Tracking residents’ feelings of well-being can guide cities toward policies that create opportunities for everybody.
American municipalities need to catch up to the many cities around the world that are quantifying and tracking their residents’ happiness. Why? Because a happiness index may provide an important measure of a city’s progress and policy direction. Policies are needed that support human capital, especially at the local level, because economies are tied to human capital. Degradation of social environments prevents individuals from attaining higher levels of education, increases crime rates and decreases civic engagement. Unhappy people make for an unhappy and unproductive community.
A well-being or happiness indicator — compiled though periodic surveys and perhaps augmented by analysis of data a city collects — goes beyond the traditional economic model of growth/success to include a multi-dimensional understanding of what issues affect happiness. Knowing how people are affected by environmental factors such as air quality, educational and workforce opportunities, and access to personal social networks is pivotal for overall economic well-being and for local policy decisions that are both compassionate and pragmatic.
A happiness indicator can help to guide municipalities toward policies that are focused on ensuring that growth is inclusive, creating opportunity for all segments of society, top and bottom. Inclusive growth can be thought of as a strategy to increase the extent to which the economy’s top-line performance is translated into the bottom-line result society is seeking: broad-based expansion of economic opportunity and prosperity.
Birmingham, Ala., is an example of cities across the country that have enacted such inclusive-growth policies. Mayor William A. Bell committed to using funds from an education bond to ensure that schools in poorer areas have the infrastructure they need to deliver high-quality and technologically engaged student programs. In Santa Fe, N.M., Mayor Javier Gonzales launched a program, the Santa Fe Youth Corps, that aims at connecting youth with education and employment training.
Happiness indexes are useful tools for designing these kinds of policies that address social inequity. But a happiness index also would indicate where work is needed in other areas of local concern, such as urban design.
The connection between urban design and well-being can play a key role in policies enacted at the local level. The urbanist author Charles Montgomery identified the role that urban design can play in tackling some of the challenges of the modern world, such as air pollution. Most importantly, Montgomery pointed out that understanding what makes people happy can function as an essential tool to enhancing our communities. In his 2013 book Happy City, Montgomery’s premise is that urban design can be utilized as a tool to create social networks, which are an indispensable determinant of how happy people are in a city.
Municipalities are the level of government that has the most immediate impact on constituencies. As the governing voice that steers development and shapes the ecosystem within which residents will live, work and play, there must be a commitment to ensure that the well-being of all residents will always be accounted for. Beyond serving as a barometer, a happiness index is a way to continually guide a city’s growth with an eye toward inclusivity, equity and sustainability.
Until the importance of these concepts is formalized through a happiness index, cities will continue to provide services and enact policies perpetuated by systems that are inherently reactive. But until then … may you be as happy as your city permits you to be.
Coda Rayo-Garza has worked in local government as director of policy, zoning and planning for multiple elected officials. Currently working in education, she is a member of the San Antonio Neighborhood Improvements Advisory Committee and a former director of policy and strategic communications at a local nonprofit.
A graduate of the New Leaders Council and a 2018 Political Partner for the Truman National Security Project, Rayo-Garza has been published in the Texas Tribune’s TribTalk, MySA.com, the Rivard Report and The New Leader: A Journal on Policy and Politics. She holds an M.A. in political science from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a B.A. in philosophy from Texas State University.