Community Wellbeing: Creating Pro-Social Places

Our guest blog sets out ideas for creating Pro-Social places in a paper originally produced for the Urban Design Group Directory 2015-17

RhiannonCorcorranRhiannon Corcoran is a professor of psychology and Graham Marshall is an award winning urban designer and a visiting senior research fellow; both at the University of Liverpool Institute of Psychology, Health and Society. They co-direct the Prosocial Place Programme with the aim of understanding and addressing the pernicious impacts of low-resource urban environments on the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities with the aim of developing an evidence-based approach to urban design. Professor Corcoran is part of the Centre’s team looking at community wellbeing.


To support the collective social wellbeing set out in the Marmot Review, Fair Society Healthy Lives (2010), we need to foster a culture that regards and manages places as essential infrastructure. We have entered a critical era where greater thought leadership in our place-making culture is essential.

Dubbed “Toxic Assets” by CABE, Britain’s poorly performing urban places and communities continue to absorb much of our GDP, where land, places and people are exploited and treated like commodities.

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Jarred Diamond discusses the dangers of continued exploitation and the outcomes for societies that could not change their behaviour patterns: certain extinction.

With expenditure outstripping income, we have entered a long period of economic depression with high levels of ‘welfare’ costs signifying a nation under stress. Whilst the government’s economic austerity measures may rebalance the budget on paper, their short-term nature does not address the fundamental health and wellbeing issues that impact individuals, communities and the wider stability of the nation.

The Marmot Review emphasises the impact of urban quality on matters of equity, health and wellbeing giving urban designers an important role to play, but not through the technocratic fixes that they are typically trained to deliver. So, where do we start when thinking about the relationship between place-making, health and wellbeing?

THE URBAN PENALTY

Probably the most fundamental principle is embodied in the Government’s “No Health Without Mental Health” policy. Social scientists have consistently found urban areas to have higher prevalence’s of both diagnosed mental health conditions and a lowered level of wellbeing known as “languishing”. Public health research identifies this failure as the ‘urban penalty’, or the ‘urbanicity effect’, arguing that it results from poor social integration, social isolation, discrimination and deprivation – things we intuitively grasp as urban designers.

However, if we explore these issues through the lens of Life History Theory developed by evolutionary psychologists, we can begin to see things a little differently and to understand better the adaptive nature of human behaviour in context. Research has found that where resources are stable, reliable and predictable, people can plan their futures, enabling greater resilience and the capacity to adapt in response to inevitable life stresses, to change and to cooperate with similarly future oriented people they encounter in their communities. It should be no surprise that public spending is lowest in places where people are prosperous, well-educated and healthy.

When we study low resource environments through this same lens, we find that people live their lives and forage in a different adaptive way. This can be difficult for design professionals to understand and, furthermore, the outcomes of this way of being are typically disapproved of by society. The insecurity of resources promotes an adaptive strategy, termed ‘future-discounting’ in those who live in these harsh environments. In other words, in these environments immediate gratification of wellbeing needs is an ingrained, sensible strategy to pursue.

In general people who live in harsh environments will tend to thrill seek, shun long term educational goals, have children younger, act impulsively etc. However, together, harsh environments and the behaviours they prime have significantly negative impacts on sustainable individual and community wellbeing. Harsh environments also tend to get harsher as people make only defensive, short-term investments in them. This includes the managerial actions that public authorities imposed upon these places.

And when we talk about resources we mean more than money – we refer to the whole resource of our human habitat and relationships. A gated, well healed estate is just as capable of promoting low levels of wellbeing as public housing can.

WHAT IS WELL-DESIGNED?

In short, Life History Theory shows how the qualities of an environment directly determine our life strategies and our wellbeing. In so doing, it emphasises the utmost importance of urban design, but when government policies demand places are ‘well designed’, what do they expect from this nebulous phrase? In 2012, Dr Steven Marshall published a paper interrogating urban design theory and found it “based on assumption and consensus, open to wide and personal interpretation by all players in the built environment and pseudo-scientific at best” – assuming built environment practitioners apply any principles at all.

The time to address the weaknesses in our urban design practices and prejudices is overdue. We need to widen our knowledge base and work with social scientists to understand our intrinsic human ecology and the predictability of its ‘pattern language’. Whilst many secure professionals can successfully ‘forage’ in the ecological niche that is the ‘built environment’ or ‘regeneration’ industry, we embrace higher concerns that will advance thought leadership in place-making.

We need to design, manage and maintain ‘psychologically benign’ environments that reduce feelings of ‘threat’ to optimise opportunities for people to interact and cooperate. This is prosociality; co-operative social behaviour towards a common goal that benefits other people or society as a whole, such as helping, sharing, donating, and volunteering. Prosocial communities are central to sustained wellbeing and themselves encourage future focussed perspectives in the individuals who live in them.

AN EXEMPLAR

The BBC documentary series The Secret History of Our Streets provides a good illustration of the issues we face today. Silo thinking, unaccountable planning (eg highways), starchitecture (remote), all create harsh environments that are barriers to our intrinsic preference for cooperation and interaction.

In the episode on Duke Street in Glasgow (2 of series 2), we can watch an unfolding story of a place that developed from nothing during the Industrial Revolution, suffered social policy failures and then was dismantled bit-by-bit by planning and design policy failures. The scenes near the end of the programme show a townscape that has been ‘un-placed’. An uplifting aspect of the programme is the positive response from the community against this threat, demonstrating the powerful force of prosociality where it prevails.

A WELL-DESIGN PLACE

It is important to note the fore-sighting that tells us that at least 80% of the buildings that we will inhabit in 2050 have already been built. Moreover, many of the new buildings erected between now and then will be constructed within existing fabrics and infrastructures, and so be quickly assimilated to become ‘existing’ too and subject to the same management regimes. We therefore need to:

  • Stop ‘UN-PLACING’ townscapes
  • Remove barriers to ‘PROSOCIALITY’ caused by short-sighted renewal and management programmes.
  • Embrace the social sciences to focus ‘CO-DESIGN’ leadership on urgently regenerating existing places within an ‘accountable people-focussed agenda’.
  • Create ‘OUTCOME’ oriented policies to deliver objective, evidence-based place-making principles that embed community wellbeing.
  • Together we might instigate a ‘WELL-DESIGN’ process for place making rather than an indefinable ‘well designed’ output.
  • Instead of being distracted by Utopian (‘no–place’) dreams on green fields, we need to pursue the‘Eutopian’ (well-place) dream that is achievable through inter-disciplinary thinking, knowledge mobilisation and sensitive management of our existing townscapes.

Creating Prosocial Places – Manifesto 06.15

Community Wellbeing evidence programme call out for engagement

Our recently appointed  Community Wellbeing evidence programme will bring together robust evidence of what works to create better policies and practices for communities and undertake a knowledge mobilisation function to get that evidence to those areas and organisations that can use it to best effect.

Spanning five universities, not for profit organisations and social enterprises, Community Wellbeing will focus on how the things that happen where we live determine our wellbeing. For example, how community wellbeing is affected by issues such as local social networks, having a say over what happens in our community, and local living conditions.

→Where you come in

Over the next three years, we will be bringing together evidence on what community-level factors determine wellbeing. The aim is to identify steps that government, both central and local, as well as community organisations, the private sector and others can take to improve wellbeing.

In the coming months we will be organising events and engaging with stakeholders in order to frame the scope of our research. We want to connect with a range of people both whose work could be supported by wellbeing evidence and whose work could create wellbeing evidence. We want to understand what kinds of questions stakeholders would like the evidence to help answer.

We are organising a series of workshops across the UK, aiming to build closer links between researchers and evidence-users. These workshops will be used to collaboratively shape the scope of our enquiry to ensure that we produce outputs which are usable, relevant and robust.

If you are interested in being involved in this collaborative process, please email with the subject line ‘opt in’ or click here.

Welsh natural resources improve wellbeing

Our pioneer case study this week looks to Wales and the Come outside!IMG_0284 programme which encourages people to get out and about to enjoy the natural resources. The programme aims to remove barriers and support people to use the natural environment to increase physical activity, improve skills, confidence, and overall wellbeing. This pioneer shows a great use of piloting and scaling ideas.

→ be one of our wellbeing pioneers

We here at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing are also getting out and about to meet as many people as we can. We’re putting the wants and needs of our audience at the heart of what we do. In the last few weeks we’ve been inspired by the people we’ve met in Wales and Northern Ireland. We’re holding a roundtable discussion examining wellbeing in Scotland on the 24th March and visiting Doncaster on the 26th March to look at what’s happening locally and talk to practitioners and policy makers to inform our work. Event details.

Community wellbeing

Here at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, we think communities are really important to improving wellbeing,  they’re the focus of one of our programmes of evidence.
kfenton blog

Public Health England has today launched a guide to  community centred approaches to health and wellbeing.

 

Pkfphoto-e1379332487234-147x150rofessor Kevin Fenton , the Public Health England National Director for Health and Wellbeing  blogged about why communities matter to health.

 

Our pioneer this week reflects the community approach to improving wellbeing, Well London who’s vision is : A world city of empowered local communities, who have the skills and confidence to take control of and improve their individual and collective health and well-being.

→ be one of our wellbeing pioneers

Finally, a reminder that the deadline for applications to become one of our trustees is the 16th Feb at 8am.

Time to Talk Day 5 February 2015

5 ways to wellbeing postcardsConnect, Take Notice  and Keep Learning are 3 of the 5 ways to Wellbeing, today’s post combines the three.

Today is Time to Talk Day lead by the Time to Change campaign urging people to break the silence that surrounds mental health by having a 5 minute conversation

TimetoTalk

  • Having a mental health problem is hard enough but sometimes the isolation and stigma can make it even worse.
  • Talking about mental health doesn’t need to be difficult and can make a big difference. #TimetoTalk

This  BIG blog post from the BIG Lottery is focused on the challenges faced by projects working with people suffering from mental health issues.

 

There is just over a week left for applications to become one of our Trustees. The deadline is 16th Feb.

 

Our Pioneer case study shares the borough-wide approach of Lambeth and Southwark’s Wellbeing programme.

→ be one of our wellbeing pioneers

 

 

Economic wellbeing

As the World Economic Forum is holding its Annual Meeeting in Switzerland this week we look at economics and wellbeing.

There is a growing movement which argues that you should measure a country’s progress by more than GDP. The Office for National Statistics, as part of Measuring What Matters recently published economic wellbeing data  alongside the standard economic data for Q3 2014.wellbeing900_tcm77-390268

This is the first time that these figures have been released together to present a more rounded way of assessing economic wellbeing

Our Pioneer Case study examines the work of a Career Connect, a  charity supporting  adults’ and young peoples’ resilience as they move into education or the workplace.

→ be one of our wellbeing pioneers

Online Twitter Q&A for What Works Wellbeing proposals 3rd December

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing’s commissioning partners, the Economic and Social Research Council, are hosting an online twitter chat on 3rd December between 12 and 2pm about the Centre focusing specifically on the evidence programme call for proposals.

Please see the call page for the full specifications, application guidance and FAQs. A short presentation on the application process will also be available beforehand, and an updated FAQs document will be available after the online Q&A event.

Join the forum to meet others working on wellbeing

→ Send questions

→ Join the discussion on 3 December by logging on to Twitter and following #wwwqa.

  • A Twitter account is required to post questions, though the discussion can be viewed without an account
  • Sign up to the virtual networking forum before the event if you want to post a question.  You will be able to view the forum discussion pages without an account.
  • The Q&A will be run via Twitter.  W will also provide fuller answers and a summary of all questions after the event.

Nancy & Karen