Can we measure the wellbeing of a ‘community’?

annemarie_bagnallThis week we hear from Anne-Marie Bagnall, Reader at the School of Health & Community Studies and part of our Community Wellbeing evidence team. Anne-Marie explains the thinking behind our new scoping review of community wellbeing indicators.

Jump to the scoping review and table of indicators

Last month we shared our local authority indicators to help understand local needs for wellbeing data. Today, we’re sharing a range of indicators, frameworks and measures of community wellbeing that have been used by government agencies and NGOs in the UK over the last five years. You might be asking yourself: aren’t these the same thing? What’s the difference between measuring community wellbeing and overall wellbeing in a local area?

Although the UK government has been assessing wellbeing at the national level –  including economic performance, quality of life, the state of the environment, sustainability, and equality – these measures don’t necessarily capture ‘community wellbeing’.

Our local authority indicators capture individual wellbeing in a given area, but this is not enough to measure the wellbeing of a community as a whole. Community wellbeing takes into account all of the individual wellbeing factors, plus things like intra-community relations, inter-generational connections and social capital.

Community wellbeing is less well defined and understood as a concept, in part because it can be complex and contested. But it’s also due to the fact that indicators measuring a community’s wellbeing may be described using other terms, such as “social capital” or “liveability”.

The scoping review we’re publishing today highlights the theories and concepts that underpin them, as well as useful list of terms used to describe community wellbeing.

Our goal is that this report and indicators help make it easier to understand and start measuring community wellbeing, as has been the case with individual and national wellbeing.

And despite the lack of clarity about what exactly community wellbeing is, we have managed to unearth 43 indicator sets, comprising 273 raw indicators of community wellbeing. The graph below groups these indicators into 25 domains of community wellbeing, showing how often the different domains were mentioned. Most indicators are focussed on health and wellbeing (11%), while economy, inclusion and relationships were also popular fields.


To delve deeper into the definitions of, and important questions about, community wellbeing, you can read our conceptual review coming out later this summer. Or, have a look at our theory of change slide set that suggests a way for organisations and community groups to approach improving local wellbeing.

This list of indicators isn’t exhaustive, and we’d love to hear from you if you know of any that should be included. You can email us at

New one-day course on wellbeing and cost effectiveness in policy – 4 October, London

Secure your place on our free one-day course.

Wed, Oct 4, 10 am – 5pm
Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE

How does your policy or programme impact people’s wellbeing? Is it good value for money?

Our free, one-day course in partnership with LSE will offer you a useful new way to measure the direct relationship between any policy or programme and its impact on people’s wellbeing. It draws on fresh, practical thinking from Lord Gus O’Donnell, Professor Richard Layard and other leading policy and wellbeing experts to give you the tools to calculate whether your policies or interventions are cost effective.

If you create or influence national or local policy, or run public programmes, you probably already know that improving people’s wellbeing is the ultimate goal of any policy or public service. This is true whether it’s within employment, health, planning, economics or any other sector.

Yet, until now, there’s been no way to understand what’s the best value for money when it comes to designing policies and programmes that improve people’s lives.

That’s why we are excited to announce this course, designed by the LSE and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. It lays out what factors determine wellbeing, then dives straight into the big ideas behind this transformative way of making and shaping policy.
Because this is a practical course, we have an optional bespoke ‘surgery’ session for those facing specific questions about a policy or project they are designing or influencing. Numbers for the surgery will be capped at 25, on a first come, first served basis.

What will be covered?

  • What causes wellbeing, and what scope is there for improving it? Andrew Clark
  • Putting it into practice: what does this mean for national policy? For local authorities? Interactve session covering findings from the what works evidence. What Works Centre for Wellbeing
  • Lunch: Stalls with what works material, outputs from academic teams on hand to answer questions.
  • Putting it into practice: Understanding what works – and the challenges. What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Secure your place on our free one-day course.

Do scenic spots benefit our health?

Does living in a beauty spot make us healthier? And what do we consider a scenic view? These were the questions faced by researchers at the Turing Institute when they began their study using large-scale data capture to look at the role our environment plays in our health. Here, Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe of Warwick University shares some tantalising initial findings from the innovative research carried out at the Turing Institute, where she is spending an enrichment year.

For centuries, philosophers, policy-makers and urban planners have debated whether living in more picturesque surroundings can improve our wellbeing. However, finding evidence to inform this debate has proven to be tricky, as gathering large-scale survey data on people’s perceptions of their surroundings is a highly time-consuming and costly endeavour. Luckily, today we have a new resource: all the data generated through our increasing interactions with the internet has allowed us to measure human experience on an unprecedented scale.

We were thrilled to discover the online game Scenic-Or-Not, where Internet users rate the “scenicness” of photos that cover nearly 95% of the 1 km grid squares of Great Britain. Over 1.5 million ratings of more than 212,000 pictures of Britain have been collected so far. In our first study exploring the connection between scenic places and human wellbeing, we decided to combine these ratings with data from the 2011 Census for England and Wales, where people report their health status. We wanted to find out if people feel healthier in more scenic environments.

However, we also had to account for a wide range of confounding factors that might be related to people’s reports about their health. For example, it could be that richer people are living in more scenic areas, and thus reporting better health. Or, scenic places might be only those that are in rural areas. After building a variety of such factors into our analysis, including neighbourhood income and access to services, we still found that people feel healthier when they live in more scenic locations, and this holds across urban, suburban and rural areas. 

Crucially, we also found that scenic areas were not simply green areas. While our analysis confirmed that people do report better health in areas with more green land cover, we found that reports of health can be better explained when considering ratings of scenicness, rather than purely by measurements of green space.

So, you might ask, what are these beautiful places actually composed of? We decided to get a deeper understanding of the all the images being rated on Scenic-Or-Not by using an AI algorithm, specifically MIT Places, to analyse over 200,000 Scenic-or-Not images to uncover what attributes, such as “trees”, “mountain”, “hospital” and “highway”, corresponded to high and low scenic ratings.

We discovered that features such as “Valley”, “Coast”, “Mountain” and “Trees” were associated with higher scenicness. However, some man-made elements also tended to improve scores, including historical architecture such as “Church”, “Castle”, “Tower” and “Cottage”, as well as bridge-like structures such as “Viaduct” and “Aqueduct”. Interestingly, large areas of greenspace such as “Grass” and “Athletic Field” led to lower ratings of scenicness, rather than boosting scores. You can read that research here.

It appears that the old adage ‘natural is beautiful’ seems to be incomplete: flat and uninteresting green spaces are not necessarily beautiful, while characterful buildings and stunning architectural features can improve the beauty of a scene.

In order to ensure the wellbeing of local residents, urban planners and policy makers might find it valuable to consider the aesthetics of the environment when embarking on new projects. Our findings imply that simply introducing greenery, without considering the beauty of the resulting environment, might not be enough.

In the next phase of this research we are exploring whether people are also happier in more beautiful environment, using data from the innovative iPhone app Mappiness. Follow us on Twitter at @thedatascilab or @thoughtsymmetry for further developments on this research.


What wellbeing data do local authorities need to make better decisions?



Download Understanding local needs for wellbeing data (July 2017)

Download only the appendices (with indicator sets and guidance)



  • Local Wellbeing Indicators use existing data and the best research to show true picture of local residents’ lives and community wellbeing.
  • Indicators look at personal relationships, economics, education, childhood, equality, health, place and social relationships- currently no local authority uses all of this data in one place to meet local needs.

For the first time, local authorities can use data on things like job quality, anxiety levels, social isolation, green space and how physically active people are to get better insights into what really matters to their communities.

Currently, local authorities have to rely solely on traditional metrics, such as unemployment and material deprivation, to build an idea of where people are struggling and thriving. The new indicators now offer, in addition to these, a real-world set of measures for data that follows people’s quality of life from cradle to grave. This gives a more sophisticated picture of where communities may be at risk of health, financial and social problems.

Their origins and next steps

To develop the indicators, What Works Centre for Wellbeing partnered with Happy City and consulted with individuals in 26 different organisations, including nine city councils, seven county or district councils, the three devolved governments (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), and nine other organisations including the Local Government Association, Defra, The Health Foundation and the New Economics Foundation.

We are now working with Happy City to visualise the indicator data for different regions of the UK. We are also using pilots of the indicators in some representative local authority and public health settings to see if they are flexible enough to be useful, whatever the profile of an area, for example urban versus rural.

Will they work for you?

To refine and develop the indicators, we encourage you to try out the set and share
your learning with us, so we can continue to refine and develop it for use by practitioners who are not data specialists. Our aim is to continually improve them to provide an accessible snapshot of local wellbeing, and make sure the indicators fit with other established initiatives and data sets, such as JSNAs, quality of life surveys and so on.

If you are planning to test the indicators, or have any questions, please get in touch and let us know:

What can we learn about wellbeing and social capital from South Australia?

We partnered with Wellbeing and Resilience Centre  at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and the University of Adelaide in the state of South Australia to look at their population level wellbeing data. It includes the same personal wellbeing questions as the UK data.

The research, published last month, is based on the South Australian Monitoring and Surveillance System, a monthly chronic disease and risk factor surveillance system of randomly selected people. It’s a very large survey that is representative of the population and looks at a large range of possible related factors. It shows only links – correlations – not causation, but is still useful as an indicator of where policy and community action could focus.

We found similar patterns to the UK, with higher wellbeing more likely for:

  • women
  • those living in rural areas
  • married
  • those able to save.

Lower levels of wellbeing were found in:

  • younger respondents
  • those living in the metropolitan area
  • the never married
  • those unable to save.

Control over decisions that affect our lives

The interesting thing about this dataset is that it also allows us to look at social capital. This was measured by how:

  • safe people feel
  • much people trust each other in their neighbourhood
  • how much control they have over decisions that affect their lives.  

We found that worse measures of social capital indicated lower levels of wellbeing, even when controlling for age and gender. The strongest relationship between social capital and wellbeing was when it came to how much people felt they had control over decisions that affect life. Those who do not have control were over 10 times more likely to have poor wellbeing.

The research points out that social capital, trust and relationships within a community, is at its strongest when disasters, problems or change affect a community. Investment in strengthening social capital along with resilience infrastructure- things like flood defences – in times of non-emergency could improve community resilience.

Health conditions and associated risk factors

The data also looks at a wide range of health indicators at the same time as wellbeing and social capital. Somewhat surprising in the analysis was the lack of meaningful associations between the chronic diseases and wellbeing, except for asthma. Previous findings have possible explanation: that two people can have the same health condition yet have very different levels of wellbeing, because it is ‘self-perceived health’, and especially experience of pain, that is the bigger contributor to overall wellbeing.  

The study did find that all risk factors for chronic diseases – alcohol harm, physical activity and fruit & veg consumption – were related to a person’s wellbeing. Only Body Mass Index (BMI) had no bearing on it.

A state of wellbeing in South Australia: the PERMA PLUS public health model

The current government of South Australia aims to become the first government in the world to systematically measure and build wellbeing across different cohorts and lifespans of the society to reduce the number of people experiencing catastrophic mental illness and to improve the resilience of the population. They aim to ‘foster factors that allow individuals, communities and societies to flourish.’

They use an evidence based model called PERMA Plus as the basis for the projects they do to improve wellbeing and resilience.  

Positive emotion






  • Sleep
  • Nutrition (5 veg 2 fruits a day)
  • Physical activity  
  • Optimism

Sport, dance and young people’s wellbeing: what works?

Today we publish new international evidence on the impact sport, dance and physical activity have on the wellbeing of 15-24 year olds.



Download the sport, dance and wellbeing briefing
Download the full evidence review

Read the case studies from Ireland, Scotland and England.



Key findings:

  • Yoga, and the Tai-chi like movements of Baduanjin-qigong, provided strong evidence of their effectiveness at reducing feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger, while improving attention spans and how the young people reported their overall wellbeing.
  • Empowering young girls through peer-supported exercise has a positive effect on their self-belief.
  • Aerobic and hip-hop dance can lead to greater increases in happiness compared to other activities like ice-skating or body conditioning.
  • Taking part in ‘exer-gaming’ programmes, like Wii Fit, in groups can help encourage overweight young people to participate in physical activity and make friends.

The research was carried out by our culture and sport research team in Brunel University London, The London School of Economics and the Universities of Winchester and Brighton.

What works to boost social relations?

As part of our Community Wellbeing Evidence Programme we are exploring the evidence on how the way organisations design community infrastructure can support, or hinder, social relations. We are publishing our scoping review today, and you can download it here.

The Jo Cox Foundation’s Great Get Together took place last week. It was a national street party, a chance to meet your neighbours and to make a statement:  there is more that unites us than divides us. With the launch of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission earlier this year, there’s a welcome focus on the social relations that form the foundation of our society.

When we talk about social relations, we mean the exchanges between us and the physical and social environment around us. There is good evidence that the strength of our social relations is an important determinant of individual health and wellbeing. And it’s also a central component of community wellbeing.

Before starting our programme of work, our Centre talked to different people and organisations around the country about what community wellbeing meant to them.

People continually told us that the relationships within their community, and the spaces they lived, relaxed and worked in, mattered a great deal to them. Improving social relations for community wellbeing means promoting those conditions in society that bring people together. It enables us to participate in community life and allows us to feel part of a network of shared meanings. That’s why social relations are an important component of our Theory of Change.

So, what do we know about how to boost social relations? This was the question we tackled in our new scoping review.

What did we find?

We searched widely and found 34 existing reviews that examined community-based interventions or changes in policy, organisation or environment that were designed to boost social relations within a community, and measured community-level outcomes. A number of recommendations were made about what works, including:

  • Create good neighbourhood design and maintenance of physical spaces such as good meeting places, public parks, safe and pleasant public spaces, public seating, accessible and walkable spaces, and local shops.
  • Support mixed populations – in terms of income, ethnicity and so on – in new neighbourhood developments.
  • Increase the number of local events such as car boot sales, markets, and street parties.
  • Create ways for local people to share information such as notice boards or email groups.
  • Provide greater opportunities for residents to influence decisions affecting their neighbourhoods and encouraging engagement

We also found evidence suggesting that it’s not easy to improve neighbourliness through large-scale policies. Instead, it is better to encourage local understanding and action.

What next?

Based on this scoping review we are now carrying out a systematic review of interventions to boost social relations through improvements in community infrastructure (places and spaces).

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified “neighbouring and spaces for interaction” as a research priority, and the Legatum report on wellbeing and policy highlights evidence of links between the physical environment and social relationships, and refers to a ‘magic formula‘ of having easy opportunities for social interaction but retaining the ability to choose when, who, and where we meet.

‘Bumping spaces’ – places designed for people to meet up in informal settings – were identified as a priority theme in our collaborative development phase. Despite the recognised importance of the topic, we did not find any existing systematic reviews of how community places or spaces affect social relations. Our task is to fill that gap.

We’ll be asking for your help

While we’ll be searching books and academic publications, we know that lots of evidence is not written up formally. Instead, it sits with community organisations who have evaluated their own interventions, but perhaps haven’t published them publicly. Please look out for our call for evidence, when we’ll be asking for your help to circulate to your networks to uncover the crucial clues about what works best to boost social relations.

You can sign up to receive an alert when the call goes live by emailing