Why measure urban sustainability and who should do it?

Tomorrow's City Today: Prospects for Standardising Sustainable Urban Development conference speakers

Tomorrow’s City Today: Prospects for Standardising Sustainable Urban Development conference speakers, 12 June 2015, London

An international research network launched a report on their research of over 43 urban sustainability frameworks at a conference in London last Friday.(1) BRE’s sustainability standard for masterplans was included in the research and I was asked to present in a panel session about whether the quantity and variation of assessment frameworks was problematic or useful. The research showed that 34 out of the 43 frameworks were published between 2008 and 2013 leaving me to wonder why and how this focus on standards, benchmarking and assessment has grown so dramatically. Why are people measuring urban sustainability and who should be trusted with this task?

Standards serve multiple functions and depending on the nature of the standard, can have benefits for industry, government and citizens (or consumers if we’re talking about products or houses). The Top Dog standard for sustainable cities is considered to be ISO 37210:2014 Sustainable Development of Communities: Indicators for City Services and Quality of Life. A panel discussion in a Liveable Cities Singapore conference last October asked why this standard is used. Terry Hill, ISO President and former Chairman of Arup Group, said that it ‘is both “comprehensive” and “comparable”, enabling a method to compare cities as diverse as Mumbai and Manchester.’(2) Although comparison would only be possible if both cities had data for the same indicators (outside of the core indicators) and reported on these in a publicly accessible manner. Increasingly, I think cities will seek to publish these results in response to increased citizen demand for transparency from government. International comparisons are great for major cities that are looking to compete for talent and investment internationally. But that is not the only reason to measure urban sustainability.

Arguably, a more important reason to gather appropriate data and benchmark performance is for the city’s own use in checking whether its policies and services are meeting local needs. Sustainability indicators can be used by cities to inform and monitor policies and investment priorities. All of the following reasons are also relevant (taken from a scoping report on developing a UK Health Poverty Index (3) with some explanation from me in brackets):

  • ‘bidding for cash grants and special status
  • support and context for clinical governance [or governance of other services]
  • broad population health measurement [or measurement of other factors]
  • targeting services
  • resource allocation
  • examination of rural poverty [and urban]
  • monitoring and evaluation
  • performance management
  • visualisation of the extent and contrasts of deprivation in geographical areas using mapping and graphical analyses’ [or other factors]

When it comes to the scale of neighbourhoods, similar data and indicators are useful to understand and examine sustainability. BREEAM Communities (and its international competitors like LEED Neighbourhood Development) are focused on guiding the design of new development to be more sustainable. BREEAM Communities aims to improve the process of planning and designing a new community, including: involving the community and relevant stakeholders in design; considering sustainability holistically; and creating transparency about developer commitments on sustainability. It was odd to me that these frameworks were compared in the wider research with city sustainability indices like Siemens’ Green City Index which appear to be more of a marketing tool for the company’s services than a framework to help cities improve performance.

Many international consultancies and technology providers have introduced sustainability/smart city indices. I note that apart from IBM and Siemens, these are not listed in the research:

  • Sustainable Cities Index, ARCADIS
  • Green City Index, Siemens
  • Smart City Assessment Tool, IBM
  • City Resilience Framework, Arup (supported by Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities)
  • Disaster Resilience Scorecard for cities, AECOM/IBM
  • New Resource Economy City Index, Accenture and Chinese Academy of Science (CAS)
  • Global Cities Index and Emerging Cities Outlook, ATKearney
  • Innovation Cities Index, 2thinknow

These indices or frameworks may fall on a spectrum of transparency and usability by city management. Judging by the press coverage of ARCADIS’s recently launched Sustainable Cities Index, these are powerful marketing and PR tools. And further inferring from the cost of investment in developing these indices, I imagine that they are also very useful for selling consulting services, infrastructure and technology.

As a conference panellist, I concluded that these frameworks have multiple purposes and are used by cities, planners, developers (etc.) for various reasons. Depending on the objective under question, multiplicity can be problematic or irrelevant. One delegate asked during a plenary session whether the research team still believes in urban sustainability frameworks. Following amusement from the audience and speakers, the response was generally supportive of the tools but encouraged international collaboration of independent organisations to look at reducing the number.


1.            Simon Joss, Robert Cowley, Martin de Jong, Bernhard Müller, Buhm Soon Park, William Rees, et al. Tomorrow’s City Today: Prospects for Standardising Sustainable Urban Development. London: University of Westminster; 2015.

2.            Centre for Liveable Cities Lecture Series. Of Standards and Cities. Singapore: Centre for Liveable Cities Singapore; 2014 Oct.

3.            Dibben C, Sims A, Noble M, Hill A, Goldacre M, Surrender R, et al. Health Poverty Index Scoping Project [Internet]. Oxford: University of Oxford and South East Public Health Observatory; 2001 [cited 2015 May 20]. Available from: http://www.sepho.org.uk/Download/Public/5355/1/hpi_report.pdf




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