The Green Column #47

Lincoln’s Well-Being Index: Proof of Sustainability

A legitimate measurement of who we are

March 30, 2011—In the Saturday, March 19 issue of the Lincoln Journal Star a local reporter described the recently released Gallup Poll Well-Being Index for cities and states of the U.S. The article was headed, “We’re a happy lot; Lincoln second-happiest city in the U.S., study says.” There are several items about this report that should cause us to take a second look at the information as it was presented.

First, the reporter projected a casual, glib, and in my opinion, ill-advised attempt at humor by incorporating a smiley-face graphic and tagging the study as a “happiness profile” of Lincoln. The Gallup terminology is a more serious, comprehensive, and purposeful language of well-being. Second, the actual study data is categorized by large cities, mid-size cities, and small cities—Lincoln’s ranking falls within the mid-size cluster of cities. And a third notion comes to mind: If we take the Gallup project as a serious effort to define the quality characteristics of livable communities, what is the relationship between a community’s well-being and its potential to be known as a sustainable community?

These questions of purpose, measurements/comparisons, and definitions of language for planning for a long term future of our community are especially relevant at this moment in time. The current community-wide engagement in updating and rewriting the Lincoln/Lancaster County Comprehensive Plan for the year 2040 calls for serious attention to such issues.

The Comp Plan deliberations will continue throughout 2011. And the questions are not settled. There is considerable debate as the Comp Plan process moves through its consultation, advisory, public reviews and recommendations processes&8#8212;especially surrounding the definitions of sustainability and the planning conditions necessary to achieve a sustainable community.

In this column, in December 2010 for Green Column #40 I raised the question, “So, you are anti-sustainability? And, if you are, how do you feel about ‘quality of life?'” Now we have the related and similar language of well-being. Can we accept this language and external assessments as a substitute (or partial substitute, at least) for sustainability? Can the results of the Gallup survey be used in constructive ways to guide the planning and the administration of the anticipated growth and development of Lincoln and Lancaster County? If we are #2 now, how do we become #1, and how would we sustain that position for the next 30 years and beyond?

Gallup has designed this index as a long-term and on-going assessment process. They initiated the surveys of more than 1,000 persons per day, including every state in the Union in 2008. They have aggregately surveyed more than 1,000,000 persons and they intend to continue the rate of surveys and to publish monthly results keyed to the individual states and the three scales of cities.

The categories of their reporting are: Life Evaluation (your personal assessment of the quality of your life now, and anticipated quality in the next five years), Emotional Health (feelings of worth, productivity, optimism), Physical Health (wellness, energy, physical condition, lack of medical conditions), Healthy Behavior (active lifestyles), Work Environment (productive, supportive economic, physical, and human environments), and Basic Access (access to community goods and services; choices for needs, desires, and recreations).

As we consider the essential conditions of the Five Domains of Sustainability—environment, socio-cultural, technologies, economic, and public policies—the Well-Being Index is obviously heavily weighted to the socio-cultural domain. However, I suggest that the nature of their survey questions causes the respondent to think about and evaluate the environmental, technological, and regulatory/governmental qualities of the community that surrounds them.

We might, for instance, use the Lincoln Well-being Index to define a number of key sustainability indicators that planners and administrators would evaluate and re-evaluate on an annual basis to determine the city’s progress toward, or regression from sustainability. And, supplemented by other economic, environmental, technologies and public policy indicators, we could evolve into an extremely and effective plans management system of administration.

Apparently, there is an element in the community that projects an idea that “sustainability is a conspiracy device”, on a global scale, to limit or eliminate individual freedoms. In my humble opinion we would not have public opinions of high levels of individual well-being, or of sustainable community conditions, without perceptions of shared interests that transcend individual interests—and, that those shared interests and community-making experiences give us more satisfaction than independent, isolated behavior. Otherwise, why have we become an urbanized world?

From time-to-time it seems that there is a Midwestern mistrust of success, high qualities, and elevated stature. I hear it often: “We don’t want to be identified with those tree-hugging, ultra-liberals in Boulder.” Well, now we are. And by the way, this index also identifies us with Honolulu (where most everyone enjoys visiting, or desires to visit), and Madison, Wisconsin (where the labor unions are under duress).

This survey is more evidence that quality feelings about your community don’t depend on mountains, lakes, seashore, tropical climate, or politics. The feelings of well-being mostly depend upon our collective social interactions, our health, our economic well-being, and the quality of the place we make. That is sustainability.

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