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Urban challenges are some of the many concerns which urban policy makers are asked to address

Urban challenges such as traffic, air pollution, noise, stress, overcrowding, socio-economic inequalities, food insecurity, excessive waste, ill-health, exclusion, conflict, privatisation of space and impacts of extreme weather, biodiversity loss and the climate crisis are some of the many concerns which urban policy makers are asked to address.  In 2018 at a summit of the World Health Organization’s European Healthy Cities Network in Copenhagen, Denmark, hundreds of Mayors committed to taking action on health, wellbeing and happiness in cities. 

They acknowledge that such globally significant, complex and intractable issues are not well-served by piecemeal approaches. In this context, interdisciplinary perspectives, systems level thinking in public health, data linkage, and design and engineering approaches have come to dominate policy discourses on urban wellbeing.  There is a hope that the accumulation and sharing of evidence on what works in improving health, wellbeing and quality of life in cities will lead to the resolution of these global urban challenges and a transformative future for the management of urban infrastructures. All of this puts research and evidence at the heart of the urban wellbeing agenda and renews the rationale for closer links between government, universities and industry – the so-called triple-helix system.

Defining urban wellbeing

Researchers have an important role to play in establishing research agendas, developing innovative methodologies, generating novel evidence on urban stressors, and devising impactful strategies for promoting urban wellbeing.  But there are many different accounts of what constitutes urban wellbeing:

  • ‘Quality of life’ approaches are focussed on determining which social indictors best demonstrate objective living standards (this might include measures of environmental quality, the material or social environment, education, housing, health, economic security, leisure, freedoms and governance). These approaches have influenced composite, often national indictors such as those used in the sustainable development goals, the OECD Better Life Index. 

  • A focus on subjective wellbeing, life satisfaction, or happiness has also become important in shaping research and action – with initiatives such as the Santa Monica Wellbeing Project, or the Seattle based Happiness Alliance Survey providing examples of how canvassing the ‘mood’ of the urban population can be used to inform policy and resource allocation, and to shift the goals of policy from facilitating economic growth to enabling communities to thrive. 

  • Other definitions have centred on mental health as the key site for understanding the impact of ‘urban stress’ on the mind, including cognitive processes, affective experience, psychological resilience or coping response, and spatial and social patterns of mental health diagnoses. There is an emphasis here on producing evidence through which we can ‘design in’ wellbeing through urban planning, architecture and preventative strategies at a whole-city scale

‘Quality of life’ approaches are focussed on determining which social indictors best demonstrate objective living standards (this might include measures of environmental quality, the material or social environment, education, housing, health, economic security, leisure, freedoms and governance). These approaches have influenced composite, often national indictors such as those used in the sustainable development goals, the OECD Better Life Index. 

A focus on subjective wellbeing, life satisfaction, or happiness has also become important in shaping research and action – with initiatives such as the Santa Monica Wellbeing Project, or the Seattle based Happiness Alliance Survey providing examples of how canvassing the ‘mood’ of the urban population can be used to inform policy and resource allocation, and to shift the goals of policy from facilitating economic growth to enabling communities to thrive. 

Other definitions have centred on mental health as the key site for understanding the impact of ‘urban stress’ on the mind, including cognitive processes, affective experience, psychological resilience or coping response, and spatial and social patterns of mental health diagnoses. There is an emphasis here on producing evidence through which we can ‘design in’ wellbeing through urban planning, architecture and preventative strategies at a whole-city scale

Interdisciplinarity and systems thinking

Contemporary policy interest in urban wellbeing has driven exciting new forms of interdisciplinarity and new frameworks for thinking about cities as complex socio-ecological-technical systems. The ‘science of cities’ promises to map complex networks of flows (of people, resources, goods, traffic, diseases, waste, water, energy, social determinants of health) and to identify their interdependencies, emergent properties and feedback loops.  

New fields of enquiry such as ‘Neurourbanism’ have been instigated to combine evidence from neuroscience with epidemiological research on mental health risks, therapeutic forms of prevention and urban planning. Through ‘Neuroarchitecture’, the insights of architects and built environment engineers and planners are also being brought together with neuroscientists, psychologists and public health practitioners to establish principles and standards for healthy urban design, healthy building certification schemes, health impact assessment tools and checklists.

The establishment of new research centres and alliances on urban wellbeing, urban design and mental health, urban observatories, future cities ‘accelerators’ and city ‘living labs’ are often focussed on a place-based triple helix model of research investment. These frequently capitalise on the much lauded advent of a 4th industrial revolution to combine life sciences, technology and data driven approaches to drive forward systems thinking and a solutions focus . They pursue new business opportunities and commercialisation of intellectual property to  generate research-led economic growth. 

Designing policies with people and places in mind

Evidence and data are clearly essential components of rigorous research and necessary for the necessary role that governments play in the management of people, places and things.  But it is also crucial to understand the limitations of the particular types of interdisciplinarity, partnerships and systems thinking which are emerging in the urban wellbeing field.

First, evidence and data are not the only components of research or policy formation. Narrative, argumentation, concept development, theory testing, ground truthing, and analysis are also vital.  The automation or contracting out of data analysis and insight has implications for the accumulation of institutional knowledge and understanding.  Evidence of what works is rarely a sufficient condition for policy change – as former UK civil servant, Stephen Muers has written, values, beliefs and cultures of policy making are crucial to shaping policy dynamics, and the pathway from evidence to policy is rarely linear.

Second, certain disciplines are commonly excluded from the new science of cities, meaning that ideas about history, culture, emotions, relationships, values, innovation and creativity from a wide range of humanities perspectives are often reduced to components or discrete systems to be understood through the paradigmatic conventions of the physical or natural sciences.  There is a risk of disciplinary imperialism rather than a productive engagement here. This can lead to missed opportunities for understanding the relationship between people and place, how change happens, and how shifts in thinking and discourse are as important to urban futures as emergent properties and tipping points in complex systems.

Thirdly, close attention should be paid to the ‘spatial and temporally imaginaries’ of urban wellbeing policy strategies and the evidence which they mobilise – that is, the ways in which urban challenges are framed as problems to be solved.  While rapid evidence and feedback on specific kinds of interventions might seem pragmatically appealing in terms of quick policy wins, disregarding the interconnections between different scales of analysis might lead to short-sighted and incremental advances which have unintended consequences.  

Finally, if we focus solely on potential for research-government-industry partnerships for urban wellbeing promotion then we potentially obscure a wide range of alternative approaches to building community wellbeing which provide a more radical challenge to  the contemporary model of unsustainable economic growth. Involving local authorities, third sector, arts and cultural organisations, community, advocacy and activist groups can provide ways of building community capacity to influence and shape urban wellbeing policies which have sustainability and inclusion as key goals.  One example of this is the urban wellbeing project of Cultivate, an urban farm social enterprise, based in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand, which measures performance in terms of non-monetary outcomes such as care, relationships and food justice. 

Jessica is a human geographer and a member of the Institute of Mental Health, University of Birmingham.  She researches affective and emotional techniques of governance, urban wellbeing, and the influence of neuroscience and behavioural science on public policy and economic theory. She has held research and teaching positions at the University of Aberystwyth and the Open University. She has a blog at: https://governingglobalemotions.wordpress.com/