Home » Land » The Challenge of Urban Sustainability

The Challenge of Urban Sustainability


Figure 1. The triple bottom line.

Figure 1. The triple bottom line.

There is no generally accepted definition of urban sustainability. A recent report issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine defines it as “the process by which the measurable improvement of near- and long-term human well-being can be achieved” in three areas: environmental, economic, and social. These three areas constitute the “triple bottom line” we hear so much about these days. The report conceptualizes them as combining to represent urban sustainability as illustrated in Figure 1 at right. By mentioning “near- and long-term” welfare, the report points to a popular conceptualization of sustainability: not compromising future welfare in the pursuit of short-term goals.




Figure 2. Top National Priorities. Source: Pew Center for Research.

Figure 2. Top National Priorities. Source: Pew Center for Research.

This blog typically focuses on the environmental part of sustainability. Research consistently indicates that, while a large majority of Americans favor protecting our environment, they consistently rank its importance below other national priorities. For instance, Figure 2 shows the results of Pew Research Center polls asking Americans to rate which issues should be top policy priorities. The chart shows that out of 20, protecting the environment ranks 14th, and dealing with global warming ranks 19th. Polls in 2009 and 2013 had similar results. I feel that the capacity of the planet to support life should not be a low priority; I focus on it because it is neglected.

The specific urban processes that might underly urban sustainability are still under conceptual development. The real purpose of the report is to review that work. It looks at 4 sustainability rating systems that have been developed: the American Green City Index (EIU, 2011), the Urban Sustainability Indicators (Mega and Pedersen, 1998), The Sustainable Cities Index (Arcadis, 2015), the Sustainability Urban Development Indicators (Lynch et al., 2011). In addition, the report develops its own rating metrics by looking at 9 North American urban centers, plus the United States itself, to see what systems are being monitored, and which specific indicators are being used to monitor those systems. The 9 cities are Cedar Rapids, Chattanooga, Flint, Grand Rapids, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Vancouver.

Table 1. Environmental Indicators. Source: National Academies.

Table 1. Environmental Indicators. Source: National Academies.

Table 1 at right shows the results of the review. I have adapted the table to focus only on the environmental indicators, and to eliminate the scholarly references.

If you are interested in this conceptual work, then the report would make important reading. I suspect than many readers of this blog, however, want to know what the results are: which cities rate as sustainable, and which don’t. As I said, the metrics are still under conceptual development, and I could find only one rating system that has actually been applied to cities in the United States: the US and Canada Green City Index. They rate 27 North American cities using their system. They provide separate ratings on policies related to CO2 emissions, energy mix and consumption, land use, green buildings, green transportation, water consumption and purity, waste management, air quality, and environmental governance. They also combine it all into an overall index.

Figure 3. Source: Economist Intelligence Unit.

Figure 3. Source: Economist Intelligence Unit.

Figure 3 shows the results for the overall index. St. Louis is the only urban area in Missouri represented, and it comes in 26th out of 27; only Detroit ranks lower.

The index values have no specific meaning other than as a score on this particular index. Thus, absolute values probably have no interpretable meaning. They probably do have relative meaning, however, in comparison to each other. What disturbs me is not that St. Louis is low on the scale, anybody familiar with the city would suspect as much, but with how far behind the city is.

In considering this chart, please be aware that the index was not constructed by an academic or governmental body. It was developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (a part of The Economist Media Group) in cooperation with Siemans AG (a German corporation). This does not mean its conclusions are invalid, but it may mean that their work hasn’t undergone the review processes that academic and governmental publications do.


Arcadis. 2015. Sustainable Cities Index 2015: Balancing the Economic, Social and Environmental Needs of the World’s Leading Cities. Available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/arcadis-whitepaper/arcadis-sustainable-cities-index-report.pdf.
Economist Intelligence Unit. 2010. US and Canada Green City Index. Munich, Germany: Siemens AG. Downloaded 2/26/17 from http://www.siemens.com/greencityindex.

Lynch, A. J., S. Andreason, T. Eisenman, J. Robinson, K. Steif, and E. L. Birch. 2011. Sustainable Urban Development Indicators for the United States. Report to the Office of International and Philanthropic Innovation, Office of Policy Development and Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Philadelphia: Penn Institute for Urban Research. Online. Available at http://penniur.upenn.edu/ uploads/media/sustainable-urban-development-indicators-for-the-united-states.pdf.
Mega, V., and J. Pedersen. 1998. Urban sustainability indicators. Dublin, Ireland: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. Online. Available at http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ef_files/pubdocs/1998/07/en/1/ef9807en. pdf.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Pathways to Urban Sustainability: Challenges and Opportunities for the United States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23551. Downloaded 1/12/2017 from http://www.nap.edu/23551.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: