Sustainable Cities 2015: And the Winners Are…
The new year has just started and the sustainability findings of international consultancy group Arcadis are already published. Which city will take the honors? 2015 provides a good indicator of just what constitutes a sustainable city while raising a few questions about the very nature of sustainability. We’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly as the world battles its way forward in an age of increased scarcity of resources coupled with growing demand.
Sustainable Cities Index 2015 Headed by European Cities
The top-rated sustainable cities in 2015 jostled for position in rankings with only small differences between their scores. Frankfurt scored best for sustainability, but Arcadis points out that this should be offset against a high cost of living. London grabbed second place followed by Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam. The rest of the top ten shows an easily identifiable pattern, with top European cities and Eastern powerhouses Singapore, Seoul, and Hong Kong making up the rest of the top rankings.
What do these cities have in common? The affluence of the population and the high cost of living seems to be the overarching theme. But is sustainability only for those who can afford it?
What Makes a City Sustainable?
The Arcadis index is based on social, environmental and economic factors. Each of these is further divided into indicators that are used to calculate the score for each of the three areas. The overall score is based on the average across all three categories. By using this system, Arcadis balances the three pillars of sustainability which it defines as “People, Planet, and Profit.”
Sustainability is seen as a state in which people’s current needs are met without compromising the resources that will be required by future generations. Regretfully, no city is completely sustainable, and those with the most unmet needs have less regard for the undefined needs of tomorrow when faced by the pressing ones they currently seek to address.
Areas of Concern
It would be all-too-easy to assume that sustainability, or the lack thereof, is based on how much money can be thrown at the problems cities face. It is certainly true that some of the world’s most populous and under-resourced cities scored poorly. These include Wuhan, Mumbai, Nairobi, and New Delhi.
However, relative affluence is no guarantee of sustainability, and the political will to achieve sustainability targets seems to be lacking in some parts of the world, particularly North America. Boston, for example, achieved 15th place in 2015 – the highest ranking for any US city. Toronto performed best on the continent, reaching 12th place.
Countries experiencing rapid urbanization also failed to fare well. Dubai, for example, does not rank well in the index: a placing that analysts attribute to a greater focus on immediate profits over a sustainable future.
Even the world’s most sustainable cities have their problems, with quality of life presenting a major challenge for some of the world’s most highly-ranked cities. For example, top-ranked Frankfurt achieved its place based on excellent Planet and Profit rankings but did not perform as well from the People perspective owing to a high cost of living.
Singapore and Hong Kong did remarkably well on profit, but again, people took the back seat with a high cost of living placing additional pressure on citizens already experiencing difficulty with their work-life balance. In fact, Arcadis found that the prioritization of profit over the planet and its people represents a global trend. The organization urged cities to take note of the trade-off between profit and lower planet and people scores calling on them to use its index to identify the areas most in need of attention.
Why Did Frankfurt Do So Well?
Frankfurt’s 2015 achievement bears a closer look. Certainly, there is no such thing as a Utopian city, but Frankfurt led the world rankings by a comparatively comfortable margin. Part of its success is based on the city’s outstanding “Planet” score.
This was largely based on the city’s drive towards renewable energy. By 2050, the city hopes to supply all its electricity consumers with clean, greenhouse gas free energy. However, it also wants to reduce energy consumption, cutting demand by half in most sectors. This drive has led to an upsurge in sustainable building and widespread awareness of the need for energy efficiency in homes and businesses.
In addition, Frankfurt has the world’s largest urban forest and keeps track of every tree in the cityscape with an online register. The city’s green belt adds to the city’s “planet” score, but also offers a pleasant environment for recreational activities, boosting the “people” score.
And although the city didn’t rank as highly for “People” factors as it did in other areas, it nevertheless ranked extremely well by global standards. Opportunities for education and employment are excellent, and the populace enjoys good health. Add to that a high level of productivity and good opportunities for profitable business, and we see why Frankfurt earned its top spot.
Supply vs. Demand
Although cities like Frankfurt serve as an inspiration, many of the world’s cities would be unable to follow its example. And most of the world’s population does not live in Europe, the continent that fared best in the Arcadis rankings.
With mouths to feed and basic necessities to be provided for, many cities are struggling to meet today’s needs, let alone those of future generations. Small wonder, then, that profit is being placed ahead of the planet and its people in urban planning. Without sufficient fiscal well-being, addressing environmental and social challenges would be extremely difficult if not impossible.
Sustainable Cities: A Global Issue
While it is wonderful to see cities striving towards sustainability, it is important that we should not take a short-sighted view when considering the topic. Sustainability is an issue with global impact and not just a matter for regional or civic pride. Until we begin seeing more of the world’s most populous cities ranking high in the global sustainability index, we should be cautious about congratulating ourselves.
Another factor that should not be overlooked is that sustainability is ultimately very profitable. Factors such as reduced medical costs thanks to a healthier environment, and a greater abundance of resources for all when they are wisely used, all add up to a better present as well as a brighter future.
The Arcadis sustainability rankings help to draw attention to the pressing need to prioritize the sustainability of the world’s cities, and cities like Frankfurt provide a roadmap of the journey towards sustainability.