March 20 marks the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness. This day recognizes the importance of happiness and wellbeing as common goals and aspirations in the lives of all individuals around the world. Three of the UN’s 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), related to ending poverty, reducing inequalities and protecting our planet, aim to support happiness and wellbeing for all.
From designing out loneliness in big cities, to embedding social value in projects that advance inclusion, diversity and equity, to rethinking workplaces for employee well-being and developing neighbourhoods that facilitate social engagement and improved health, the work of WSP’s experts seeks to create environments that ultimately contribute to happiness.
We asked Helena Klintström, Responsible for Sustainable Urban Development in the Advisory group at WSP’s Stockholm office, and Mark Bessoudo, Research Manager and Sustainability Consultant in Property and Buildings, at our Toronto office, to discuss how valuable research-based insights from the social sciences are used in tandem with applied engineering, technologies and design solutions in the built environment to increase health, happiness and well-being.
Sustainable Urban Development for People and Communities to Flourish
Perspectives from Canada
“There’s been a shift from focusing solely on the environmental aspects of buildings such as energy and water efficiencies, to acknowledging that more can be done (and is being done) in terms of influencing health and wellness through the integration of design elements, equipment and policies when creating new buildings or retrofitting existing buildings in our communities,” says Mark Bessoudo.
“Health and wellness spans a huge spectrum from entire communities to individual buildings to individual tenant spaces and interiors as well as different themes such as designing buildings, interiors and communities.” And, questions are now being brought to the forefront such as: How can we provide more greenspace? How can we provide adaptable spaces for future needs? Are there opportunities to integrate sensors that monitor air quality or noise or the visual quality of an office? Is the building providing infrastructure that enable people to park their bicycles to commute? All these have a direct impact on the health and wellness of those using the building.”
For example, today companies are not only looking at the immediate health and wellness impacts, but also at the bottom line. Healthier and more productive employees translate to more profits for companies while workplaces that focus on health and wellness tend to attract the best and brightest candidates.
Third-party industry certifications or rating systems such as WELL and Fitwel further support health and wellness. WELL is a rating system that assesses how healthy a building is and focuses purely on the building design and operations that influence individuals’ health. Some of WSP’s offices are WELL-certified or are Fitwel champions and have committed to help clients pursue Fitwel and WELL certifications to create productive work environments and increasing ROIs throughout the lifetime of buildings.
A case in point is with respect to WELL. We are sustainability advisors for the 81 Bay Street project, a grand-scale development located in the heart of Toronto that connects people and nature. Forming part of CIBC Square, it will comprise two high-rise towers including 81 Bay Street, and a seven-storey podium with a bus terminal integrated into its lower floor. The development’s many amenities dedicated to promoting a healthy, active lifestyle include secure cycle storage, showers and changing facilities. And CIBC Square’s overriding distinguishing feature is the new public realm it will create for the people of Toronto in the form of a one-acre elevated Sky Park. This fresh, green space will link the centre’s two towers and offer pedestrian access to Union Station, a key transport hub. Importantly, it will contribute to improving the city’s air quality and be a place for people to connect with nature.
Perspectives from Sweden
Helena Klintström maintains that urban developments can contribute to happiness and well-being if they are focused on creating environments where human needs and likes are the focal point and where social sustainability (or social value creation) is embedded. “Today, we can see that many different groups and their interests are often forgotten in our cities, and that this affects their well-being. When we can create cities that put these needs in focus, we will have come a long way towards creating a happier society,” she explains. By embedding what we already know people need or like in urban development projects, we can further people’s well-being. For example, based on research, “we can see that people like or find solace in nature, that stress levels are reduced when time is spent in parks, and that hospital patients recover more quickly when provided with vistas of trees and greenery. We can see that proximity to services and the availability of affordable and accessible transportation affects involuntary loneliness as well as how long elderly people remain independent.” She adds that as humans we can become easily bored by monotonous environments and are fearful of the unfamiliar. A key component to creating cities and environments with happier societies would also be one where social and physical barriers are broken down and where “we see and meet people of all walks of life so that what we view as familiar, continues to expand.” It is also paramount to “create opportunities for people to influence their own environments and allow them to live the lives they want and, in so doing, diversity can be created in an urban setting. That is, making room for diverse interests, workplaces, housing opportunities, cultural events and so on, to cater to the multitude of different people who inhabit a city.”
Our teams in Sweden have developed a tool for the Municipality of Umeå, located in the north of Sweden, to help it include social sustainability in its urban planning process. To ensure that our recommendations were based on facts, the tool incorporates the latest research and parameters that allow the municipality to evaluate social sustainability in their urban developments. Tested on three different neighbourhoods within the municipality, recommendations were given on how they could be further developed. This new method to analyze a city’s ability to create added value from a social sustainability point of view is referred as a social value creation analysis.
About International Day of Happiness
Since 2013, the United Nations has celebrated the International Day of Happiness as a way to recognise the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. In 2015, the UN launched the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that seek to end poverty, reduce inequality, and protect our planet – three key aspects that lead to well-being and happiness.
The United Nations invites each person of any age, plus every classroom, business and government to join in celebration of the International Day of Happiness.