A deep dive on what we mean by wellbeing

Across more than 120 presentations, the Victoria University of Wellington co-hosted Third International Conference on Wellbeing and Public Policy highlighted the many perspectives that need to be brought to bear on wellbeing and in turn the many areas of public policy that wellbeing itself can provide a perspective on.

Children’s wellbeing, health and wellbeing, ageing and wellbeing, Māori and wellbeing, housing and wellbeing, community wellbeing, urban wellbeing, post-disaster wellbeing, technology and wellbeing and wellbeing at work were just some of the strands explored at the three-day conference, whose other hosts were The Treasury and the International Journal of Wellbeing.

Presentations ranged from ‘Counting the economic contribution of human milk and breastfeeding in GDP’ (see our report in Future Learning later this week) to ‘Defence and wellbeing’ (in which the multiple roles and contributions of the New Zealand Defence Force were evaluated in wellbeing terms).

During the conference’s community and wellbeing strand, Professor Philip Morrison and Master of Science student Pascarn Dickinson from Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences unveiled research showing that, just as income inequality adversely affects health and is associated with lower levels of trust and cooperation, wellbeing inequality further diminishes the average sense of wellbeing in a community as a whole.

The research, drawing on regional, city and ward-based surveys of New Zealand, indicates that people are sensitive to the way wellbeing is distributed within their community, said Morrison.

His and Dickinson’s study was motivated by current legislation to reinstate the four wellbeings (social, economic, environmental and cultural) in the Local Government Act, the potential of the Act to reduce inequalities within communities, and whether narrowing wellbeing inequalities could, in and of itself, raise the wellbeing of the community as a whole.

“The interesting thing about income inequality and wellbeing inequality is they have quite different properties,” said Morrison.

“If you redistribute income you’re effectively taking income off one person and putting it into others, and therefore there’s a built-in reaction among those who are going to lose to that redistribution practice. But that’s not the same for wellbeing. If I want to improve the wellbeing of someone in my community who suffers from low wellbeing, there’s no sense of redistribution. I’m not taking away from your wellbeing. In fact, if I improve their wellbeing I’m effectively raising your wellbeing. It’s a win-win situation.”

During the conference’s Māori wellbeing strand, Dr Rebecca Kiddle, also from Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, spoke about how “for many Māori cities are a source of pain” and what could be done to alleviate that.

There is a sense that cities and urbanisation have led to a loss of Māori language, culture and connections, said Kiddle.

If we accept that, historically, “both our physical environments and colonisation have impacted on Māori wellbeing, then this suggests that colonised physical environments continue to impact on Māori wellbeing in our towns and cities”.

The cities and towns where around 85 percent of Māori live represent the wholesale overlay of another set of values on to what was Māori land, generally with disregard to sites of significance, said Kiddle.

Māori identity was erased and “there’s a real sense with colonisation that it was about resetting to year zero. It was about bringing the motherland here”.

Focused as a researcher on decolonising cities, Kiddle said: “I think we need to meaningfully acknowledge as a way of trying to improve Māori wellbeing that these cities we are living in have always been indigenous places”.

Auckland Council’s Te Aranga Māori Design Principles are an example of work in this area, she said.

Although they are not mandatory, they are beginning to have an influence.

“We’re starting to see a lot of sexy brown appearing around the place. Don’t get me wrong. I think this is really important because it symbolises something about cities. It says Māori stuff is important. But unfortunately for me it sits too much at the surface. We don’t ever go past the artwork on the street or the tukutuku paving or the koru wall.”

Urban designers need to acknowledge the intrinsic political impact of their decisions, said Kiddle.

Designers can “include those who will be affected by those decisions in their processes or not. Lots of times they don’t. It’s not really part of the culture of designers to be explicit about their values.  And so they tend to see themselves as neutral and values free, which is a slightly dangerous position to take, I think”.

Kiddle singled out the Margaret Mahy Family Playground in Christchurch as a good example of a decolonised space.

“We will know we’ve got most of the way there when we can move beyond the sexy to the mundane."

Local iwi Ngāi Tūāhuriri had “a huge amount of input” in its development, with their narratives running through it, and “it’s a leveller”, being free and accessible to all ages and parts of the community.

Another example is the diving platform at Taranaki Wharf on Wellington waterfront.

“For the most part, it’s brown kids there doing it. It’s a leveller. Anyone can do it. And once you have the guts to be able to do a belly-flop from the top of the platform, you’ve got the power in that situation. It’s a really nice subtle way of allowing whoever is brave enough to have power. And the others can just watch the performance, as I would only do.”

Decolonisation might be bilingual road signs such as they have in Wales, an urban kai garden, or simply a women’s public toilet sign where gender is signified by a figure swinging poi, as Kiddle had seen in Ōtaki on the Kāpiti Coast north of Wellington.

“We will know we’ve got most of the way there when we can move beyond the sexy to the mundane,” she said.

Mai Chen, Chair of the Superdiversity Institute for Law, Policy and Business, presented during the conference’s diversity and wellbeing strand.

New Zealand is the fifth most ethnically diverse country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), she said.

The 2018 census statistics are not yet available, “but even five years ago our stats tell us we had 213 ethnicities, 116 languages, we had 90,000 people in New Zealand that don’t speak English as any language. Not a second language, no language”.

Chen said that for Asian and other ethnicities “there are a lot of gaps and there is a lot of invisibility and the result of that is that I am concerned that a growing number of New Zealanders are not getting equal access to the same level of servicing and the same outcomes from services, including government, as opposed to other New Zealanders”.

It is important “to understand that in terms of intergenerational wellbeing, and the various capitals we are here to talk about [i.e. social, human, financial and physical, and natural], superdiversity has an impact on all of them”, she said.

“Every Cabinet paper has at the end of it implications for Te Tiriti o Waitangi, tick, implications under the Bill of Rights Act. I think we need to have implications for superdiversity. And I think we need a superdiversity framework that wraps around every area of policy.”

The International Conference on Wellbeing and Public Policy series began at Victoria University of Wellington in 2012, with the first conference held at Te Papa. A second was held at Hamilton College, New York, in 2015 and a fourth is being planned for Melbourne in 2020. The series is organised by the International Journal of Wellbeing, including section editor Professor Philip Morrison from Victoria University of Wellington.

Read the original article on Newsroom.