Infusing equity into the World Happiness Report

by Charles Montgomery on

The 2018 Global Happiness Policy Report is out. This time, the report contains practical solutions for governments and cities interested in boosting wellbeing.

We were thrilled to be asked to contribute to this report as part of the sub-council on Happy Cities. We are proud to say that we were able to infuse the report with real-world examples of people using smart city solutions to boost equity, inclusion and health.

It’s important to note the report’s main conclusion. That happiness policy isn’t just about good cheer. It’s about creating the conditions for everyone to enjoy a better life. How do we get there? Here’s a summary worth paying attention to:

“A country’s ranking on happiness depends on six key conditions: economic prosperity, including decent work for all who want it; the physical and mental health of the citizens; freedom of individuals to make key life decisions; strong and vibrant social support networks (social capital); shared public values of generosity; and social trust, including confidence in the honesty of business and government.

“It’s no accident, for example, that the Scandinavian countries routinely top the list of happiest countries in the annual World Happiness Report. These countries are prosperous, healthy, and trusting. Corruption is low. Generosity is high. Individuals feel empowered to make key life choices. The social welfare state limits the inequalities between wealth and poverty, and delivers public services to all citizens. The rich do not run politics.

“On the other hand, in some other high-income countries, the happiness ranking is far lower. Wealth may be high, but the wealth is accompanied by an excessive inequality of income, wealth, and political power. Trust, as a result, is often reduced by high inequalities of income.”

So happier countries are fairer, freer, more trusting, and more equal. Cities can help.

Here are our favorite examples from the report of smart city approaches to boost happiness.

We’re lifting directly from the report here. So you’re getting the long version:

LISC – Local Initiatives Support Corporation (USA)

Societies that are more inclusive generally achieve better results on health and happiness (Montgomery, 2013). Also, the social inclusion approach should address need or alienation wherever it exists (UNDP, 2007). Such an approach means going beyond enforcing human rights, to reducing poverty and barriers to social connection in the city. The inclusive approach opens up pathways for everyone to access economic and civic opportunities, and includes all members of societal activities, such as economic and social processes. Cities can use evidence-based design and technology to ensure that the broadest range of people can access
the bene ts of city life.
There are organisations that take such a philosophy into the realm of practice, like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a non-pro t that brings together governments, private companies and non-pro ts to revive poor communities across the USA.

Established in 1980, LISC has a clear mission to create “resilient and inclusive communities of opportunity across America – great places to live, work, visit, do business and raise families.” Aside from many speci c initiatives focused on areas such as health and education, LISC also operates the Economic Development initiative. This aims to improve the health of neighbourhoods by “investing in the physical and social assets of a community’s business district. To make this happen, we support programs and invest in projects that cultivate entrepreneurship, attract new businesses, diversify the local retail mix and stimulate employment.”

Across the US, people’s home postal code can
be used to predict their access to quality jobs, schools, safe streets and good housing – and their life expectancy. LISC’s Affordable Housing initiative combines population need data with evidence-based design in cities such as Phoenix to drive grants, loans and equity investments in housing that give more people access to the city while reducing health care costs (LISC, 2017). For example, LISC has constructed medium-density affordable housing (4-6 story apartment buildings) in walkable neighbourhoods on a new light rail corridor in the Phoenix region.

The initiative adopts a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) approach to urban development and situates affordable housing in walkable areas near high-quality transit. In this way, LISC brings residents closer to jobs, while reducing their expense on private automobiles. By encouraging more walking, this concurrently lowers public healthcare spending. In Brockton, Massachusetts, LISC nanced a new health centre beside a grocery store. The synergy induced more walking, which tackled the neighbourhood’s diabetes and heart disease challenges.

Divine Legacy, a walkable, affordable housing project financed by LISC in Phoenix

A Community Hub for health and safety (Prince Albert, Canada)

In many cities, human services systems, such as police and social services, are response-driven. As such, they often fail to intervene before harm occurs to people who live at risk of abuse, mental health crises or illegal activity. For example, some at-risk youth in Canadian communities fall into the criminal justice system, in part because social services are not offered to them while their risk factors are elevating, as opposed to after a crisis.

Many smaller communities lack ready access to human service providers. The Hub model uses information and communication technology to overcome barriers of communication, geography, information sharing and service access in such communities.

This model, pioneered in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada, mobilises multiple human services in a highly-disciplined process of ongoing risk detect intervention. One example: Almost four years ago the police found a 13-year- old girl highly intoxicated and unconscious in a snowbank late at night. After receiving attention at hospital, she was returned to her mother. The police observed other indicators of elevate risk at the home. They brought this case forward at the Hub meeting the following day. Within 24 hours, a small multi-disciplinary team met with the mother and daughter. It was learned that a number of months earlier, the mother had recently entered into an abusive relationship with a man recently released from prison. The girl’s grades had deteriorated, the family was under support by social services, and the mother exhibited clear signs of domestic violence. This relationship was having a profound impact on the family. Support was provided to get the woman out of the relationship, and the family was provided with the comprehensive social and
mental health supports required. The girl and her family have not required any additional support since this intervention.

This Hub model, by providing upstream and earlier service access, has led to a reduction of risk before harm occurs to community members (e.g. violence, overdose). Multiple evaluations have shown that the hub model of information sharing improves service access, reduces barriers to service, and decreases aggregate risk. Nationally [CM5], 95% of clients in Canada (N = 9,500) accept the services and supports offered to them through this upstream intervention model.

Tomo House: designed for sociability

The City of Vancouver in British Columbia (BC), Canada, has also identi ed a relationship between residential towers and low social trust and social connectedness. Consequently, BC Housing, a public housing agency, and Happy City (an urban well-being agency), created an evidence-based toolkit on maximising social relationships in multi-family housing, connecting dozens of studies to speci c actions in design (Happy City, 2017a). The evidence in this toolkit is now being used to guide design of private socially-supportive housing models such as Tomo, a 12-unit co-housing light project in Vancouver which includes unique and adaptable spaces to facilitate social group bonding at various scales (Bula, 2017).