UWI’s Journey to Creating a Model and Framework for Happy Cities By Vafa Valapour

11 Dec 2017 Vafa Valapour Linkedin

This fall, we presented UWI’s approach for building happier cities at the 7th International Conference on Gross National Happiness, held in Thimpu, Bhutan. This marked a critical milestone in a journey we began five years ago when we first began envisioning a broader definition for resident prosperity in cities.

Since 2005, when UWI was founded, we have been committed to building sustainably; to harmonizing the natural and built environments, and to ensuring that the regulatory environment and services we provide in our cities allow for people in businesses to thrive, and for residents to have their aspirations met.

The more our cities evolved, the more of a priority the topic of what makes residents happier became for us. We began exploring more robust ways of engaging prosperity in a community, and recognized that measurements like growth in per capita Gross Domestic Product were no longer suitable as standalone indicators for our cities, and that infrastructure improvements had a significant impact on wellbeing in our communities.

Today, governmental interest in improving national happiness is rising and there is widespread understanding that, while GDP is an important factor that impacts national happiness, economic indicators do not necessarily provide a clear picture of how our cities are doing. Previously, though, there was less consensus on whether subjective measures such as happiness were measurable.

Bhutan’s first report around its newly developed Gross National Happiness provided a new perspective for us – a set of metrics to consider at the individual level which aligned with what we felt had been missing. In 2011, the GNH Index provided a new perspective for the rest of the world, as well, when the UN adopted resolution 65/309 inviting member states to follow Bhutan’s lead in measuring for happiness.

To move our initiative forward, in 2014 we invited a practitioner with significant field experience in building community capacity, Aubrilyn Reeder, to establish a scalable model for measuring happiness and considering those measures in our urban development decisions. To develop our approach, Aubrilyn has focused on identifying the diverse expertise required to meet our goal of happier cities, working with our teams to align it with our core offerings, and staying abreast of the latest developments in urban happiness to advocate for new and innovative approaches.

Through these efforts, we’ve developed UWI’s Happiness & Wellbeing Index, UWI’s version of the Gross National Happiness Index, highly influenced by the work of Bhutan, the World Happiness Report (UNSDSN), Global Well-Being (Gallup Healthways), the Better Life Index and Guidelines for Measuring Subjective Well-Being (OECD). For simplicity, we define happiness measures as those which require a subjective assessment – daily positive and negative emotions, overall assessment of life, satisfaction in different areas of life, and feeling a sense of purposefulness.

We also include a set of measures which we describe as ‘wellbeing’ which describe those measures which are more observable and are known to impact happiness – health, social connections, income, and more. In this way, we haven’t left the GDP and economic indicators behind, we’re just better supporting them with a fuller picture which aligns more closely with what we have aspired to achieve in our work over the last decade.

To move these measures beyond an academic exercise to a happier city, we then identify inputs in the built environments which will have the greatest potential to improve these happiness and wellbeing measures.

There are many varied opinions about what defines a Happy City. For us, a happy city is a location where infrastructure supports and enables the ability for communities to thrive, and for residents of a community to be empowered to meet their aspirations – whether that be through nurturing new industries to drive job growth and economic opportunities or whether that be through designing an urban layout which enables healthier lifestyles and greater time building social connection.

Since the appointment of the Minister of State for Happiness here in the UAE, it’s been a whirlwind for us as the UAE has joined Bhutan as a standard bearer in governing for happiness and interest in this approach is increasing.

We believe that it is within our capacity to enable improved happiness and wellbeing through the provision of planned infrastructure, city services, and customized policies within a unique framework.

The presentation of our approach to building happier cities at Bhutan’s Conference on Gross National Happiness helped us mark an internal milestone publicly. It was the culmination of developing an implementable approach to building cities for happiness and the start of the next steps in our journey to work with governments around the world to help them build happier cities.

The UN projects that by 2050 nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will be urban, an increase of 2.4 billion people with approximately half from rural migration.  Our work in cities today will impact many generations to come. Considering the happiness of those generations will drive our continued work.

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