Step outside. Close your front door behind you. Stop for a minute and take in the view.
What do you see? How does it make you feel?
Does it even matter?
Depending on which way the wind is blowing, I get birdsong from the local park or the drone of M6 traffic passing through Spaghetti Junction. Some days I stop for a friendly chat with neighbours. On others I’m greeted by another heap of fly-tipped rubbish instead.
On summer evenings my walk home often treats me to a beautiful view of the sun glittering off the lake. At other times I've had to circle around police tape and blood stains on the pavement.
"At other times I’ve had to circle around police tape and blood stains on the pavement."
This all comes to mind because I’m writing elsewhere about the benefits of green space and greener neighbourhoods. It’s got me thinking hard about the word ‘wellbeing’.
There are a huge range of benefits of course, but as I list them I wonder how something like wellbeing can compare with more tangible things like fixing potholes, provision of adult social care, funding child services or keeping the local library open. This is important because those are the choices facing local councils as they decide how to spend increasingly tight budgets.
Some benefits are easier to compare with the other priorities that councils need to think about. We know that green areas in our towns can often increase the value of homes near them and can also reduce the chance flooding, both of which have a clear financial benefit. Other things are more indirect but still easier to count –the benefits of more people getting outside and being active for example.
But wellbeing? That’s harder to put your finger on.
When people talk about the environment more generally there is often the same dilemma. For many the value is innate and literally priceless. Others take a more pragmatic view that priceless can sometimes appear to be the same as valueless. The reasoning goes that if there is an economic value in developing a space, by clearing a forest for example, we should also know the economic value of leaving it alone as a counterbalance.
This is where we get ideas like ‘ecosystem services’ or ‘green infrastructure’. Both make a sensible point that the things that we take for granted can have a measurable long term value that may be greater than another planned development. For example trees left on hillsides stop flooding, bees pollinate our crops and local parks moderate the temperature and soak up pollution.
The trouble with bees
Some argue that this approach has its limitations. In the Sichuan province of China the ecosystem services provided by bees pollinating fruit trees were lost when the bee population was wiped out. This led to people having to laboriously pollinate the trees themselves by hand.
This sounds like a simple cautionary tale. Lose an ecosystem service and you go out of business. But the combination of using pesticides, low labour costs and increased precision of humans over bees led to bigger harvests. In economic terms it was better to wipe out the bees and do it ourselves. It’s as simple as that right?
Of course that’s the risk of looking at things like wellbeing or nature in the same way as we would other kinds of infrastructure. It ignores the wider impacts on the rest of the ecosystem, not to mention the moral implications of wiping out a species for our own benefit. As you might expect, the problems with this approach showed themselves later as the growing Chinese economy started to increase wages. Over time the balance shifted and the expense of manually pollinating the crop started to become a real burden and by then it was too late.
"Looking just at the money or measurable benefits can lead to people making decisions that seem rational at the time."
What I take away from this is that looking just at the money or measurable benefits can lead to people making decisions that seem rational at the time. But these decisions can have serious consequences in the long term. It also completely overlooks the wider impact on things that are harder to measure – perhaps the loss of bees means the loss of native flowers too or other things that make our lives better.
This brings us back to wellbeing.
Being proud of where you live, feeling safe, the social safety net of knowing your neighbours, benefiting from the stress busting presence of green spaces and living somewhere that inspires you to get outside and be more active – these will all have some measurable economic benefits. But I wonder if that often misses the point.
At its heart wellbeing is really about having a decent life. I know for a fact that the days where I chat to my neighbours, enjoy the sun in the park and listen to the birdsong are what I would like to fill my life with. I also know that having large numbers of people living in a place where you don’t feel safe, that is bleak and depressing and where you have no contact with the natural world is not a recipe for a harmonious society of happy individuals.
Perhaps, despite being hard to measure, wellbeing is the most important thing. But that feeling is essentially priceless. How do you enter it into a spreadsheet or a funding bid without it being possible to dismiss it when the price is right? That’s the real challenge and not one I’m sure I have the answer to.
But I know I’m going to keep trying.
Post by Ben Leach, Groundwork UK