How Can we Improve the Urban Sustainability Index: Look to Maps and Demographics

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.

Population and Green Space (click to expand)

Population and Green Space (click to expand) (Image created by Megan Brown using an old map and overlaying population data)


Mitchell, Lewis. “Where is the Happiest City in the USA?”, Feb 18, 2012.


2 thoughts on “How Can we Improve the Urban Sustainability Index: Look to Maps and Demographics

  1. I agree with Megan that averaging various metrics can be misleading and artificial when examining a city, but I think the metrics are useful as guides. With the metrics and Urban Sustainability Index, we have a framework with which to measure a city’s efforts and progress.

    To the point on happiness, it is definitely an important thing to consider when looking at a city and what drives residents there. Though, I don’t believe that happiness promotes sustainability or better environmental practices so I am not sure that it belongs as a benchmark on the urban sustainability index.

    Perhaps simply building a great city will enable people to live a happier. This paper ( argues that “getting urban planning right can … make cities much more livable.” They go on to site examples of various cities and companies that have planned for efficiency with the result of happier employees and residents.

    Secondly, John made excellent points about the short term and long-term benefits of living in a city. Throughout our conversations, thinking through ways to incent builders, employers and residents to move to an eco-city, we never discussed long-term vs. short-term gains and losses. I can easily see how people would be incented to move to one of the new cities for short-term incentives, but what if they end up leaving after a brief stint? How is the best way to keep people there for the long run? I guess at this junction, getting people to arrive is the first critical task, but we must remind ourselves that incentives also need to remain for long-term inhabitants.

  2. I completely agree with the comment that “places where people are the happiest will thrive the most.” In looking at happiness of a population, I think it’s important to consider how grounded people are in their communities and whether they envision staying in a particular city for only a few years (like many expats in Hong Kong or Dubai) or for a good chunk of their rest of their lives (15-30 years or so). I think this has important implications for public acceptance of tax increases that often go along with new public infrastructure projects (to the extent that pubic consent is needed through a vote or referendum).

    If I intend to stay in a city for 15-30 years and raise my children there, I would care much more about education, healthcare, and air quality and be willing to pay for it through tax increases. Presumably the impact of having a better educated local workforce might not be felt for 15-20 years down the line, but as a resident with a stake in the ground (and children who might benefit), I would be willing to pay for that.

    If I moved to Hong Kong for a 3-5 year stint, I would be much more focused on keeping taxes low (ignoring the fact that as a US citizen, I would still be obligated to pay the higher US rates even though I was living and earning income in Hong Kong) and building infrastructure that will have near term payouts (housing, subways, airports, etc).

    With the massive urbanization movement that is underway around the world, I think it’s important to consider whether people are moving to particular cities for a short-term payout or whether they have a stake in the ground and care about developing a vibrant community.

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