By Megan Brown
After our discussion in class about measuring sustainability, I found myself quite torn about the McKinsey Urban Sustainability Index. I agree with many of my classmates that the overabundance of data seemed almost arbitrary and artificial. The data allow us to rank cities based on five sets of criteria, but the use of averages can hide extremes. I think it is important to dig deeper into what sustainability means and to find better ways for measuring it and predicting how to improve it. Without them, how will we be able to assess how well cities achieve their objectives or determine what best practices are? I believe the Urban Sustainability Index could be dramatically improved by incorporating mapping to visualize the data and by adding a 6th category: demographics and happiness.
Though studying the demographics of a city alone does not reveal anything about sustainability or inform how specific improvements can be made, it is an indicator of how well past decisions have performed. We often think about sustainability purely in terms of environmental impact, but I would argue that a city with a “perfect” score on the five given criteria but with a high GINI coefficient or low life expectancy would not be sustainable at all, as the purpose of a sustainable city is to improve the lives of the residents as much as it is to coexist peacefully with the environment. Through measuring such criteria as family size, income (and income disparity), education levels and life expectancy, municipalities would be able to better understand how residents are interacting with their cities. This data could be used in tandem with the other criteria to determine successes and potential improvements both in quality of life and sustainability in general.
In addition to measuring demographic data, I would also suggest studying the happiness of the population. Though not directly linked to resources or efficiency, I believe that places where people are the happiest will thrive the most. This may sound vague and arbitrary and in some ways it is, but given new technologies and the vast amounts of information and communication over many media platforms, there are numerous ways to track it. In 2011, researchers at Cornell used Tweets to measure the happiness of people in cities across the US by monitoring word clouds and searching for trends. This same method could be used in a variety of ways to quantify how residents feel throughout the city.
The various criteria would be more effective if represented through maps in addition to an index. The index is helpful when comparing cities to each other, but maps give a more fine-grained view and are useful for visualizing the variations and overlaps in different criteria for a single city. For example, mapping population density against green spaces or doctors could reveal unmet needs of residents or opportunities for park or hospital development. Or, it could reveal why certain hospitals are over or under utilized. Decisions should be based off of population distribution rather than geography because the distribution reveals real need. Through incorporating better visualization and demographic data, we should be able to understand the impact of decisions made to improve sustainability. Adding these criteria to the sustainability report will better inform future decisions and further our understanding of what is truly sustainable.
Mitchell, Lewis. “Where is the Happiest City in the USA?” www.onehappybird.com, Feb 18, 2012.