Happiness and well-being important policy drivers

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 6, 2020 - April 12, 2020.
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Wellness is growing in importance as a measure of national performance and has an impact on purchasing choices. According to Knight Frank’s The Wealth Report 2020, the  consultancy’s attitudes survey found that 80% of ultra-high-net-worth individuals 

(UHNWIs) are spending more time and money on their own well-being.

In its new City Wellbeing Index, Knight Frank notes that in the past, wellness was assessed in purely economic terms, measured generally in the form of gross domestic product.

“However, there is no universally accepted method of measuring well-being, nor how it pertains to wealth creation. We, therefore, decided to develop our own index using eight measures to identify those urban centres that are enabling citizens to achieve a higher level of well-being.

“All such attempts are subjective, especially when it comes to the choice of measure used, but we have chosen a range of factors that our research shows contribute to UHNWIs’ decisions about where to invest or purchase a home,” says Knight Frank.

The consultancy’s previous attitudes surveys had shown that personal security, lifestyle and healthcare were important factors. For this year’s survey, it has included crime, work-life balance and access to green space, alongside other indicators.

Topping the City Wellbeing Index 2020 is Oslo (Norway), followed by Zurich (Switzerland) and Helsinki (Finland), which tied for second place. Rounding up the top 10 are Vienna, Austria; Madrid, Spain; Stockholm, Sweden; Sydney, Australia; Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Montreal, Canada; and Singapore.

“Looking at specific measures, Oslo leads for green space. According to the World Cities Culture Forum, 68% of public space in the city comprises parks and gardens, followed by Singapore’s 47%. For those seeking sunshine, Dubai comes out on top with an average of 3,509 hours a year, followed by Los Angeles with 3,254 hours.

“For work-life balance, we looked at hours worked per day of vacation. Moscow has the lowest ratio, with 51.6 hours worked for each day of vacation, followed by Paris with 55.4,” says Knight Frank.

Closer look at well-being

More countries and cities are looking at well-being closely. Bhutan is ahead of the field in this aspect. It has been measuring happiness at national level since 1972, when the then king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, said gross national happiness was more important than gross national product.

Last year, New Zealand and Iceland announced plans to measure and improve the well-being of their people. The former has committed NZ$3.8 billion (about RM9 billion) in operational funding and NZ$10.4 billion in capital funding to its first well-being budget, while the latter’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, has urged governments to focus on green and family-friendly priorities rather than economic growth.

Knight Frank believes that urban centres are well placed to lead the way in measuring well-being, as cities enable collaboration and encourage the exchange of ideas and the concentration of people in one space.

“Smart city initiatives are becoming more commonplace. The International Data Corporation had forecast that in 2019, US$96 billion (about RM417 billion) would have been spent on things such as advanced public transit, smart outdoor lighting and intelligent traffic management — an 18% increase compared with 2018,” says Knight Frank.

Prof Jason Pomeroy, founding principal of Singapore-based sustainable design firm Pomeroy Studio, says in The Wealth Report: “The conventional steel, glass and concrete structures that adorn many a vertical global city are being augmented by more hybrid solutions that integrate sky courts and sky gardens as alternative open and social spaces. They can enhance the health and well-being of citizens through exposure to greenery, natural light and ventilation.”

He adds that there is a wealth of literature that shows a correlation between urban greenery and health and well-being, noting that urban greenery can reduce the ambient temperature, absorb water and provide many other physiological and psychological benefits.

“This idea is now informing legislation and planning, for example Singapore’s Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises programme, demonstrating how the concept of well-being for man and nature can be a driver of real estate value,” says Pomeroy.

Designing a city driven by wellness

New Zealand’s Made Group is working on an ambitious project that will re-imagine the way people live with the development of a small city called Auranga, located to the south of Auckland and which will eventually be home to 40,000 people.

“The picture of social and personal breakdown that is emerging the world over tells me that cities aren’t a positive or enriching force in our lives. The driving force behind the vision for Auranga is wellness and to create an environment that draws people out in a real way by renewing the space around us, the space in between us, the space beyond us,” says Charles Ma of Made Group.

“Who we become as people is defined by where and how we live. The desire is to reimagine a new way of living, not just through technology and gadgets and fitness but by putting well-being at the core, and building around it.”

Six years in the making, Auranga has been designed to ensure generous provision of public spaces. The goal is to create places where humans find rest, not restlessness. Engagement with one another and with the community is another goal.

Made Group has created a digital app that will provide open, up-to-date information on transport, jobs, social events, sports and the arts as well as enabling residents to vote and express their views on issues that affect where they live. It is a way of harnessing the power of technology for increased citizen engagement and well-being, says Ma.

Older cities are also playing their part. The government of Dubai created the post of Minister of State for Happiness (now Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing). The minister’s chief responsibility is to “harmonise all government plans, programmes and policies to achieve a happier society”.

The UAE was first in the Arab world for the fourth year running in the UN World Happiness Index 2019. It also jumped to the 21st spot among 156 countries from the 28th position in 2016. The city has also put wellness at the heart of its master-planned developments with the founding of Dubai Healthcare City in 2002. The nine million sq ft Phase 1 is home to leading healthcare and medical education brands as well as more than 100 multinational corporations.

Phase 2 occupies 19 million sq ft and overlooks Dubai Creek and the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. It is set to become an urban wellness hub with residential, healthcare, education, retail and hospitality and leisure components.

Meanwhile, Barcelona has reworked its city design with “superblocks” that allow for some pedestrianisation of streets. Amsterdam, ranked seventh in the index, is installing new “blue-green” roofs, which can absorb more water than normal green roofs, protecting homes from flooding, heat and drought.

“Despite the emergence of happiness and well-being as important policy drivers, don’t write off GDP just yet. It does benchmark our ability to obtain, without directly measuring, many of those things that make life worthwhile. And while GDP does not yet measure the health of nations, those with larger GDPs can afford better healthcare,” says Knight Frank.

It expects wellness to remain high on the urban agenda for the foreseeable future, along with the introduction of new initiatives.