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Someone Invent a Better City Ranking!
Alex Steffen, 21 Feb 08
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A couple weeks ago, Popular Science released a list of the greenest 50 U.S. cities, to a predictable amount of bloggage and debate about whether Portland is really all that.

But something important's been missed in the discussion of the list, which is that it's not actually based on good measurements of what makes a city green.

The exercise was based on the following criteria:

* Electricity (E; 10 points): Cities score points for drawing their energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power, as well as for offering incentives for residents to invest in their own power sources, like roof-mounted solar panels. * Transportation (T; 10 points): High scores go to cities whose commuters take public transportation or carpool. Air quality also plays a role. * Green living (G; 5 points): Cities earn points for the number of buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, as well as for devoting area to green space, such as public parks and nature preserves. * Recycling and green perspective (R; 5 points): This measures how comprehensive a city’s recycling program is (if the city collects old electronics, for example) and how important its citizens consider environmental issues.

The problems arise almost immediately. The largest problem is meta: it makes very little sense to discuss cities themselves without discussing the metropolitan regions of which they are part. But following close behind is the problem that none of these four criteria actually makes a good stand in for a city's environmental performance.

For instance, while we do in general want our electricity to come from renewable sources as soon as possible, it is more important that we each use energy more efficiently today. A much better rating would have been energy use compared with GDP: who's getting most prosperous using the least energy?

With transportation, again, while we definitely want to support transit, the larger issue is how much people are driving. I'd argue that vehicle miles traveled per capita and car ownership rates would be a much better stand in.

"Green living": again, we like green buildings, but a much more interesting statistic than the number of LEED buildings ought to be available; ideally, there'd be an assessment of the city's building codes, measuring not what its best buildings are like, but what its average building is like. And though open space (if it's well-designed) can help make density more livable, big swathes of green within a city's limits do not necessarily translate into more sustainable lives for its citizens.

Similarly, how comprehensive a city's recycling system is may be less important that the percentage of solid waste that still goes to landfills: in most of North America, I'm told, the amount of garbage people generate has gone up faster than recycling rates.

Why does this matter? Because one 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. Lists like this encourage us be vague about goals and and fuzzy about means. They encourage us to fetishize actions -- like buying Priuses and paying for LEED certification -- that aren't necessarily anything like the most important actions we can take.

So here's my challenge: somewhere out there some young geeks are sitting around with the technical skills and systems insights to measure actual metropolitan area ecological footprints, or at least come up with more reasonable stand-ins. Folks have done similar kinds of work elsewhere, particularly for London. It shouldn't be impossible to scare up some grant funding and develop a nationwide system for the U.S., based not on actions taken, but results delivered.

Because we ought to be able to judge things on the actual merits. We ought to be in a race to see which city in North America will be the first one-planet city, where the average citizens leads a one-planet life. That would be a rank-race worth following!

After all, we've already placed an enormous bet on the outcome.

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I was a little puzzled at the relatively narrow basis for comparison of the cities that were ranked. I'm from Lexington, Kentucky (#25) and while we do have excellent recycling options here, we also have some awful problems with storm water runoff and sewage. The city has just reached a settlement with the EPA and we have a lot of work to do to make things right. These issues were not even considered in the ranking method.

I'm sure that most cities have problems rooted in infrastructure that was designed and implemented long before any issues of sustainability were considered. There are so many fronts to making progress that even well-meaning and energetic communities have to prioritize how to move forward. Many problems persist for lack of resources to address them.

Any simple ranking scheme is bound to have a bias that ignores both positive and negative aspects of the more complex reality. Best to celebrate the good efforts that are being made and be honest about the local challenges. Leave ranking to history.

Posted by: Frank Jones on 21 Feb 08

I think part of the problem is that while we can ranke elements (the greenness of buildings and homes, or the lowest distance people might travel from home to work, and how), there are still HUGE challenges in ranking the performance of the urban system. While the idea of ranking an American (or even better an Australian) city comes with a certain amount of kudos, unless that ranking comes with a commitment/requirement to keep on improving it is just another nice little plaque to go on the wall, and a handshake & photo op for the mayor. Greening cities requires bringing together a vastly enormous network of stakeholders - measuring that engagement, plus the commitment to and delivery of actions across multiple sectors, ALL of which contribute to green cities should also be a priority. Otherwise we applaud small and sometimes isolated wins (which deserve to be applauded), while allowing big issues (eg transport - private cars and road projects) to go unchecked, and still say we're making 'progress'.

Posted by: Michael O'Brien on 21 Feb 08

I wonder if a city or metropolitan region's long-term planning goals should be folded into a rankings assessment. Though not a performance based criterion - at least not initially, I would argue that the assessment of the way in which a city envisions it's future and subsequent measure of it's adherence to this vision is a telling indicator of the extent to which a city can be said to be green.

The advantage of this form of analysis is that it adds to an otherwise data-driven, largely objective assessment of what it is to be green, an element of civic self-identification; whereby a city formulates a vision of what green really means given its particular context (green is different for NYC than it is for, say, Seattle), and then allows for the extent to which the city meets its own goals to be tracked historically. Thus, to use the city in your post as example, Portland can only be recognized as one of the greenest cities in the country if in its plan it projects and adheres to a philosophy that is even greener still, and that can be measured in terms of real, quantitative benchmarks (carbon neutral by 2020, LEED certification on all new construction projects by 2015, etc.).

While a quantitative analysis focusing on standards you address in your post is primary, failing to factor a city's long-term planning principles into a rankings rubric seems to treat the issue of greening as a static, context independent agenda. Cities should receive consideration for the way in which they grapple with the questions:

Can our city actually benefit the health of the environment, both locally and globally? Can a city produce greater resources than it consumes? And how will our city approach these goals?

Great, thought provoking post.

Posted by: david smolker on 22 Feb 08

Hmmm - Sunnyvale, Honolulu and Syracuse in front of New York? I see these city rankings becoming as random and meaningless as rankings for the most "sustainable" companies.

Picking up on your thread Alex, we might start our search for better indicators with per capita energy consumption and waste generation (the latter partly being a proxy for resource consumption). The energy indicator factors in electricity, transport, and building energy needs (e.g. heating), while waste covers both consumption and recycling. On per capita energy and waste, I am pretty sure NYC is at or among the top. I remember seeing a comparison between NYC and Portland years back that showed NYC ahead, which is not surprising given more car miles driven and larger dwellings in Portland. So while NYC might not have as much open space as other cities, these densely packed, tiny apartments are good for something!

Another aspect missed in this ranking - material flows. East and West coast cities benefit since most goods shipped into this country come into a few major ports - New York, Seattle, Portland, Long Beach, etc. So, cities like Chicago take a hit for the rail or road transport of goods.


Posted by: Michael Sadowski on 23 Feb 08

I worked on a project not long ago with a goal to assess a community's quality of life. I looked to see if that wheel had already been invented, and lo and behold, I found the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators. It turns out that these indicators come remarkably close to assessing sustainability, at least from my interpretation. I adapted the large number of indicators down to a manageable number that I felt reasonably sure also had statistics already available to plug in. Unfortunately, that's about as far as the project went.

Hazel Henderson, no stranger to sustainability, headed a team of scholars to look at what indicators could be used to determine trends in quality of life at a national scale. The thing that attracted me to this methodology, as opposed to other attempts to rationalize national accounting systems with ecological reality, is that the sets of indicators are not strictly macro-economic. They fall reasonably well into the sustainability triad of social, economic, and ecological. Further, I felt pretty sure that the indicators proposed in the methodology could be adapted for use at the community level, rather than the national level. I never got a chance to test these theories.

I would be happy to share my insights with anyone interested.

Posted by: Brent Verrill on 25 Feb 08

Here is a much better study on Green Cities. Bert Sperling is one of the countries foremost authorities on "Places Studies". Notice that his study covers 24 data metrics in 5 major categories compared to the limited depth the Pop. Sci. study covers.

Next time the magazine should do their homework and have someone do the study that knows what they are doing.

America's Greenest Cities

Posted by: Al Olsen on 25 Feb 08

This makes so much sense - thanks for posting it. I agree that creating the mapping you mention would make for an incredible opportunity for someone who has the skills (or, better yet: open-source). Real data on the carbon footprints of our cities.
Great post, great blog.

Posted by: matt on 28 Feb 08

Yes, great post.

I wouldn't even bother measuring the number of LEED buildings, I'd instead look at the city's total energy use and waste (including construction waste, which most people never see.) We've already written about how high density ordinary buildings are more energy and material efficient than even the greenest single-family detached homes.

It's still good, of course, to have a high percentage of LEED buildings, so probably still worth measuring. But the important numbers are energy, water, land, and other resource use per person per GDP.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 29 Feb 08



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