happiness want to change that. Over the past year, dozens of experts have been meeting in Dubai, to explore how lessons from happiness science might be transformed into practical ideas to boost societal wellbeing. We found inspiration from countries around the world, which we rolled into the Global Happiness Policy Report. Some of the ideas and actions have come from governments. Others started at the grassroots.
Take one of our favourites, the Binners’ Project. This remarkable initiative began as a conversation between a rag-tag group of “binners,” people who eke out their living collecting bottles and other recyclables from back alleys, and social activists in Vancouver.
The binners have traditionally been treated with disdain, but they actually conduct important recycling work. “The binners do something that most people would not want to do, but yet it is totally valuable and it requires skills,” says the project’s co-founder Anna Godefroy. “What was once seen as a problem — binning — is actually part of the solution to poverty, waste and social isolation.”
With the help of the activists and support from the City of Vancouver, the binners got organized into efficient recycling teams. They put on uniforms. They struck waste sorting deals with local businesses and festivals.
Not only has this helped city partners meet sustainability goals, assisting customers like Capilano Suspension Bridge to reduce landfill waste by 90 per cent, but the project has had a transformative effect on binners psychological wellbeing.
“We deal with mental health issues. Many of us are drug addicts, dirty and stinky. And we are lone wolves,” ” says binner Davin Boutang. “There was no connection among the binners before the project started. There was no network.”
Now, binners like Boutang are part of a 120-person team. They offer each other support. Their incomes have gone up. And they have found respect and legitimacy in their new role in the city, says Boutang, who developed the skills to become the project’s program manager. “We are not just hanging out in back alleys anymore. Our voices are heard. We are appreciated.”
The lesson for cities? If you want to solve poverty and marginalization, the smartest approach is to get the experts — the poor and marginalized — to help with solutions. But more broadly, as happiness economist Jan-Emmanuel De Neve argues, the best way to boost societal happiness is to focus on the needs of the least happy. People are happier in societies where wellbeing is spread more equally.
The opportunities to boost urban happiness are endless. For starters, here are eight more diverse measures drawn from the Global Happiness Policy Report, and our own travels among cities chasing happiness for all.
1. MAKE CHANGE A GAME
We all know we would be healthier if we walked or biked more often. It also happens to be good for the health of a city. Cycle commuters are less anxiousthan drivers and more productive when they arrive at work. But psychologists have shown that, in the face of immediate temptation (such as, say, a comfortable car in the driveway), most of us are terrible at making decisions that pay off in the long term.
A Chinese app, Ant Forest, helps its 300 million users overcome this kink in the human brain by turning long-term goals into a game. When users walk, bike or take transit, the app generates “virtual trees” for them on their smart phones. When that tree is fully grown, Ant Financial plants a real tree in the Gobi Desert. So far, the app has cut 150,000 tons of carbon emissions, while reducing air pollution and supporting healthier lifestyles.
Gamification is increasingly popular as a tool for behaviour modification. The Canadian app Carrot Rewards encourages one-million users to walk by giving them discounts at local businesses. But sometimes the health benefits of gaming simply come about by accident. In the U.S., players of Pokemon Go took 144-billion steps in the app’s first three months — adding 2.8 million years to their estimated lifespans.
2. LET CITIZENS DECIDE HOW TO SPEND CITY MONEY
People’s relationship with their government has a huge impact on happiness. Quite simply, when people feel that their government is listening and trustworthy, we feel happier. This might be one reason Canada (ranked ninth) beat the U.S. (ranked 19th) on this year’s World Happiness Report.
But how do big bureaucracies build bonds with individual citizens? At the municipal level, Halifax city councillor Waye Mason has been attempting to do just that with a tool known as participatory budgeting. Every year, residents in Mason’s district get a chance to decide which community projects should receive his $94,000 capital spending budget. Last year, they fundedplayground improvements, public furniture, and community garden upgrades.
Just as important as a say in spending is the fact that only residents who attend budgeting meetings in person are allowed to vote. In 2018, that promise attracted more than 500 people. As a result, neighbours meet each other and the volunteers pitching ideas —fostering not just a greater sense of empowerment, but stronger ties and a deepened sense of belonging among those who participate.
The Halifax experiment is modest. But 2,700 governments around the world now use participatory budgeting to determine city priorities, according to the World Resources Institute. It may be time for this idea to become standard practice: few governance interventions cost so little while delivering so much to strengthen communities.
3. PLANT LOTS OF TREES (AND GRASS AND FLOWERS AND VEGETABLES)
It was like a fairy tale: Residents of Aarhus, Denmark, woke up one morning to find their central square, a large, flat, grey plaza, had been turned into a green meadow, replete with rolling hills and hundreds of mature trees.
Thousands of people came out to experience “The Forest,” created by the architecture firm Schønherr as a visceral case for a greener city. Exposure to nature reduces stress and contributes to long-term mental health. It improves children’s performance at school. Our own experiments have shown that it also nurtures social trust, which is a prime driver of societal happiness.
Other cities are taking decisive action to make these benefits permanent. The Western suburbs of Melbourne recently achieved their goal of planting one-million trees. But smaller projects work too: When the City of Philadelphia insert simple gardens on vacant lots, spending a little as $1,000 on each space, people nearby reported feeling less depressed and “less worthless.”
4. HOUSE THE HOMELESS
It’s no surprise that homelessness is a disaster for individual wellbeing. Homeless people face levels of stress twice as high as the general population. Life expectancy for homeless men is 47, for women it’s 43. But it’s also terrible for societal wellbeing. Living amid inequality — especially extreme inequality — makes everyone less happy, according to the authors of the World Happiness Report.
In Vancouver, where more than 2,000 people live on the streets, the city teamed up with the province for an innovative solution reflecting the urgency of the problem: temporary modular housing. By constructing apartment units in a factory and then assembling them on site like Lego bricks, buildings can be completed in less than three months. Thirteen have been erected on vacant city land since September 2017, housing 606 people.
The initiative is actually expected to save government money. The estimated annual bill to society for one homeless person in Vancouver is $53,000 due to the cost of emergency shelters, emergency services, extra health care, court appearances and incarceration. The cost of basic housing, meanwhile, is about half that. The faster the city can house its homeless, the more money it will save.
5. LEGALIZE “MISSING MIDDLE” HOUSING
Many cities seem to choose one of two bad options for growth: more sprawling suburbs or enormous residential towers downtown.
Both extremes are associated with high levels of social disconnection. On the one hand, the long distances in sprawl steal people’s social time. On the other hand, tower residents report feeling more isolated than people living in smaller social clusters. Meanwhile, some inner suburbs are actually dropping in population as family sizes shrink, undermining the viability of local business.
Minneapolis has taken the boldest approach in North America to solve this conundrum. The city’s 2040 plan allows triplexes everywhere — even in areas dominated by single-family homes — so that every existing neighbourhood can help absorb new growth at a human scale, while bringing more customers to local businesses. It also allows three- to six-storey buildings on some transit corridors. This scale of housing has been found to be more conducive to nurturing social trust and a sense of belonging.
The plan also nurtures more affordable housing by allowing for, and funding, more low-cost housing in desirable areas, and reduces the burden to provide off-street parking by putting residents in walking distance from shops and services along transit corridors. This walkability itself leads to stronger social relations.
6. PREPARE FOR AUTONOMOUS CARMAGEDDON
Transportation futurists predict that if governments aren’t careful, autonomous cars will lure people away from walking or efficient transit, instead miring city cores in gridlock. This is already the trend with ride-hailing apps in New York, where Uber and Lyft have added an extra 1.5-billion kilometres of driving to the city’s streets every year.
This heavier traffic is a disaster for wellbeing. It increases stress for both drivers and neighbouring residents, due to noise and fumes. Studies show that residents on streets crammed with moving cars are less likely to socialize on sidewalks or know their neighbours. And it corrodes the economy; in New York, an estimated $20 billion annually is lost in time and revenue because people and goods are stuck in traffic.
New York has one solution for this problem, however: The city plans to start charging a fee for all Uber, Lyft and taxi trips entering downtown this year, directing all proceeds to transit. Other cities are preparing for autonomous vehicles by privileging shared rides. Both Surrey and Vancouver included dedicated lanes for autonomous transit shuttles in their bids for the Canadian governments’ Smart Cities Challenge.
7. ENCOURAGE LOITERING
The World Happiness Report finds that social connections are the single most powerful predictor of societal happiness. Social isolation has a profound impact on health, increasing risk of death by a third for people who live alone.
Vancouver is redesigning public space accordingly. The city’s “Pavement-to-Plaza” program transforms boring streets into places where residents might actually want to spend time together. Interventions are low-cost and fast to install — typically involving colourful paint, new seating and ping-pong tables — enabling the city to test new ideas and implement what works best.
This approach to improving public space, dubbed “tactical urbanism,” is becoming increasingly popular around the world. We studied the psychological effect of Vancouver’s interventions, and found that they boosted people’s feelintogegs of trust in strangers and sense of belonging.
8. PLAN CITIES FOR GIRLS
Twenty years ago, a planner in the City of Vienna named Eva Kail decided to study how men and women were using 36 public parks. What she found demonstrated how unfair cities can be: the parks were full of girls, the research showed, but girls above the age of nine were largely missing. Why? Because park designers — often men — had not really considered their needs.
So Kail’s team simply asked them, and the city redesigned six parks as pilots. Volleyball facilities were installed, podium-like viewing areas for better overviews of the park were created, playgrounds for small children were situated beside play areas for older children, because many migrant girls take care of their younger siblings.
The effect was striking. Within months, there were significantly higher numbers of girls using the parks. And Kail has continued to champion what has become known as “gender planning,“ in Vienna and around the world. The idea is simple: to ensure that cities work for both boys and girls, men and women.
This is perhaps the most transformative and obvious lesson of the happy cities movement, and it reflects what Jane Jacobs wrote in The Life and Death of Great American Cities: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Source: National Post
This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.