Green or sustainable cities : the Grand Challenge
Green cities or sustainable cities gradually emerged in the 80s and 90s as the « city focus » of a more general move towards environmental awareness, and multi-faceted fight against local forms of pollution as well as against global warming. From the 90s and even more so the 2000s, everyone started to play with the same rhetoric : the United nations, major continental assemblies, national bodies, as well as big business companies. There are now different rankings of the most « green » or « sustainable » cities in the world, with the gradual shaping of a battery of indicators encompassing the environmental issues related to the city, either as local impact or as potential for the city to steer changes. These indicators are stimulating, even to a certain extent undisputable (at least less disputable than the smart city indicators as they are for a large part based on direct measures).
A interesting view on these issues is provided by the differences between three sets of indicators : the first one used in the European context, proposed by The Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Siemens, in particular, and displaying a rather « cold » and apparently fact-based approach to the sustainability measuring objective, the second one, developed by KcKinsey, Columbia University and Tsingua University for the Chinese city monitoring, conveying more practise-oriented indications, but of course with more leeway on what these data really mean, especially when aggregated, and the third one, deployed in the Australian context by the Australian Conservation Foundation and aiming at emphasizing efforts which can be identified, and possibly measured, in several complementary directions most of them involving social actors in tjhe process.
Let’s see first the Economist Intelligence Unit/Siemens indicators :
Among all the models and indicator platforms around, this is probably the most quantitative-minded ; but still, from there on, there would be a lot of interesting deepening debates to carry out, in order to make this approach more realistic and also more capable of integrating citizens’ engagement.
Now let’s compare with what Columbia University, Tsingua University and KcKinsey (2010) propose for the monitoring of China cities :
Cf. The China Initiative, 2010.
Here, more than with the previous concept, we see how quantities and qualities can be related, with of course, a considerable leeway as far as how this can take place and its impact on measuring issues.
The Australian Conservation Foundation set of indicators, as for themsleves, go as the following (http://www.acfonline.org.au/be-informed/sustainable-living/creating-sustainable-cities):
- Develop a sustainability framework with a series of indicators and targets to measure progress;
- Vastly improve city planning and land use regimes including incentives for transit oriented developments;
- Increase funding for public and active transport and clean distributed energy;
- Ensure rapid progress towards carbon neutral and water sensitive cities and precincts;
- Find ways to create a step change increase in energy and water efficiency;
- Showcase zero carbon developments;
- Mandate more ambitious fuel consumption targets for cars;
- Invest in behaviour change and education and training; and
- Engage in more effective government, industry and community collaboration.
With this third set of indicators, we see even more clearly that when it comes to induce change in behaviors, institutions and values, the metrics of CO2 emissions is far from helping. We live in a complex society and what we measure, why we do it and what we would lile to obtain, who would like what and how, are all interrelated issues.
In fact, these indicators should normally function as references for any city, even those not belonging to the list or linked to the regional territories for which they were developed, as a way to push upward city efforts and performance, help find solutions and promote measures and educational policies. However, these diverse reference frameworks, with all their regional or institutional variations, in spite of the increasing support and recognition they trigger, are clearly lacking problems and biases.
« Green » problems
As for the city ranking, to start with, we are again facing the decathlon issue : how to compare and give weight to almost uncomparable performance domains ? Are you a worse athlete if you jump better than you run and that this peculiarity does not show up in the multi-criteria grid established to measure all decathlon athletes ? In decathlon, there are fixed rukes, fair or not, and the answer is yes, it works n dis widely accepted, but in « green » scores, it is not so clear. Los Angeles may have a fantastic activity in recycling and in home consumption plans, but the collective kilometrage of its inhabitants’ car fleet still makes it a footprint just double that of even the most developed European countries. There may also be discussions on the choice of the criteria which may favor some city profiles rather than others (see, for instance, the discussion proposed by IESE’s « Cities in motion index 2014), as some are extremely effective in traffic and pollution control, but depend upon nuclear plant to get their energy and others, while others have developed proximity food commerce and important biological corridors, what do we want to compare and how ?
Another problem is also linked to the doubt on data quality we can quite often raise : first-hand raw data are not so often the reference, and it is not rare to find the studies involved in the green city debates recycling other organisations’ data (« as the last UN report said… », « as the OECD report on … said »), making sometimes 1) untransparent claims and, when combined with the previous problem (the « decathlon » issue), 2) first places awarded to some cities which can be a bit surprising.
In fact, there is a big paradox. We have several networks and international as well as national organisations examining and praising hundreds of cities in the world to be « smart », « creative » or « sustainable », but at the same time, all the global indicators seem to be worsening (security, health-weakening allergens, traffic congestion, noise, micro-particle pollution, overall energy production and consumption, etc.). The explanation lies probably in the fact that most rankings and smart/creative/green rationales focus on a few attributes that are necessary to emphasize a type of phenomenon, but fail to connect holistic evaluation of what cities really do when it comes to match multi-factor (and therefore complex) challenges such as the above-mentioned negative factors. In fact, what we can « smart », may just mean the « least un-effective »…, far from displaying obvious forms of « « intelligence » or even « greeness » (which would also involve « carbon positive evidence », most probably).
The indexes themselves, however, if carefully analysed, reveal an issue worth considering. Let’s take for instance the 2009 European green cities index, which clearly shows that money and wealth matter : the more developed, the more environmentally consistent.
Then, what to do when you are not a city leader of a big city in a rich country? What can you concretely do in your own context, whatever it is ? Little indication is left for you to consider options, establish priorities and distinguish between effective and non effective solutions.
There is in all cases a missing link between meso-, macro- or global processes acknowledged in green city rankings and the kind of problems local groups can engage in trying to tackle. This gap encompasses several sub-problems. One, as we have seen, is the difference between the importance given to a particular factor and its systemic resonance in a broader scheme. You can be improving one side of the urban efficiency (housing, security, green corridors, proximity food access, etc.), but not sufficently the other ones to really matter or even appear in the statistics. You have engaged in a specific task which you hope to be resonant with others, but you have no clue on that. Your behavior is a matter of values, beliefs and social capacity build-up, with no real evidence of being right or wrong. Another one is to be able to measure one’s effectiveness, to evaluate one’s impact in the same terms and principles as the rankings use. G2 counties (Us and China) comprise of 43 % of all carbon emissions on Earth ? If you live a middle-size city of a small country and decide for a specific policy aimed at changing the traffic shape and eventual impact in your city, at the cost of creating uncertainties and maybe new expenses, and without necessarily having the corresponding means to balance restrictions with convincing public transport alternatives, can you measure your contribution ? Of course not. There is still a huge gap bewteen established metrics and the complexity each one of us is confronted with. This portal (Shaping the cities of tomorow) is precisely about opening avenues any one can rally with own capacities and expectations.
In order to go beyond the « cold » approach to the greening of cities which most rankins or indexes bear, the United Nations have promoted a multi-dimensional approach to this green city issue, suggesting not only to take into account ecological, but also social and health factors.
The Global compact city programme of the UN is one of largest supportive initiatives to the green cities, advocating the respect of 10 principles for business behavior for signatories: human rights (2 principles), labour standards (4 principles), environment (3 principles), anti-corruption (one sole principle). It promotes what has been called the Melbourne model, which regards collaboration between government, private sector and civil society as essential in tackling critical and complex urban issues, and thereupon, building « circles of sustainability », a deployment of social life to adress holistically key dimensions of problems to be solved, including « green » issues. http://citiesprogramme.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/UNGCCP_Brochure_EMAIL_ENG.pdf
All in all, the green or sustainable city concerns have raised valuable issues, with strong metrics and not just evidence of advocated good practise, as in the case of smart city. To put it in general terms, when a smart city claim is made in this domain, one has just to emphasize that thanks to ICT-supported services, parking place chase has been potentially lowered, the borrowing of books in librarieshas been facilitated and political struggles and endeavors has become a bit more transparent. In a green city perspective, normally, we should put number on those claims and not only for short-term returns, but also for longer-term systemic impacts on other parameters of mobility, land use and transport policy. We find, here again, the decathlon difficulty of comparing difficult-to-compare issues, in clear systemic relations. The models to support the metrics are not consensual nor stable. They are part of a collective learning process.
Some organisations have tried to tackled this systemic dimension, somehow leaving human actors in the downside of their systemic model ; but at least there is a process- and learning-oriented concept which is probably closer to the reality we can work upon than with the dominant indexes. Let’s mention, in this category, the methodology proposed by Sustainable Cities International and the Canadian International Development Agency (2012), borrowing on the « Bogota Comó Vamos » context (http://www.bogotacomovamos.org/), designed as a citizen-controlled city quality mecanism, and translated into a systemic model called DPSIR (for « Driving forces, Pressures, Stateof the Environment, Impacts, Response »).
Building ont this quite broad-picture approach of what the environment is and what its influencing factors can be, the DPSIR concept takes, as for itself, the following dimensions into account :
- Driving forces of environmental change (e.g. industrial production)
- Pressures on the environment (e.g. discharges of waste water)
- State of the environment (e.g. water quality in rivers and lakes)
- Impacts on population, economy, ecosystems (e.g. water unsuitable for drinking)
- Response of the society (e.g. watershed protection)
These dimension form a systemic network deployed according to the following scheme :
These dimension form a systemic network according to the following scheme :
Source : The Global International Water Assessment (GIWA-UNEP), 2001, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen (For a detailed analysis of that methodology, see Holm, 2001)