At 7.6 billion and counting, can we be happy?

16 Jul 2017 Aubrilyn Reeder LinkedIn

This month, we celebrated World Population Day, a day designed to focus global attention on issues related to population growth. But, with approximately 9,500 more people added to the world population each hour, perhaps we can dedicate a few more days to it. By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion people, according to new data from the United Nations – up from 7.6 billion today.

Nowhere will this surge be felt more acutely than in our cities. Drawn to greater access to health, employment, and educational opportunities, humanity is migrating to cities as their existing populations continue to grow. In the next twenty years, urban populations are expected to increase by 80%.

Without stakeholder involvement and a new vision for city development, this has the potential to further strain resources and exacerbate existing inequalities, making cities unlivable and unhappy. If we continue to develop on our current path, almost half of the future urban population will be living below the poverty line.

However, with collaboration between diverse stakeholders – governments, civil society organizations, the private sector, and the public – and a multi-dimensional vision for city development, this could also be a game changer, as cities will be required to better understand and meet the needs of residents, leading to changes that improve the quality of life and, potentially, make cities happier.

While for some, cities may still conjure up literary images of overcrowding and poverty, many cities have evolved in the last century to meet basic standards of living for most and actually could help solve challenges caused by increased population. Cities have a smaller environmental footprint and more efficient shared infrastructure and services. Mass transit and shorter travel distances can reduce carbon emissions. Municipal services, such as waste removal, clean water provision, and electricity are more accessible to more people.

The fact that cities continue to attract so many new residents, despite the challenges, is an indication that the benefits of cities outweigh the challenges. But, cities still must evolve further to ensure that benefits are distributed to everyone and enable the upward mobility that attract people to them in the first place. For example, there are still disappointing statistics about access to basic services in cities. Among urban dwellers, 100 million have no access to any toilet facilities, 600 million more only have access to toilets that are not linked to a proper sewage network, and 156 million live without access to clean water.

To fully realize the potential in cities, now is the time to meet their challenges and address the universal goal of city residents, if not everyone – improving their happiness and wellbeing – and to do this in a way that is data-driven. If this is not the central objective and modus operendi, then our cities will fail to develop into places which people actually want and places where they can realize their own potential.

Planners and governments, with advocacy from civil society organizations, already instinctively aspire to build cities that make people happier. They work to ease road congestion, expensive housing, segregation, and pollution – while promoting walking, affordable public transportation, accessibility to services, and a sense of community. But, without actually measuring happiness, they must make assumptions about inputs which would improve quality of life and these assumptions very often rely on the experiences of a smaller sample of the population – those with already high social capital and income.

Considering the subjectivity of happiness, we should start by better understanding how people feel about their lives now and how their environment affects those feelings and then work backwards to determine and/or prioritize city policies, infrastructure, and services which will have the greatest impact.

Research over the past two decades has helped define components of happiness which are measurable and self-reported. They include life satisfaction, daily emotions, and a sense of fulfillment, among other measures of satisfaction. When considered with other, more objective wellbeing measures such as household income and healthy days, we can identify those environmental factors and conditions which affect happiness.

While household income has a strong impact on happiness, analysis from the World Happiness Report 2017 demonstrates the impact of social connections and health on happiness.   Despite lower GDP per capita, nations like Costa Rica with a GDP per capita USD 12K and strong social connections reports higher evaluations of happiness than most other countries including Luxemburg with a GDP per capita USD 102K. Based on these kinds of insights, new cities might redefine urban life and existing cities reinvent urban spaces to be more focused on facilitating social interaction integrated with options for privacy.

Cities have the power to improve happiness and wellbeing when the policies, infrastructure, and services are developed considering these measures and private sector actors, from institutional investors to SMEs, are important partners in both funding these inputs and creating economically sustainable communities. United World Infrastructure (UWI) considers happiness and wellbeing data critical to accomplishing these tasks effectively.

Borrowing best-practice principles from the World Happiness Report, Gallup Healthways’ Global Well-Being, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index and Guidelines for Measuring Subjective Well-Being, and the Gross National Happiness of Bhutan, UWI has developed a proprietary Happiness and Wellbeing Index with subjective and objective measures in nine areas: communal, social, cultural, physical, spiritual, intellectual, financial, civil, and ecological.  Launched at this year’s International Day of Happiness, our proprietary index and framework guide our approach to advancing happier cities through infrastructure.

Planned and managed to measurably improve happiness, cities can meet the challenge of rising populations and be happier while benefiting from improved health, longer life, stronger social connections, and increased productivity – so they can be happier into perpetuity. So, don’t worry, we can be happy. We’ll just need to start working towards it : )

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