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Feb 1, 2024 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

What we know about wellbeing in place and community 2014 – 2024

The places we live, work and socialise – and the people we encounter and connect with there – have an impact on our wellbeing both directly and indirectly. 

Since 2014, we have commissioned, delivered and supported a wide range of activities to explore wellbeing through the lens of place and community, working to develop the knowledge base and help turn evidence into action. 

Here we bring together our analysis and guidance in this focus area. 


For effective policy and practice, we need to understand what works to improve both individual and community wellbeing. 

Do all approaches and infrastructures work for everyone, and under what conditions? What has the biggest impact? What role can civil society play in our wellbeing? How does place interact with our ability to thrive? How do we understand and measure wellbeing inequality and why does it matter?

Public dialogues

One of our first activities as a Centre was speaking to over 4,000 people via workshops, conversations and consultations to capture different perspectives and help develop our focus and 2014-18 delivery plan. 

This engagement included six wellbeing public dialogues conducted around the UK, which brought together members of the public with practitioners, researchers and policy makers to discuss wellbeing and understand what matters to people.

Through the dialogues, we learned that wellbeing encompasses feeling safe, loved and fulfilled. Specific aspects such as relationships, trust, a sense of belonging, the environment, having one’s voice heard, feeling safe and financially secure, culture, sport, local facilities, faith, and the history, heritage and pride of a place are key considerations for wellbeing. See our summary report for more detail.

Using these insights, we launched our first evidence programmes, which focused on research synthesis and secondary data analysis across three areas: work and learning, culture and sport, and community wellbeing.

Specific goals of the Community Programme included:

  • Defining community wellbeing
  • Identifying local factors that determine both personal and community wellbeing
  • Exploring the role of social networks and participation in personal and community wellbeing
  • Understanding the positive impacts of community wellbeing on other outcomes
  • Evaluating the impacts of community based interventions to improve wellbeing

Understanding community wellbeing 2015-2018

Community wellbeing is more than an aggregate of individual wellbeing – it can be thought of as ‘being well together’. It can be defined as ‘the combination of social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political conditions identified by individuals and their communities as essential for them to flourish and fulfil their potential’ (Wiseman and Brasher 2008). 

Given the interrelated factors, it is an inherently complex and ‘messy’ concept. To help understand how and why interventions might work, we created a theory of change model for building community wellbeing. It is based on research, public dialogues and workshops with a range of communities and organisations, and represents possible pathways for improving community wellbeing, including widening participation and strengthening social networks. 

We also wanted to address evidence gaps about measures and indicators. Our 2017 rapid scoping review of the frameworks and measures of community wellbeing led to our table of indicators that listed existing measures used in the UK. 

This was followed by our conceptual review which pulled together thinking and practice on how to think about and assess community wellbeing. Following this, we ran two public hearings in 2018 to look at the evidence on community wellbeing from academic research through to front line experience, highlighting what local systems can do.

Wellbeing inequality

People’s experiences of life vary across the UK. Examining these disparities, and identifying contexts where this is greatest, is important to improving the nation’s wellbeing overall and integral to levelling up.

Our 2017 wellbeing inequality report was the first to measure wellbeing inequality, using ONS Annual Population Survey data to show changes over time. Further research built on this work by looking at the drivers of wellbeing inequality.

Our more recent discussion paper explored the challenges and opportunities in attempting to produce metrics of wellbeing inequality, introducing four possible approaches to measurement.

To lay the foundation for how individual, community and place factors interact, we looked at what the evidence tells us about a community’s capacity to thrive. Insights, including evidence gaps, are detailed in the Understanding Thriving Communities report

This led to synthesising findings from quantitative analysis and qualitative research investigating the different experiences of people within the same place. This helped us to better understand the drivers of personal and community wellbeing together and what can be changed. 

Placed-based approaches

An important aspect of work in this area has been pioneering the use of existing data on quality of life through a new set of indicators

Since 2017, this has enabled local authorities, public health leaders and Health and Wellbeing boards to use additional, real-world metrics at a regional, county or unitary level on the drivers of wellbeing. This offers better insights into what really matters to local residents’ lives and helps capture where communities may be at risk of health, financial and social problems. 

This framework is now included in the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID)Fingertips Mental Health and Wellbeing Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA) profile. Bringing together data and making it available in this type of public health data tool embeds wellbeing metrics in decision making across the country by increasing access to insights. It also helps shifts focus from mental ill-health to positive wellbeing.

To further research how to use wellbeing evidence in practice to maximise local wellbeing, we delivered a three-year programme of tailored support for 10 local authorities in an implementation cohort. Outputs included a maturity model for wellbeing policy making. We also shared our evidence, evaluation and implementation expertise to help develop a new wellbeing framework for rural settings. These resources can be used by policy makers to help understand what supports and maintains wellbeing in different types of places and use evidence in practice.

Built, natural and historic environments

We explored housing and wellbeing in an initial scoping review in 2017, which gathered evidence on housing and housing interventions. The condition, location and cost of housing underpins drivers of wellbeing including relationships but also health, security and environment. 

Our new report from 2024 used English Housing Survey data 2013 – 2020 to understand the relationship between housing and subjective wellbeing in more detail, including the impact of socio-demographic factors. 

Our systematic review from May 2018 focused on housing for vulnerable groups at risk of homelessness. The Centre for Homelessness Impact was set as part of the What Works Network in 2018 and now leads on work in this area. 

Aspects of community wellbeing

Through our work we have a greater knowledge of what matters for community wellbeing.

Social capital

Social capital can be thought of as the ‘glue’ that holds societies together: the shared values, collective attitudes, and the extent and nature of relationships that support a well-functioning society. It is part of our ‘hidden’ wealth, and underpins future wellbeing and growth, with higher levels being associated with better outcomes in health, education, employment and civic engagement. See David Halpern’s model for how this works on micro, meso and macro levels.

Social capital is now an ONS interim harmonised standard with national indicators that track changes in neighbourhood belonging, companionship, generalised trust, voting, and volunteering. 

Our job as an evidence centre is to build on this rich and growing data, which is why our evidence review in 2022 looked at ‘what works’ to build social capital. It considered three key social capital outcomes: neighbourhood belonging, social support and community cohesion. This is alongside our wider work on loneliness and volunteering, to create a broader picture of being well together, and builds on our 2019 analysis of Understanding Society data to examine perceptions of neighbourhood cohesion and wellbeing in relation to local areas.

Civic Leadership and the role of civil society

Volunteering is an active, deliberate, and prosocial pursuit that takes many forms. At its heart is people working together to improve their communities and support each other. As such, it’s a powerful tool for personal and community wellbeing. 

We examined how volunteering can help support the wellbeing of volunteers themselves too, including developing a theory of change for volunteer wellbeing. We found that those who would benefit the most face the biggest barriers to volunteering, and while the voluntary sector continues to provide opportunities and innovation, it is under a range of pressures, including stretched resources, declining numbers and changing motivations.

The purpose of civil society organisations – Voluntary, community and social enterprises – is to improve wellbeing. The strength of our civil society sector contributes to national wellbeing. Many also actively generate social capital of all kinds through their work. Large or small, they are uniquely placed to contribute rich, practical learnings to the narrative, filling a gap where academic research is limited. Intentionally capturing and communicating insights is useful for those looking to strengthen communities. It also offers a way for charities to tangibly demonstrate their value and get recognition from decision-makers. 

In 2018, the Centre was awarded National Lottery Funding to support evidence-informed action in civil society, and we have worked to support charities to use evidence by increasing access and building capacity through free advice surgeries and a specific digital measuring wellbeing resource.

Civic Leadership – Participation and Decision Making 

Having a voice or influencing outcomes are often identified as mattering to community wellbeing. To explore this further, we undertook a scoping review of co-production and local decision making. We found gaps in the knowledge about what ‘meaningful’ involvement is, what initiatives work best, and how it impacts on wellbeing outcomes. 

This led us to reviewing the effectiveness of joint decision making initiatives such as urban renewal, development projects, citizens’ juries and crime prevention programmes in 2018.  In tandem, our community business report considered the ways in which local businesses make an impact on the wellbeing of their customers, staff, volunteers, and communities.

To deepen the knowledge about the role of community agency and control, we conducted an evidence review in 2023. It identified several common features that influence collective agency and control, including availability and size of funding, and painted a mixed picture of impact. Communities have different starting points and do not necessarily respond in the same way, some experiencing positive impacts of exercising agency and control and others neutral or negative. There are also evidence gaps for long-term impact, and for examples of community-led action.

Culture, arts and sport

Shared positive experiences can also build community wellbeing through connections, pride, belonging or a sense of value. For example holding events, arts or cultural places, and participating in physical activity could influence wellbeing in this area. Our reviews explored:

  • Heritage – Gathered what we know about the community wellbeing impacts of historic places and assets.
  • Sport and dance – Investigated how taking part affects the subjective wellbeing of young people.
  • Arts and culture interventions – Examined place-based interventions, such as targeted museum-based interventions with a volunteering or social prescribing component for people with low wellbeing. We also found evidence about cultural participation through mega-events. Mega-events include occasions such as the Olympics, Eurovision or the Coronation.

We are currently leading a review to better understand the pathways that link creativity and wellbeing. The evidence gathered will help to set the foundations for future practice and learning.

Connectedness

Social relationships are consistently found to be an important determinant of our overall health and wellbeing. Understanding what communities and organisations can do to best support social relationships is less clear. 

To evaluate the state of the evidence on boosting social relations, we  looked at existing reviews, policies and community-based interventions. We found evidence suggesting that it’s not easy to improve neighbourliness through large-scale policies. Instead, it is better to encourage local understanding and action. 

Based on the scoping review, we carried out a systematic review of places, spaces and social connection review in 2018, subsequently refreshed in 2023, and case study evidence about community hubs and green spaces. This suite of work looked at the existing global evidence base for improving wellbeing through changes to community infrastructure

What’s next

If you are interested in contributing to this area of our work, here’s what you can do:

As a programmer, funder or commissioner

  • Use the collective knowledge to fund ‘what works’ and design effective interventions. 
  • Use the insights to inform and prioritise where and what type of evaluation is useful next.
  • Embed consistent evaluation in design and delivery to allow for better comparison.
  • Government funders can upload evaluations to the evaluation registry to increase visibility and access. 
  • Make it easy for prospective applicants to know what works already.

As a practitioner

As a researcher, academic or economist 

  • Explore wellbeing impact for populations or contexts where there is less evidence, such as for young offenders. 
  • Investigate how changes to virtual or hybrid community places and spaces impact our social relations and community wellbeing.
  • Evaluate wellbeing ‘in the moment’, to give alternative insights to people’s overall assessment of their wellbeing.
  • Continue to move towards living evidence reviews.

Resources 

We’ve offered expert guidance, support and training to build knowledge on how to evaluate wellbeing in this context, and built effective measurement tools. 

Products and tools:

  • A practical guide for charities and social enterprises on measuring your wellbeing impact.
  • Measures bank is a searchable database of metrics and measures that can be used to assess changes in wellbeing in a project evaluation.

Our partners over the years will continue to drive forward this focus area. 

For more on this topic continue to follow organisations including: 

Centre for Thriving Places

Carnegie UK

Neighbourly Lab 

National Lottery Community Fund

Spirit of 2012 

Centre for Urban Wellbeing

Quality of Life Foundation 

Centre for Homelessness Impact

Health Foundation

People’s Health Trust

As well as a forthcoming ESRC Centre for community participation and connectedness, Local Government Association’s Community wellbeing board and a Community wealth fund.

Related

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Housing and subjective wellbeing: insights from the English Housing Survey 2013-2020
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Evaluating what works for place-based arts and culture
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