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Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment


This was the first meeting of the term and we will explore connections between health, wellbeing and sustainability in places where we live and work. 

Our first witness was Ron Bakker, a Founding Partner of PLP Architects. He has a particular interest in the architectural techniques that influence the qualities of gathering places in our cities and buildings; and an excitement about the role of new technologies in the built environment. 

He was joined by Dr Dimitris Ballas, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield. An economist by training, his current research interests include using GIS and simulations to evaluate the impact of national and local level policies and to explore geographies of happiness and well-being.

Dr Peeter Pärt also flew over from the EC Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, where he is an Advisor in Environment and Human Health Interactions.

Wicked problems and questions generated by the open discussion:

Is happiness a useful term? Although certain key indicators, such as social connections, opportunity and physical and mental health, appear to be globally consistent, happiness can be subjective and affected by cultural and linguistic variance. Additionally, happiness may be different depending on whether it is assessed from an internal or external perspective. It is possible that a focus on happiness may not be intrinsically good and is detracting from attempts to stem inequality and social deprivation. Wellbeing may be a better and more inclusive term, focusing more on external factors such as social and environmental influences.

How do we quantify happiness and wellbeing? There is an uneasy balance between the need to influence policy and policy makers by clearly quantifying and demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of an intervention and the dangers of monetising something as fundamental as wellbeing. Wellbeing and sustainability are increasingly on the radar of the electorate and, therefore, policy makers so there is opportunity to catalyse change.

What is the best way of understanding the value of sustainability and wellbeing? There are a number of different rating tools and metrics for urban planners and policy makers but these are not always appropriate: they may lead to box-ticking or may prevent a holistic outlook. Nonetheless, it is important to find ways to express the value of both terms to raise awareness, both for planners and the public.

How can we improve urban design to improve wellbeing? With regards to the built environment, adaptability is crucial for creating a durable building for an unknown future. There are opportunities to make better use of space and challenge assumptions about the standard workplace environment. Building ‘less but better’ in cities may help us devote more resources to sustainability. This approach may also have applications to wellbeing and life quality. Instead of focusing simply on prolonging life we should focus on prolonging and improving the period where people are happy and healthy.

How do we deal with scenarios where policies of wellbeing and sustainability collide? These two policies have a clear relationship but are often in conflict when it comes to policy decisions. If we can change this perception then we may be more willing to invest in win-win scenarios. Being able to quantify these values in an understandable way is critical.

To find out more about this theme or the meetings, please e-mail Dr Rosamunde Almond ().