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City Rankings Reprised - Getting Smarter?

by nanne Tue Jul 21st, 2009 at 04:28:21 AM EST

On WorldChanging, Alex Steffen criticises an effort by the NRDC (US big green NGO) to rank 'smart' cities on their environmental credentials. Part of the problem with this ranking is that it seems to mainly grade effort:

Though sustainability itself is a somewhat slippery concept, there are absolutely standards by which we can judge progress, as they mean the same things everywhere, and are pretty good measurements of overall impact. What, for instance, are a city's per capita greenhouse gas emissions? How many miles a day do its citizens drive? How large is their average home and how compact are their communities? How much water do they use? How much energy? How much solid waste do they generate? These sorts of numbers actually tell us something about how the people live, and about their overall levels of impact.

But Smarter Cities counts more easily-measured, but sort of pointless data. For instance, the green building ranking rated the number of Energy Star and LEED buildings in a city, rather than quality of the general building code: so a city like Seattle, where building codes are far behind those of the U.K and Northern Europe, still comes off looking good because it has a few more individual green buildings than other cities.


A cynical take on this would be that you do not want to grade states or outcomes when you are a big DC based environmental lobbying NGO in the business of selling managerial policy solutions. You want to grade them on your preferred solutions. But, as Alex writes, grading effort is also relatively easy. Most of the information is ready at hand. It does not require excessive compilation or on the ground research.

The NRDC effort is unique to the United States, for now. In Europe, there are a few similar efforts, but they have the same problems.

promoted by whataboutbob


There is a European ranking for 'Smart Cities' too, but it has only been applied to a selection of mid-sized cities. Luxembourg is #1, while Finnish and Danish cities have spots 2 through 7. This ranking was carried out by three European universities and finished in early 2008. The indicator set for environment (which made up 1/6th of the overall score) has 4 hard criteria, which measure two types of pollution and water/energy use, the other 5 criteria are soft or questionable.

From next year, the EU will also get an official 'Green Capital'. Stockholm will be first, and then Hamburg will be the Green Capital in 2011. For the selection of the 'Green Capital', the EU used a set of 10 indicators, 6 of which could be called hard environmental indicators. However, it then graded cities on these criteria by looking at "achievements relating to the present situation"; policy measures, and targets.

If I read it right, this means that it grades progress, effort, and aspirations. This runs into the same problem that Alex described in an earlier post, namely:

[O]ne of the barriers to sustainability is the idea -- common throughout the developed world -- that we need to do something to protect the environment, and therefore anything we do is pretty much a step in the right direction.

But of course, we don't need to merely do something, we need to do enough; and we don't just need to do anything, we need to do the right things.


It's going to be hard to take enough of the right measures if we refuse to take the state of environmental impact into account. A short argument:

Why the existing state matters

1) Learning
Despite the doubtlessly impressive policy expertise existing in the halls of the NDRC, the TU Wien and among the external experts of the European Commission, there is always something new we can learn, and looking at the basic question 'why is this (not) working here?' will always be instructive.

2) Bias
The excessive focus on effort introduces a bias towards relatively expensive managerial solutions. A quote from an NYT article on Green Cities illustrates this:

The problem is that the one thing that almost all "green cities" have is money - and a relatively well-educated population that can afford to care about the environment.

The 8 shortlisted cities for the European Green Capital are all among the wealthiest in Europe. So the main message is going to be 'get rich so that you can implement these nice policies', which is not going to help poorer cities in reducing their impact on the short or medium term.

3) Priorities
Environmental problems will differ in their size and urgency between different locations, if you do not look at the baseline you will miss the most obvious priorities

4) Civil engagement
The model of grading environmental performance by looking at the existence of certain policies or solutions fits into a style of politics where policy is driven by consultants. The NRDC has some kind of idea of engagement... well, let's just give the quote:

Join us in the dialogue as a Citizen Reporter

Though the research and rankings may be its cornerstone, Smarter Cities aims to be a dynamic and engaging new media resource, thanks in no small part to you. We want you--policy makers, business leaders, activists, students and interested urban dwellers--to join us in an ongoing dialogue about cities. We ask you to share what's happening in your city, the challenges your town faces and the new initiatives that are being tried. We seek committed reporters to video interview community leaders, create photo galleries of neighborhood improvements, and post news and events. Your work will provide opportunities for each of us to participate at all levels--local to national--in making our cities more efficient, more responsible, smarter, healthier and saner.


A lot of MSM operations go further in giving control to citizen reporters than this.

What a decent ranking would look like

Rankings are an effective tool for communication because of their simplicity and hierarchical order. People like reading lists. However, in any ranking there are problems with selection, weighting, and aggregation. These can be partially alleviated by being as transparent as possible about the indicators, and drawing in a variety of reviews.

The effectiveness of policies should be measurable by looking at changes in resource consumption, pollution and waste. Not that it is easy to disentangle to what extent which policy or exogenous circumstance contributed, but by looking at both progress and policies you're counting double. For that reason, the presence of specific policies and solution should not be graded. There may still be a case that can be made for the presence of a management system in general, so that a city's readiness to deal with problems is tested, but this has to remain a minor factor in the overall ranking.

So what are the criteria? Any ranking system will have to look at the current state of actual impacts, the progress made with regard to a recent point in the past, and projected progress within a manageable time frame within the near future with existing policies. To that you can add the existence of a management system and of (preferably legally binding) targets, both at no more than 10%. The integration of social and economic sustainability considerations would make the ranking more difficult, but also more complete.

Display:
I wrote a diary about city rankings back in December 06, though that was on the more arcane topic of how much money you can expect to spend.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Jul 18th, 2009 at 05:04:53 PM EST
Rankings such as this are mostly ridiculous.

One thing I find repeatedly are cities that try and claim "green" or "socially conscious" status by essentially outsourcing their less desirable industries and practices to nearby cities which they all drive to as desired.

I'd like to see cities ranked on criteria such as the following:

  1. Non-car livability.  This would be a combined measure of subway/rail services, long-distance rail and flights (price and # of destinations should be considered), density of neighborhoods, diversity of shopping options in neighborhoods (large and small shops, dispersion of such, open hours, variety in pricing and audience, etc).  A city with safe, traffic-separated bike lanes such as Amsterdam cannot be compared with a city in the US that has painted a bunch of white lines and claims to have a 'bicycle lanes'

  2. Social livability.  This would measure diversity in terms of mixing of residence and workplaces amongst age, socio-economics and physical location.  Add in measurements of social interaction, percentages of people who make new friends regularly versus those who maintain old networks for longer periods (these places are often closed to outsiders), etc
by paving on Sun Jul 19th, 2009 at 07:51:31 AM EST
What's wrong with cars? Is it the carbon consideration, the safety problem, or a philosophical viewpoint?
by asdf on Mon Jul 20th, 2009 at 11:12:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They're noisy, they take up space, they kill people and they pollute (including, but not limited to green house gas pollution). And in an urban environment, cars can't do anything that a well-designed urban rail system can't do better.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Tue Jul 21st, 2009 at 03:49:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not gunscars, it's people.

The peak-to-trough part of the business cycle is an outlier. Carnot would have died laughing.
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jul 21st, 2009 at 04:45:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... ammunition does.

In the same way, the damage to walkable, sustainable urban development is the parking places ... but the car-dependency creates the "need" for parking places.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Jul 24th, 2009 at 01:59:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The parking places are a big problem, but not an insurmountable one. Mostly, it is a problem that goes away on its own if you provide a bus system and pretend that parking problems don't exist. Then motorists will go and take the bus instead.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Fri Jul 24th, 2009 at 03:50:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That seems like its saying, "if you solve the problem, then it will go away on its own".

Indeed, that simple recipe seems very much like the recipe for Grizzly Bear Soup that begins, "first, capture, kill and clean one Grizzly Bear". "Pretending that parking problems don't exist" requires eliminating the auto dependency for a substantial share of the population, or else it is politically infeasible, and "provide a bus system" is not the universal panacea for breaking auto dependency.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Jul 24th, 2009 at 04:03:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not solve the problem and watch it go away. Provide a stop-gap measure and then use the bully pulpit to assert that the problem is the car drivers' own damn fault for blocking better public options.

But then again, I live in a world in which a city without a bus system - however rudimentary - is as unthinkable as a city without sidewalks for pedestrians, electricity or plumbing, so that might affect my thinking...

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Fri Jul 24th, 2009 at 06:10:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I live in a county with one regular daily bus route outside of the University town ... and that only has that regular bus route because the University and County bus systems merged.

When over 80% of workers in a town require a car to get to work, getting into the bully pulpit to blame the large majority for blocking better public options and then staying in the bully pulpit is problematic.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Jul 24th, 2009 at 06:19:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It may not be a universal panacea, but I think the below will tend to work in most places in the US if you can get the local council to do it and survive possible referendums.

  1. charge money for parking space
  2. use the money to pay for public transportation and bike lanes
  3. limit parking spaces and increase fees
  4. build a few pedestrian and bike bridges/tunnels/crossings to the supermarket across the highway
  5. profit!
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Wed Jul 29th, 2009 at 05:54:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are a lot of problems with cars. What I think is the largest problem is that they exclude the use of the street as a public space (for non-car purposes) in residential areas.

Though you can alleviate some of that by using a shared space concept and limiting cars to 15 kilometres an hour outside of the main streets, and 30 in general in residential areas.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Tue Jul 21st, 2009 at 04:39:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Right now it is not unusual to find speed limits of 50km/h (30mph) in towns, 30km/h (18mph) in residential areas, and lower on occasion (such as, near schools?).

The biggest problem with cars is city planning around car use. I live 800m away from a Supermarket which I can go to by tram (1 stop) or drive to, but I can't walk to. Suburban America is coming to Europe - except in America there is so much space for roads that Riverside, CA had more bike lanes on streets 5 years ago than I expect Madrid to have 5 years from now.

The peak-to-trough part of the business cycle is an outlier. Carnot would have died laughing.

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Jul 21st, 2009 at 04:43:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
30 km/h is way too fast : it means a small kid can't be left unattended at all. Whereas 10 km/h, and a culture that on a small street, the car has no priority, means a group of kids can play in the street with casual supervision, for example.

Paris apartments are way too small now - they weren't 100 years ago when kids casually played in the street.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Jul 21st, 2009 at 09:58:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Adding to the others', going off another direction: non-car-liveability is also about not having to depend on cars for transport, on having an alternative.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jul 21st, 2009 at 06:34:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't like rankings any more than I like indices which reduce complex situations to a single linearly ordered scale.

The peak-to-trough part of the business cycle is an outlier. Carnot would have died laughing.
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Jul 19th, 2009 at 09:05:53 AM EST
A ranking is a good way to attract attention. Obviously there are problems with aggregating scores and attributing weights to different criteria. You could present the data in different forms, for instance using a multi criteria analysis alongside a linear ranking, and presenting results with different weighting.

Cities represent a large set of cases which make them an excellent study object. Differences between parameters in cities like, say, composite indices of ambient air pollution (which can be somewhat objectively scored by looking at the state of knowledge regarding the extent of public health effects) can be caused by differences in public mores, legislation at the national level, geographical setting, and so on. You could call this a 'complex situation', but it does not make it any less simple or instructive to rank cities on their local air quality.

I am strongly in favour of using measurements that comprise empirical data as an input into decision making processes. You can't drive policy by deontic considerations alone, in my opinion. You will also have to aggregate some raw data for purposes of presentation, while minimising distortion and being transparent in how you do this.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sun Jul 19th, 2009 at 12:23:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
These "city rankings" are really common on yahoo.com, etc, for "which city is best for *" and it's always hilarious.  They rarely pass the sniff test, saying ridiculous things that anybody who lives in those cities know not to be true.  This is because the data is arbitrary in terms of the conclusion drawn.

That said, such real studies are possible, I think, with the technology and data we've gathered over recent years.  I think it's absolutely possible to quantify many of the attributes that make a city "good" and weight them according to a variable input, eg you have the inquirer submit to some survey questions ranking their preferred attributes then adjust the data weighting based upon that input and bam, you've got yourself a pretty good ranking list.  It can be used to draw some general conclusions but also account for differences between personal preferences.

by paving on Sun Jul 19th, 2009 at 05:47:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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