Transition tales #11: A story with a happy ending

As a way to increase liveability, Bristol is developing a ‘happy city toolbox’ that guides policymaking towards a citizen level. The politicians are listening.

Bristol is the second most populous city in Southern England, after London, and a city of contrasts. It is a place that houses some of the poorest areas in England, while at the same time holds one of the highest GDP levels in the country. In an effort to mend this gap, a research centre came up with an alternative for policymaking: the Happy City Initiative.

With a booming modern economy focused on the creative media, aerospace industries and electronics, Bristol is quickly becoming the ‘cool kid’ on the British block. Having the highest GDP per capita out of all the cities in England makes Bristol score high on liveability indexes.

©John Cook

Taking this aside and moving away from the newly renovated, trendy waterfronts, a different image of the city emerges. Bristol houses some of the most-deprived neighbourhoods in England. Run-down suburbs in the Southern part of the city have a child poverty range vary from 5% to 50% and life expectancy variations of almost a decade.


Bristol seems to be the perfect example that money, after a certain point, isn’t everything. Using GDP statistics and policy focus on growth at all costs does not account for all the social challenges faced by the city. The case of Bristol clearly shows that a lot of the current liveability rankings are based solely on the economic sector and some of the most ‘liveable’ cities are faced with growing social problems.

This situation is not limited to the UK, similar stories have been registered throughout Europe for nearly a decade now. The ‘Beyond GDP is an European initiative launched in 2007 aiming at developing new indicators for a more comprehensive measure of liveability and well-being in cities. The focus is on identifying more inclusive indicators regarding the environment and social aspects. These are considered key in registering progress in ways that meet citizens’ concerns together with new political developments.

The ‘Beyond GDP’ initiative has been widely debated in cities and has led to changes is policymaking and prioritising at a national level in a series of countries like Italy, Sweden, Spain and the UK. In the UK, endorsements of alternative metrics for prosperity have led to new research centres determined on bridging the gap between policymaking and citizens perspective. According to the Economist, relying on GDP as a prosperity measure accounts for ‘poor’ policy measures. Still, this shift to a more citizen-oriented perspective is developing at a national level. Policymaking at a local level seems relay on the same old indicators. Here is where Bristol has decided to make a change, for a better, ‘happier’ city, by launching the Happy City Initiative.

Although the ‘Beyond GDP’ movement has significantly developed on a national level, it has not done so on a local level. The Happy City Project1, based in the city of Bristol (UK) seeks to extend the ‘Beyond GDP’ approach into local neighbourhoods and implement a step change in the city away from material consumption towards promoting well­being.’ – The Happiness Pulse – A Measure of Individual Wellbeing at a City Scale: Development and Validation

Happy City initiative

The Happy City Initiative in Bristol is a community interest company, set on advocating for citizens contentment and well-being at local-level policymaking. Set up as a research centre, the scope is to develop measurements which guide the public agenda towards people’s contentment. Liveability, contentment, well-being, all these indicators have often proven difficulty regarding the means they are translated into policy, with specific measurement tools.

“Our research found that a person’s overall wellbeing is predicted almost equally by those ‘life in the city’ indicators as much as by what’s happening in their personal life.” – Dr. Sam Wren-Lewis researcher Happy City

To this situation, the Happy City initiative comes with an alternative set of indicators which together provide a better understanding about the situation in Bristol and can act as a replicable model for other cities as well. The overall idea is to combine indicators that account for the ‘city conditions’ (e.g. housing, or transport) together with tools that attempt to read an individual’s quality of life from a personal perspective (e.g. job satisfaction, how often you interact with your neighbours).

The Happy Toolbox

The concrete result of the research undergone in Bristol is a suite of three measurement tools that Happy City sees as having the potential to transform the way we approach urban living:

The Happiness Toolbox

  • the Happiness Pulse attempts to read the personal, individual quality of life. It is an interactive survey that focuses on how people feel and function in their lives, work and community.
  • the Happy City Index is a progress report using 60 indicators – such as health, transport, housing – that account for the conditions of well-being at a city level. It combines the data sources with ratings for sustainability and equality to produce rankings.
  • the WellWorth Policy Tool acts as an alternative for the GDP rankings, converting the impact and cost-benefits of new interventions across policy areas. It focuses on converting the data from surveys and indexes into social and economical policy outcomes.

The Happy City initiative argues that together, these tools enable and support change, bridging the gap between social, local conditions and policymakers. They provide a deeper understanding of the social challenges faced in Bristol, moving away from the flourishing and inspirational city image set by the GDP rankings.

Happy City launched their set of measures on the 8th of November, with endorsement form the Bristol mayor Marvin Rees. It is an important note that policymakers in Bristol are open towards more local alternatives that can help the city focus on its social struggles. At the same time, it is an example that new measures which emphasise local knowledge are key in minding the gap between citizens and policymaking.

The video below shows how the toolbox comes together. Watch it to see if you can find out how happy is your city? 

Transition tales

The stories we present reside at the intersection of planning, culture, politics and economics. We introduce a series of weekly uploads from a number of sources (conferences, interviews, summits), that offer a better image on the way cities are changing and what are the ideas behind this transitioning.

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