Bookmark and ShareJody Aked is a researcher at nef‘s centre for well-being.

Before a room of 150 planners, architects, engineers, and developers who gathered on Wednesday night at the Building Centre in central London, nef set out the key ideas in its latest report Good Foundations: towards a low carbon, high well-being built environment.

The places and spaces we create form the back-drop of our everyday lives, providing a visual marker of the values that we live by. So why is it that we have ended up with a development model for the built environment so disconnected from those things in life that really matter? Sunand Prasad, immediate past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, reflected that ‘the metrics of success have been too narrow’, while journalist Anna Minton explained that ‘we have lost a notion of the public good, both conceptually and literally’. Both accounts indicate that the priorities of decision makers are somehow out of touch with the things that make the biggest difference to our lives, now and in the future. In particular, the preoccupation with short-term financial returns has meant that we have increasingly treated our houses and public spaces as commodities to be traded, rather than things of inherent value that contribute to our individual and collective well-being.

As efforts to patch up the current financial system continue, and investment into development projects begins to regain momentum, Good Foundations calls for a development model that is fit for purpose. As Stewart Wallis, Executive Director of nef, emphasised, the stakes are high. Today’s challenges – climate change, spatial inequality, low levels of trust and belonging, weak local economies and poor housing quality, require a pro-active response in re-thinking an alternative vision of successful development, which balances social, economic and environmental value with financial return.

But how do we incorporate a broader definition of value that properly takes into account the drivers of people’s well-being into the way we plan, design and develop our neighbourhoods? Good Foundations, sets out a proposition – that when, in 20 years time, we examine the results of our efforts today, our markers of success should be neighbourhoods that promote two key outcomes. These are:

  • place Happiness, the personal, social and economic well-being of their inhabitants, and
  • place Sustainability, which arises from minimising the environmental impact throughout both the construction process and lifetime of a building or place.

The aim of Good Foundations, the final report of a project funded by the Happold Trust, was always to stimulate the beginnings of a cultural shift in the built environment sector. During last night’s discussions, comments from the audience were reassuringly ambitious. In thinking about the report’s final recommendation to test and develop the mechanisms we propose in practice, it was suggested that a sustainable well-being approach should be applied to large infrastructural projects including the development of zero carbon neighbourhoods and large-scale retrofit projects.

Recognition in the sector of the interdependence of well-being and sustainability is critical, not least because the built environment influences all of us when it comes to the choices and decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. As last night proved, the enthusiasm for a genuinely new way of doing things is there. The burning question that remains is: where will the UK’s first low carbon, high well-being neighbourhood be?

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