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
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.
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.
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.