Building better, resilient and safer cities: the Happiness Index

Instruction in youth is like engraving in stones-Berber proverb, North Africa.

Growing up in the urban cities of Mombasa and Nairobi, I thought to a large extent that better livelihoods equated to access to food, education, clean water, good health, clothes and shelter for all with the underlying factor being money. The basic needs as we know them; however there’s more to it. Today, I have come to learn and appreciate certain aspects of life that are easily overlooked; one of them being the happiness index.

The world is slowly shifting public policy from being a mere representation of cold numbers to a more candid reflection of the well being of its citizens. It no longer is about calculating GDP and economic statistics alone,  there is more to life and economic indicators by themselves are a poor representation of a people; people in essence do not eat nor dance with GDP. The happiness index reflects citizens’ actual living conditions and quality of life and inculcates social indicators; the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them.

Are you smiling more often today? If so can you pin point the ingredients that have cooked this feel good factor?


Statistics indicate that urban cities are home to a large number of youth in the African continent and these numbers continue to grow by the day. This brings new issues to the forefront of economic, political and human development both in a positive and negative light. The increase in numbers has inadvertently raised the challenge of addressing inequality caused by rising unemployment which has further exacerbated insecurity in many urban settings. This rapid urbanization is a ticking time bomb if wide arrays of issues are left unabated.

Estimations show that by the year 2050, 7 in 10 people will be urban dwellers and that 60% of all urban dwellers are expected to be under the age of 18 by 2030.

Naturally, before you can fix something you’ve got to analyze and quantify it and urbanization in and of itself requires a reintroduction of lasting solutions which among them includes bringing youth on board as partners to find legitimate and inclusive ways to enhance the sustainability and quality of life for all people living in cities; ultimately supporting the realization of sustainable urbanization and decent housing for all as espoused in UN-HABITAT’s mandate.

Youth, especially those living in informal settlements will tell you that among their most prized possessions are open spaces which bring them together with their friends and family. Some of these spaces measure 40×20 metres, others much smaller. These spaces are utilized for sporting activities such as football and volleyball which are quite popular or for community barazas to discuss issues affecting the larger society which creates a sense of belonging.


(Pic courtesy of

“Life can be quite tough, a sense of belonging gives us sanity,” one of the youth in Mathare tells me. Some people have argued that a stronger sense of community and culture often gives them a naturally more upbeat and cheerful outlook on the world, some argue that it doesn’t. The evidence is blatant nonetheless.

These public spaces are not only venues for recreation and social interaction, but are also critical for innovation and entrepreneurship which supports economic development. These dynamics are well known however why is it that we still do not create these spaces especially in informal settlements? In today’s world, any space means money and this economic opportunity means more concrete jungles. Accessing these open spaces in informal settlements where even an acute space originally planned for a toilet will be exchanged for habitation is indeed a dirty fight for the youth.

The team at UN-HABITAT is working diligently with grass root organizations, local and national governments to actualize these public spaces. Such like organizations in Kenya are Sisi ni Amani, One Stop Youth Resource Centre, Kibera Soweto Resource Centre which are located in Mathare and Kibera respectively and the Kimisagara One Stop Youth employment and productive centre in Rwanda among many others. Their collaborative efforts have transformed garbage and burnt spaces into environmental, health and recreational centres where youth especially those from informal settlements are interacting with one another and with youth serving agencies. The groups work hand in hand with the larger community gaining their buy in and support in the projects which has made it community owned and sustainable.


(Dance group at the Kimisagara centre. Pic courtesy of

“We are happier, more active, more united.You’d be surprised what an open space can do,” Kaka, coordinator of the Mathare Environmental slum soccer initiative.


(The slum soccer initiative by Mathare Environmental youth, Sisi ni Amani and One Stop Youth Resource Centre)

%d bloggers like this: