And The World’s Most Sustainable City Is…

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A city is more that just a place where people live and work. And as more of the world’s population gravitates toward city living, these urban centers must cater to their population’s myriad needs with sustainable solutions like never before.

Recently, ARCADIS came out with a highly informative report entitled “Sustainable Cities Index 2015 – Balancing the economic, social and environmental needs of the world’s leading cities.” The researchers proclaimed “A city is much more than just a place for people to live and do business. Cities are areas of emotional attachment, each with their own distinct personality, traditions and attraction factor.”

The Index takes 50 of the world’s most prominent cities and looks comprehensively at – as John J. Batten, Global Cities Director for ARCADIS, points out – “how viable they are as places to live, their environmental impact, their financial stability, and how these elements complement one another” in order to “obtain a clearer picture of how sustainable, or not, a city is.” The ‘Sustainable Cities Index’ does not only serve as a current benchmark but is meant to offer a “roadmap for future improvements.”

Dr. Eugenie L. Birch, Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Co-Director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania, underscores in her foreword the importance of cities within the global economy and with respect to the global climate: “Today, cities dominate in population numbers (54% of the total), economic output (70-80%), energy consumption (80%) and greenhouse gas production (80%).” Additionally, consider the following two UN graphics, which illustrate the global urbanization trend projected out to 2030.

Percentage Urban and Urban Agglomerations by Size Class (2014)

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Percentage Urban and Urban Agglomerations by Size Class (2030)

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 12.47.46 PM Source: UN – Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division

So, no wonder that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, “The Road to Dignity by 2030: ending poverty, transforming all lives and protecting the planet”, proposed a refocusing on human life within cities. With respect to the post-2015 development agenda, Ban Ki-moon stated: “People want decent jobs, social protection, robust agricultural systems and rural prosperity, sustainable cities, inclusive and sustainable industrialization, resilient infrastructure and sustainable energy for all. These transformations will also help tackle climate change.” Most importantly, only by making “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” can the international community expect to tackle climate change effectively.

Conscious of the global urbanization trend and its impact on global climate, the ARCADIS ‘Sustainable Cities Index’ chose a broad definition of ‘sustainability’ embedded in the urban context; namely, “cities that work well for their citizens in the present without causing problems for themselves and the rest of the world in the future.”

To learn more about ‘sustainability’ read Breaking Energy’s “Sustainability: Reconfiguring the Relationship between Humanity, Energy and the Natural World”.

To determine respective rankings the ‘Sustainable Cities Index’ utilizes three main dimensions – “people, planet, and profit”:

  1. ‘Quality of Life’ indicators within the ‘People sub-index’ rate transport infrastructure, health, education, income inequality, work-life balance, the dependency ratio and green spaces within cities. Ideally, cities should have “clean and safe water supplies, strong social structures and institutions that work predictably and efficiently, a healthy and well-educated workforce, and an environment conducive to strong economic performance.”
  1. The ‘Planet sub-index’ is more future-oriented, captures the environmental ‘big picture’, and is meant to assess a city’s energy consumption, how much of it is supplied by renewable energy sources, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, drinking water, sanitation and also whether adequate steps have been taken to guard against natural disasters that can cost lives and risk setting back a city’s respective development.
  1. The ‘Profit sub-index’ measures economic performance and analyzes the overall business environment thereby “combining measures of transport infrastructure (rail, air, other public transport and commuting time), ease of doing business, the city’s importance in global economic networks, property and living costs, GDP per capita and energy efficiency.

The following general findings stand out:

  • Across the world, cities seem to perform better across the ‘Profit and Planet’ sustainability dimensions but tend to fail “to sufficiently meet the needs of their People”.
  • City leaders need to better “balance the demands of generating strong financial returns, being an attractive place for people to live and work in, whilst also limiting their damage to the environment”. In this context, higher economic development does not guarantee greater sustainability. Meanwhile, city leaders in all 50 cities must plan for at times dramatic population increases – e.g. “Nairobi’s population will grow by 121%” and Shanghai will grow by 54% to over 30 million people” – over the coming 15 years.
  • The top ten is dominated by European cities, with Frankfurt on top overall and London following as a close second. Meanwhile, Asian megacities show the most divergence with advanced cities such as Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore (in respective order) in the top ten and fast-growing cities such as Manila, Mumbai, Wuhan and New Delhi firmly in the bottom. The highest ranked US city is Boston in 15th position overall.
  • Many of the world’s financial centers are becoming less affordable for their citizens, with the cost of property in New York, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong dragging down their rankings.
  • Frankfurt – the banking center (‘Manhattan’) in Germany – topped the ranking by doing well across all three dimensions – leading the ‘Profit sub-index’ and scoring well for waste management and low levels of air pollution on the ‘Planet sub-index’.
  • As for US cities, their performance in the ‘Sustainable Cities Index’ is gravely impacted by their “energy use characteristics, with heavy reliance on cars and lower ranking waste management practices.” New York, still the financial capital of the world, is in 20th position overall. New York is one of the best-connected global cities in terms of transportation infrastructure reflecting its importance within global business networks. However, the city was penalized in its overall ranking (33rd) because of “the high cost of doing business, as measured by the cost of living and of property”, which were “the highest recorded across all the cities studied and contributed to New York ranking of just 33rd.” The report stresses that “[f]or long term economic and social sustainability, this requires a heavy program of investment in housing and office space.”

As for the last finding regarding New York City, this is something NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio clearly understands as it is reflected in his recent announcement – as reported by the New York Times – to make housing the focal point of his second year in office. In this respect, Michael Grynbaum of the New York Times writes: “The mayor’s mission: to convince New Yorkers that his plan to build more, and build higher, can improve the quality of life for residents across all income levels, even as many have come to associate construction cranes and high-rise buildings with the out-of-reach opulence of the upper class.” Additionally, regarding the ‘Planet’ dimension, former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg exhibited the rare but advisable foresight amongst politicians when he unveiled PlaNYC in 2007, described as “an ambitious and practical plan to make New York America´s first sustainable city”. Thanks to this “sustainability and resiliency blueprint for New York City” and now Mayor de Blasio’s equally important initiative on managing citywide housing costs, New York City is poised to jump to the top tier of the ‘Sustainable Cities Index’ over time.

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