Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 633–647 | Cite as

Are sustainable cities “happy” cities? Associations between sustainable development and human well-being in urban areas of the United States

Article

Abstract

In this paper, we assess the associations between self-reported happiness, measured using the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index (2012), and four US city sustainability indices: the Green City Index (2011), Our Green Cities (2012), Popular Science US City Rankings (2008) and the SustainLane US Green City Rankings (2007). Based on the examination of nonparametric, rank-based correlations, we found positive associations between sustainable development and happiness on all scales and statistically significant correlations for two of the four SD indices. Results support previous research, emphasize the value of explicit consideration of happiness when measuring urban sustainability and highlight the need for future research that assesses the influence of specific subsystems of urban development on self-reported happiness.

Keywords

Happiness Sustainability Sustainable development Community development 

1 Introduction

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission brought the concept of “sustainable development” (SD) squarely into context by describing sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Our Common Future 1987). As the global population passes 7 billion (UN 2011), humans face significant economic, environmental and social challenges related to increasing demand for and consumption of natural resources. These activities lead to a variety of issues including climate change, food and energy shortages, habitat degradation, air and water quality issues, and increased pollution. Thus, there is an urgent need for significant changes in the way we design and retrofit our cities to accommodate a future of growth without compounding our current problems. While sustainability and SD have gained ground on urban design and planning in recent years (Ziegler 2009), most would agree that the state of our current cities is falling short of sustainability. Developing communities sustainably requires resilient and efficient economic, environmental and social systems. However, many development efforts continue without sustainability in mind, often focused primarily on short-term economic gain. If the usual development path is followed, meeting the basic needs of a growing and increasingly urbanized population will exacerbate the pressure on the world’s ecosystems. In other words, business as usual is not a sustainable option (Engel 2011).

Another approach for the design of future cities is one that focuses on offering the greatest opportunity for the happiness of residents. In addition to conserving important ecological and social processes, a community focused on a shift toward sustainable environmental, economic and social systems could potentially improve the overall happiness and well-being of its inhabitants (Leyden et al. 2011; O’Brien 2008; Schimmel 2009). However, more evidence is needed to support the notion that SD is associated with happiness, leading to future studies that might provide some insight into causality. This study explores potential associations between SD and happiness by considering the relationship between four sustainability indices and self-reported happiness in US urban areas.

1.1 Importance of assessing happiness in urban areas

Happiness has been defined in a variety of ways, but the concept is commonly depicted as some derivation of John Stuart Mill’s (1863) “intended pleasure and absence of pain.” In more contemporary terms, Diener (2008) defines happiness as “life satisfaction and having more positive emotions than negative emotions” (p. 247). In this study, we refer to happiness as a lasting feeling of pleasure with more positive emotions than negative emotions rooted in the communities in which humans reside. Although happiness is often measured on an individual level, or the microsocial scale, this work focuses on community-level happiness. Happiness assessments at the community level, or the macrosocial scale, incorporate individual-level concerns such as people’s ability to cope with life while simultaneously accounting for broader metrics of including subjective health and financial satisfaction, social relations and the economic perspectives for improvement in the future (Haller and Hadler 2006). Happiness is ultimately a social and public good, not just a private or individual concern; people care about it, and policy-makers are beginning to recognize its value in urban planning and development (Thin 2012). For example, countries like Bhutan, Thailand, France and England are setting the measurement and assessment of happiness as a national standard. In the United States, both the state of Vermont and cities like Somerville, Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington, are also measuring happiness. Furthermore, justification has been made for an index that considers happiness in our communities (Duncan 2010; Schimmel 2009; Ura 2013). As Thin (2012) notes in his discussion of happiness, “no other term gives us a more powerful invitation to discuss and assess how society facilitates or inhibits the enjoyment of good lives” (p. 33).

1.2 Potential connections between sustainable development and happiness

Associations between certain components of SD and happiness have been documented (White et al. 2013; Leyden et al. 2011; Zidansek 2007; O’Brien 2001; Veenhoven 1992), but researchers have called for more studies to illuminate relationships between sustainable development and happiness on broader scales (Leyden et al. 2011; O’Brien 2008; Schimmel 2009). Our work takes a step in this direction with an assessment of the associations between four sustainability indices and happiness. In fact, this paper takes a similar approach to Zidansek (2007). However, the sustainability indices he used were highly variable over a ten-year period, making it challenging to present a consistent time series. Furthermore, the indices he selected were used to measure sustainability outside the US. Our work contributes to the literature by considering the associations between four consistent and comprehensive sustainability indices and self-reported happiness in urban areas of the US. As summarized in Table 1, studies have examined associations between SD and happiness at the country level (Schimmel 2009; Veenhoven 1992) and the city level (Leyden et al. 2011; O’Brien 2001), and all results point toward a positive relationship between SD-type metrics (e.g., livability, walkability and green space) and happiness. The objective of this study was to examine the relationships between SD indices and self-reported happiness at the city level.
Table 1

Summary of selected studies relating happiness and sustainable development

Author(s)

Design/notes

Study location(s)

Basic result

Veenhoven (1992)

Cross-sectional collection and analysis of several various surveys on quality of life and other indicators for happiness, controlled for realized life-quality, income levels

66 total nations

Livability (community design) is associated with happiness

O’Brien (2001)

Cross-sectional survey of 6,000 elementary students

Ontario, Canada

Walkability is associated with happiness

Zidansek (2007)

Cross-sectional survey of at least 1000 residents in many countries to compare three measures of happiness with one sustainability index

Several nations within the EU and UN

Happiness is associated with sustainable development

Leyden et al. (2011)

Cross-sectional 2008 Quality of Life Survey data collected for 10 cities, controlled for differences in urban form (e.g., cleanliness, access to transportation) and personal characteristics (income, marital status, employment, feelings of connectedness, health, personal view of government) of residents

New York City, London, Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, Milan, Berlin, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo

Design and conditions of cities are associated with happiness

White et al. (2013)

18-year longitudinal survey of 5,000 households and 10,000 adults, controlled for income, employment status, marital status, health, housing type and local-area-level variables (e.g., crime rates)

United Kingdom

Individuals are happier when living in green cities

2 Data sources

2.1 Happiness index

Although an argument can be made for the distinction between “happiness” and “well-being,” the terms have been used interchangeably in the literature (Dockery 2005). As Diener (2008) mentions, “we refer to ‘happiness’ as ‘well-being’ in scientific parlance, because it is about how people evaluate their lives and what is important to them” (p. 4). Thus, in this paper, we treat happiness and well-being as synonyms. Well-being scores, a surrogate for happiness, were obtained from the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index (2012).

As of 2012, there were happiness scores for a total of 192 US cities. As shown in Table 2, the Happiness Index is comprised of six subindices: life evaluation, emotional health, physical behavior, healthy behavior, work environment and basic access. Table 2 lists the number of items for each subindex and the overall internal consistency and reliability, as well.
Table 2

Gallup healthways well-being (i.e., happiness) index summary

 

Life evaluation

Emotional health

Physical behavior

Healthy behavior

Work environment

Basic access

Overall Well-Being Index

Number of items per measurea

2

1

9

4

4

13

33

Cronbach’s alpha

State and district level: 0.72; individual level: 0.60

Test–retest reliability

Stale level: 0.83; district level: 0.79; individual level: 0.72

aTotal number of questions per measure

2.2 Sustainable development indices

The SD indices used in this study included the Green City Index (2011), Our Green Cities (2012), Popular Science US City Rankings (2008) and the SustainLane US Green City Rankings (2007). Table 3 describes each index in more detail, indicating the categories and general indicators that comprise each index, the respective objective of each index and the number of cities assessed by each index.
Table 3

Sustainable development indices for US Cities

Index

Number of cities

Number of categories

Categories included

Scoring method

Index objective

Our Green Cities (2012)

54

7

Smart growth activities, land-use planning programs, policies and zoning, transportation planning programs and policies, pollution prevention, reduction and remediation, efficiency, sustainable indicators project, organization/administration/management/coordination/governance

The seven categories include 38 sustainability program or policy elements, and a city receives a point for each one in effect.

The index is meant to provide a summary measure of how many different sustainability-related programs and policies each city has enacted and implemented

The Green City Index (2011)

22

9

Water, energy, land use, waste, transport, buildings, CO2, air and environmental governance

Each of the nine categories consists of several indicators, the total of which sums to 10 points for each category. Each city receives a 0–10 score for each category, the categories are each multiplied by 11.1 % and summed to arrive at a final score on a 0–100 scale

The US and Canada Green City Index measures and rates the environmental performance of 27 cities in the USA and Canada

Popular Science (2008)

50

4

Electricity, transportation, green living, recycling and green perspective

Each city scored out of either 5 or 10 possible points; electricity (10 points), transportation (10 points)), green living (5 points), recycling and green perspective (5 points)

The Popular Science Index ranks 50 cities in the USA in order of sustainability

SustainLane (2007)

50

15

City commuting, regional public transportation ridership, metro street and freeway congestion, air quality, tap water quality, solid waste diversion, planning and land use, city innovation, housing affordability, natural disaster risk, energy and climate change policy, local food and agriculture, green economy, knowledge base and communications and green (LEED) building

Overall rankings were determined by averaging 15 individual category rankings, each of which was multiplied by a weighting of 0.5, 1 or 1.5

The SustainLane US City Rankings provide a model of how people’s quality of life and city economic and management preparedness are likely to fare in the face of an uncertain future

2.3 Happiness and sustainable development index rankings

Table 4 summarizes the rankings based on aggregate scores (with 1 representing the highest ranking) for all indexed cities in happiness (Gallup), the Green City Index (GCI), the SustainLane Rankings (SL), the Popular Science Rankings (PS) and the Our Green Cities Index (OGC). As indicated by blank spaces, some cities had no available happiness data or were not included in some sustainability index assessments.
Table 4

Rankings for indexed US cities

City

Gallupa

GCIb

SLc

PSd

OGCe

City

Gallupa

GCIb

SLc

PSd

OGCe

City

Gallupa

GCIb

SLc

PSd

OGCe

Albuquerque

48

 

19

16

5

Houston

42

12

39

 

40

Phoenix

44

19

23

 

12

Alexandria

2

  

30

 

Huntsville

37

  

18

 

Pittsburgh

62

18

  

53

Amarillo

   

34

 

Indianapolis

63

 

45

 

26

Portland

47

 

1

1

1

Anchorage

51

  

32

 

Irvine

29

  

21

 

Raleigh

8

   

31

Ann Arbor

1

  

24

 

Jacksonville

79

 

36

 

38

Riverside

77

  

28

 

Arlington

9

 

41

 

43

Joliet

49

  

40

 

Rochester

45

  

27

 

Athens

   

33

 

Kansas City

38

 

18

35

25

Sacramento

50

11

13

 

13

Atlanta

33

16

38

 

37

Laredo

   

39

 

Salt Lake City

14

  

36

 

Austin

19

 

14

10

17

Las Vegas

81

 

27

 

29

San Antonio

34

 

21

 

32

Baltimore

46

 

11

 

33

Lexington

   

25

 

San Bernardino

78

  

47

 

Berkeley

11

  

7

 

Livonia

70

  

46

 

San Diego

20

 

17

 

15

Boston

22

5

7

3

23

Long Beach

39

 

30

 

41

San Francisco

13

1

2

2

2

Cambridge

16

  

6

 

Los Angeles

40

6

25

 

24

San Jose

6

 

24

 

16

Charlotte

15

15

34

 

6

Louisville

80

 

35

42

30

Santa Ana

    

54

Chicago

60

9

4

9

8

Memphis

52

 

44

 

44

Santa Rosa

21

  

23

 

Cleveland

56

20

28

 

35

Mesa

43

 

47

 

42

Seattle

27

3

3

8

3

Colorado Springs

23

 

26

 

47

Miami

75

17

29

 

28

Springfield

   

29

 

Columbus

65

 

50

 

9

Milwaukee

58

 

16

22

36

St Louis

69

21

 

31

49

Concord

28

  

43

 

Minneapolis

12

8

10

11

10

St Paul

7

  

12

 

Dallas

35

13

22

 

18

Nashville

30

 

42

 

20

Stockton

73

  

49

 

Denver

24

4

9

19

4

New Orleans

76

 

32

  

Sunnyvale

4

  

13

 

Detroit

74

22

43

 

51

New York City

64

2

6

20

14

Syracuse

55

  

17

 

El Paso

83

 

31

 

34

Newport News

54

  

41

 

Tampa

82

   

45

Elizabeth

53

  

45

 

Norwalk

18

  

38

 

Thousand Oaks

17

  

48

 

Eugene

25

  

5

 

Oakland

41

 

5

4

7

Tucson

57

 

20

 

21

Fort worth

36

 

46

15

19

Oklahoma City

61

 

49

 

50

Tulsa

71

 

40

26

46

Fremont

3

  

44

 

Omaha

26

 

37

 

48

Virginia Beach

59

 

48

 

52

Fresno

66

 

33

 

27

Orlando

72

14

   

Washington DC

10

7

12

 

22

Greensboro

67

  

50

 

Pasadena

31

  

37

 

Wichita

32

   

55

Honolulu

5

 

15

14

39

Philadelphia

68

10

8

 

11

      

aRankings based on Gallup Well-being Index (2012)

bRankings based on Green City Index (2011)

cRankings based on SustainLane US City Rankings (2007)

dRankings based on Popular Science US City Rankings (2008)

eRankings based on Our Green Cities Index (2012)

3 Methodology

We collected all available data for the Gallup Happiness Index and the four SD indices and ranked cities in order from best to worst. Cities that ranked the highest on each index (i.e., happiness or SD) were given a 1, cities that ranked second were given a 2 and so forth. Because we were not able to obtain data for all cities on all indices, each statistical comparison was calculated using the number of cities for which data available. We first plotted rank sustainability scores versus ranked happiness scores to determine whether a linear relationship exists. Then, based on these distribution-free, ordered rankings (i.e., nonparametric data), we used Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient (Eq. 1), also referred to as Spearman’s rho, to measure the level of statistical dependence between two variables. In each comparison, the two variables of interest were self-reported happiness (as obtained from the Gallup Index) and urban sustainability (as obtained from the respective SD indices).
$$\rho = \frac{{\Upsigma_{i} \left( {x_{i} - \bar{x}} \right)\left( {y_{i} - \bar{y}} \right)}}{{\sqrt {\Upsigma_{i} \left( {x_{i} - \bar{x}} \right)^{2} \Upsigma_{i} \left( {y_{i} - \bar{y}} \right)^{2} } }}$$
(1)

Because we conducted multiple comparisons, we used the Bonferroni correction method to account for multiplicity when making inferences based on comparison of data sets as a whole. Thus, we adjusted our desired threshold for statistical significance (i.e., α = 0.05) by dividing the current alpha by the number of independent tests (n = 4). Spearman’s rho values that had significance levels lower than our Bonferroni-corrected rejection threshold (α = 0.0125) were considered to be statistically significant. Due to the limited size of our data sets, we used the “bootstrapping” method to assign measures of accuracy to our correlation estimates. Specifically, we randomly sampled from each of our original datasets 1,000 times and used this new data to estimate the upper and lower limits of the 95 % confidence intervals around the Spearman’s rho statistic.

4 Results

Figures 1, 2, 3 and 4 show the rank score versus rank score plots for each of the four sustainability indices and the respective happiness scores. Table 5 shows the Spearman’s rho correlation (with 95 % CI) for the happiness index and the various sustainability indices in US urban areas. Both the Green Cities Index and the Popular Science Rankings had strong positive association with self-reported happiness. Although the SustainLane and Our Green Cities indices were positively correlated with happiness, these results were not statistically significant after Bonferroni corrections.
Fig. 1

Green Cities Index rank scores versus happiness rank scores

Fig. 2

Sustain Lane rank scores versus happiness rank scores

Fig. 3

Popular science rank scores versus happiness rank scores

Fig. 4

Our Green cities rank scores versus happiness rank scores

Table 5

Nonparametric rank correlation coefficients (Spearman’s rho) for happiness scores (from Gallup Well-being Index) and various sustainability indices

Sustainability index

Number of cities

Correlation (ρ)

Significance

95 % CIa

Green City Index (GCI)

22

0.550

0.008*

0.175–0.803

SustainLane (SL)

50

0.312

0.028

0.068–0.531

Popular Science (PS)

45

0.381

0.010*

0.089–0.592

Our Green Cities (OGC)

54

0.251

0.067

−0.015–0.479

* Correlation is statistically significant after Bonferroni corrections

a95 % confidence interval based on 1,000 bootstrap replications

5 Discussion

We found that all four sustainability indices had positive associations with self-reported happiness, and two of these relationships were statistically significant. Results suggest that those cities striving for sustainability (i.e., those with higher scores on sustainability indices) may provide greater opportunities for happiness within their residents. Our findings support the previously mentioned studies (White et al. 2013; Leyden et al. 2011; Zidansek 2007; O’Brien 2001; Veenhoven 1992) that find associations between aspects of SD and happiness.

The aforementioned studies and our own work suggest that SD may function as a driver of residential happiness. However, the directionality of the cause–effect relationship between SD and happiness requires more attention. While these data could lead to the conclusion that an emphasis on sustainable urban characteristics and attributes leads to happiness, it may also be the case that happy residents are more invested in their communities and more likely to be involved in activities congruously linked to SD. For instance, sustainability-linked activities such as community gardening and environmental advocacy could foster a social environment where happiness thrives. Alternatively, happy residents may be more likely to come together and engage in social causes that promote sustainable development practices. Because our analyses are based on cross-sectional, non-experimental data, we are not able to make causal conclusions. Nevertheless, it is evident that, at least in the case of US cities, happiness and sustainability are closely linked. To truly assess causality, longitudinal data with residents randomly assigned to cities may be necessary, and models should control for other potential correlates of happiness such as demographic factors, income, education and employment rates, health conditions, and climate. This can be a long-term goal of this line of research. However, to begin this investigation, we suggest that consideration of the associations between the many subsystems within a city and residential happiness could be vital to a future of sustainable cities and happy residents.

The two indices significantly correlated with happiness, the Green City Index (2011) and the Popular Science US City Rankings (2008), provide an excellent starting point for such a venture. Although a multivariate analysis examining the relative influence of specific sustainability indicators (i.e., sustainability index subscales) on self-reported happiness was not possible in this study due to limited data availability and small sample size, other research has revealed ways in which some SD indicators might contribute to overall happiness (Florida 2010, O’Brien 2005, 2008). For instance, both the Green City and Popular Science indices incorporate aspects of transportation and green buildings. As supported by Lehman (2011), a greater number of LEED-certified buildings combined with energy-efficient building standards and incentives could correlate with higher levels of self-reported residential happiness. Transportation systems (i.e. public transit, walkability) may also correlate with higher happiness levels, as supported by both O’Brien (2008) and Leyden et al. (2011).

Although the overall ranking produced by the SustainLane US City Rankings (2007) and the Our Green Cities Index (2012) were not statistically significantly correlated with overall happiness rankings, specific elements of these indices could still be considered in future research. For example, the SustainLane US City Rankings (2007) includes a food component. Local food and agriculture and a healthy diet could be associated with self-reported happiness levels within a city. In fact, numerous studies (Armstrong 2000; Twiss et al. 2003; Saldivar-Tanaka and Krasny 2004; Somerset et al. 2005; Wakefield et al. 2007; Alaimo 2008; Kingsley et al. 2009; Okvat and Zautra 2011) highlight the countless benefits of community gardens and local food systems, including healthy environments, improved human health, greater social interactions, better connections to food and increased community resilience, all of which are factors that contribute to happier people. Farmers’ markets and community gardens also serve as social hubs for community members to build new friendships and take an active role in supporting their community, supporting overall happiness and well-being.

The weakest observed correlations between happiness and SD occurred with the Our Green Cities Index (2012). This finding is interesting because the categories within the Our Green Cities Index are similar to many of the categories on the significantly related sustainability indices. However, the indicators used for the Our Green Cities categories are based primarily on policy and program initiatives, not the mix of policy and objective performance-based measures that comprise the other SD indices. For example, two measures of the pollution prevention category include the presence of household solid waste recycling and urban hazardous waste recycling. A more comprehensive index might also include objective values for the percentage of solid and hazardous waste recycled. Similarly, subjective energy and land use rankings could be replaced by more concrete metrics such as per capita fuel or land consumption. The two SD indices that were significantly correlated with happiness in this study were those that included a diverse set of categories that accounted for both policy indicators and objective performance-based metrics. The results suggest that future sustainability indices include indicators that account for several areas of community development that are measurable and within the control of the community being measured.  For instance, a water quality indicator is easier to control than an indicator for average annual air temperature.

As noted above, efforts to assess the relationships between specific SD indicators and happiness require a larger data set. Existing sustainability indices do not evaluate a sufficient number of cities for this type of analysis. In fact, nearly, all sustainability indices only consider very large cities, as they have the financial or human resources to measure, collect and disseminate data. Thus, we suggest that existing sustainability assessments should be expanded to include a greater number of cities. While the largest cities in the US are easier to evaluate than smaller cities and towns, an effort focused on collecting data within these communities could prove useful for future studies. In fact, of the 3,573 places that the US Census has deemed as “urban areas,” roughly eighty percentage have populations of less than 20,000 people (US Census 2010). Thus, while large cities represent the low-hanging fruit, we must not forget about sustainability (and associated levels of resident happiness) in smaller urban areas.

6 Summary

In this paper, we analyzed the relationships between four indices of sustainable urban development and the happiness of residents within many cities in the United States. We found that, in all cases, happiness and SD were positively associated. In two cases, these relationships were statistically significant. The results of our study support prior research that highlighted similar links at different scales of analysis (White et al. 2013; Leyden et al. 2011; Zidansek 2007; O’Brien 2001; Veenhoven 1992). In fact, with more research and investigation, happiness may prove to be an important component of a sustainability index for communities. Happiness is what drives humans in much of what they do and strive for (DeGraaf et al. 2005). In order to provide opportunities for residents to achieve meaningful and long-term happiness, we should consider how a future of SD might also contribute to happiness (or vice versa). These data and findings yield several conclusions that suggest a path for the future development of our communities. First, SD is associated with city-level self-reported happiness in US urban areas. Therefore, policy-makers, planners, engineers, designers, architects and public officials need to seriously consider how their decisions and sustainable community design choices affect the happiness of urban residents. Second, although cities represent complex systems, it is necessary to study how the many aspects of a city and its components influence happiness in distinct ways. This is a fruitful area for future inquiry, which underscores a final important point. Our study represents the first step in an ongoing effort to characterize links between happiness and SD, two concepts that may—independently or collectively—play a critical role in the long-term health and well-being of the global population. Though our investigation cast some light on this general association, future studies should continue to explore the breadth, depth and theoretical foundation for the complex relationship between happiness and SD in cities around the world.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of EngineeringUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA
  2. 2.Department of Natural ResourcesCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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