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Steven Bee: 'The happiest places are rarely the wealthiest'

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The Academy of Urbanism’s chair Steven Bee on why governmental focus on making people richer does not always equate to happier cities

Clever people have been trying to define and measure happiness at least since they gathered in the Athens Agora. Governments are still trying. This is probably because whatever ‘metrics’ we use, we keep coming up with what is seen as the wrong answer. The happiest people, and the happiest places, consistently fail to correlate with the wealthiest. How can this be, when everyone knows that you can make anyone happy by giving them more of what you have persuaded them they want?

The economic and social policies by which we live in the UK, and much of the developed world (choose your own definition of ‘developed’), evaluate the happiness of society as the sum of the happiness of the individuals within it. This is the wrong way round. Much better surely to measure the share of the commonwealth of a society that is available to its individual members? That might explain why Scandinavian cities are regularly cited as happier than ours, and why Scotland is generally voted happier than the South East of England.

The Academy of Urbanism has met many happy people in the great places we have visited through our Annual Awards programme since 2006.  In all the cases I can think of, this relates to their level of autonomy and their shared expectations for the future. It relates to pride in their distinctive character and expectations of future improvement. No-one refers to their annual income, what car they drive, or where they went on holiday.

‘Aspiration’ is already virtually exhausted as a political dog-whistle for summoning individual voters. Applied to a community however, it remains useful. Aspiring people are likely to be self-centred in achieving their personal happiness, while members of aspiring communities are more likely to gain happiness from selfless engagement with each other.

Of course it’s not that simple, and The Academy’s Tenth Annual Congress in Birmingham this year will be taking bearings on Health, Happiness and Wellbeing (4-6 June) from informed thinkers and practitioners from the UK, Scandinavia and North America. Charles Montgomery, our keynote speaker, in his book Happy City, has charted the history of civil society and assessed the prospects for happier urban lives in the future.  The Congress is an opportunity to discuss whether happiness can be more than the satisfaction of an urge or the temporary distraction from something unpleasant; whether there is a human imperative that we derive happiness from social interaction; and how public policies might be tuned to a more felicitous frequency.

Talks, workshops and visits will explore the contribution of transport, housing, public space and public health to the wellbeing of Birmingham and the rest of the World. We’re particularly pleased to have Stephen Willacy, City Architect of Aarhus, ‘City of Smiles’ and Denmark’s Second City. Glen Howells will give his perspective on Birmingham and Sadie Morgan will present the urban design opportunities of HS2.

Congress is always an inspiring and happy event; this time we’ll ensure the feeling lasts.

Steven Bee chairman, The Academy of Urbanism

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