Bristol’s ‘happy city’ initiative aims for new ways to measure livability

How happy are residents of Bristol, England? New research tools aim to find out. (Bristol City Council)

Bristol is the second most populous city in southern England, after London, and a city of contrasts. It is a place that houses some of the poorest areas in England, while at the same time holds one of the highest GDP levels in the country. In an effort to mend this gap, a research center came up with an alternative for policymaking: the Happy City Initiative.

With a booming modern economy focused on creative media, aerospace industries and electronics, Bristol is quickly becoming the ‘cool kid’ on the British block. Having the highest GDP per capita out of all the cities in England makes Bristol score high on livability indexes.

Moving away from the newly renovated, trendy waterfront, however, a different image of the city emerges. As the Guardian noted recently, Bristol houses some of the most deprived neighborhoods in England. Run-down suburbs in the southern part of the city have a child poverty range from 5 to 50 percent and life expectancy variations of almost a decade.

Bristol seems to be the perfect example showing that money, after a certain point, isn’t everything. Using GDP statistics and a policy focus on growth at all costs does not account for all the social challenges faced by the city. The case of Bristol clearly shows that a lot of the current livability rankings are based solely on the economic sector and some of the most “livable” cities still face growing social problems.

This situation is not limited to the UK — similar stories have been registered throughout Europe for nearly a decade now. ‘Beyond GDP is a European initiative launched in 2007 aiming at developing new indicators for a more comprehensive measure of livability and well-being in cities. The focus is on identifying more inclusive indicators regarding the environment and social aspects. These are considered key in registering progress in ways that meet citizens’ concerns together with new political developments.

The Beyond GDP initiative has been widely debated in cities and has led to changes in policymaking and prioritizing at a national level in countries such as Italy, Sweden, Spain and the UK.

In the UK, endorsements of alternative metrics for prosperity have led to new research centers determined on bridging the gap between policymaking and the citizens’ perspective. According to the Economist, relying on GDP as a prosperity measure accounts for “poor” policy measures. Still, this shift to a more citizen-oriented perspective is developing at a national level. 

“Although the ‘Beyond GDP’ movement has significantly developed on a national level, it has not done so on a local level,” researchers involved in the Bristol project wrote in a recent paper.  ”The Happy City Project … seeks to extend the ‘Beyond GDP’ approach into local neighbourhoods and implement a step change in the city away from material consumption towards promoting well­being.”

The Happy City Initiative in Bristol is a research center set on advocating for citizens contentment and well-being at local-level policymaking. The scope is to develop measurements which guide the public agenda toward livability, contentment, well-being — all indicators that have often proven difficult to translate into policy with specific measurement tools.

“Our research found that a person’s overall wellbeing is predicted almost equally by those ‘life in the city’ indicators as much as by what’s happening in their personal life.” Happy City researcher Sam Wren-Lewis recently told the Guardian. 

To this situation, the Happy City initiative comes with an alternative set of indicators which together provide a better understanding about the situation in Bristol and can act as a replicable model for other cities as well. The overall idea is to combine indicators that account for the “city conditions” (e. g. housing or transport) together with tools that attempt to read an individual’s quality of life from a personal perspective (e. g. job satisfaction, how often you interact with your neighbors).

The Happy Toolbox

The concrete result of the research undergone in Bristol is a suite of three measurement tools that have the potential to transform the way we approach urban living:

  • The Happiness Pulse attempts to read the personal, individual quality of life. It is an interactive survey that focuses on how people feel and function in their lives, work and community.
  • The Happy City Index is a progress report using 60 indicators — such as health, transport and housing — that account for the conditions of well-being at a city level. It combines the data sources with ratings for sustainability and equality to produce rankings.
  • The WellWorth Policy Tool acts as an alternative for the GDP rankings, converting the impact and cost-benefits of new interventions across policy areas. It focuses on converting the data from surveys and indexes into social and economic policy outcomes.

The Happy City initiative argues that together, these tools enable and support change, bridging the gap between social, local conditions and policymakers. They provide a deeper understanding of the social challenges faced in Bristol, moving away from the flourishing and inspirational city image set by the GDP rankings.

Happy City launched its set of measures on the 8th of November, with endorsement from Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees. It is an important note that policymakers in Bristol are open to more local alternatives that can help the city focus on its social struggles. At the same time, it is an example that new measures which emphasize local knowledge are key in minding the gap between citizens and policymaking.

This story was written by Monica Ciovica and originally appeared in New Europe - Cities in Transition. Read the original story here.

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New Europe - Cities in Transition is a European platform for and by city makers, and is an initiative of Pakhuis de Zwijger, an Amsterdam-based platform for social innovation in urban development.