Well being – how do we measure it?

On the 15th May 2015 there was a very interesting meeting called ‘Enhancing wellbeing: inclusive, community collaborative approaches to place making’ at the University of Dundee. It was very well attended by many with a vested interest in improving people’s lives (often at little or no extra cost, it should be added). Attendees included representatives from the NHS, local authorities, NGOs, academics and consultants. Their premise was that people in all walks of life are shifting away from the idea that a flourishing life is primarily connected to material prosperity, to one that positions well-being as a significant goal for personal aspiration and public policy.


This shift, it was posited, is being accompanied by a commitment to empower local communities, unlocking social capital and giving individuals a greater voice in the processes of place making that determine the quality and direction of their lives, to provide them with more secure and healthier life styles, safeguard ecological-integrity, promote greater equity and support more resilient places in the low-carbon future. High ideals indeed – and I am afraid, to me, rather presented with 20th century thinking.  We even got shown the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see pyramid below). Needs indeed! Tell that to the people in food bank queues or the 25% of UK home owners in fuel poverty who can’t pay their energy bills. I think that the triangle should be inverted to make the most important issue as the meeting of basic needs and drum that home for policy makers.


Alarm bells rang for me.  At one end well-being appeared like a great big smoke screen, and on the other end – smoke and mirrors.  There were brilliant dedicated people working on the ground in communities to help build better lives saying; ‘We want to get communities involved in decision-making – but can’t afford to run the process’.  Then we got the consultants showing the results of well-funded projects to involve citizens in a process that looked like greenwashing to make locally very dubious or unpopular schemes palatable to local communities.For instance, community engagement appeared to be sweetening the bitter pill of the new Aberdeen bypass scheme for some locals – trying to soften the blow of a policy that was actually ‘fait accompli’.


Developers have long loved ‘sustainability’ that allows them to put in a bit of external low energy lighting, a small kiddies’ playground and a few swales and ponds to get away with exposed new housing developments on floods plains. We were shown one such scheme in Glasgow. ‘Community participation’ apparently helped concerned designers put their streets and parks on a site where, with rising sea levels and more intense storms, no buildings –  let alone social housing schemes – should be put at all. They did not show a single flood map in all the pretty pictures.



A number of genuine concerns about community participatory processes raised included:

  1. The voices heard are of those of small articulate and better off persons, not those of vulnerable and disaffected groups.
  2. The whole process can be seen as a ‘product’ that is bought by a local organisation – with one or several finite meetings. What is needed is a regular process that evaluates the system against its own wish or action lists, to manage rates of progress over time.
  3. Such a system needs to be very forward-looking and flexible with aspirations and actions that can evolve over time – essential in a non-linear system.
  4. Vested interests of local people or involved organisations can be over-whelming if action plans are based on scenarios where people can trace their own agendas forwards. It would be much better to instigate a local, annually updated vision, based on the aspirations for the community at a further future date, eg. 2030 or 2050 in a ‘backcasting process‘ and then the milestones can be set and checked against the bigger picture each year.
  5. At the heart of our aspirations for our children is that idea of how can we build a better, safer world for them? Evidence abounds that wealth alone cannot make one happy, but we all know that we all need enough to avoid the distress of real physical needs, So let’s put meeting basic needs at the top of our own ‘wants’ (not ‘needs’) list. Well-being is a nice word.  Its technical definitions include:


If you have read my book, ‘Closing the Loop: Benchmarks for Sustainable Buildings’, you will have seen in there the numerous metrics and indicator sets for single issues such as health, community, comfort and how they are used by policy makers, designers and planners. But how do you measure well-being?  I asked all of the five speakers at the event, ‘who used issues of well-being in their work?’, and none of them actually measured it!   That is not surprising. It is such a complex thing to evaluate as it contains many different determinants and attributes (see below.). For a good introduction to measuring it look at the OECD’s guide to measuring well-being.



What that publication emphasises is the need for consistency in the structure and wording of such surveys to ensure that results can be usefully compared between different groups.  To this end the Scottish Government is preparing its own well-being measures set and I will report back on them in the future. What is sure is that in a changing world the continuing well-being of citizens is vital when the growth paradigm of 20th century economics grinds to a halt and we all have to get used to adjusting to living happily with what we have got – or even less. Welcome to the world of Sufficiency – the challenge is how to ensure that we can all adapt to feeling a sense of well-being within it. The sooner we start to understand how to define and measure it – the better.

Sue Roaf


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