More than 80% of the population of the Americas, and 70% of that in Europe, now lives in cities. And of course, as cities grow and spread, they have a greater impact on the environment. As a result, many Smart Cities now focus as much on environmental sustainability as they do on technology per se. The importance of environmental sustainability is recognised in Siemens’ Green City Index.
A way of measuring environmental sustainability
The Green City Index is a research project from the Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Siemens. It looks at 120 cities around the world. It was designed to help cities learn from each other about how to improve environmental sustainability, and also to compare themselves both regionally and globally, to support benchmarking. The cities are mostly capital cities, or important economic centres, and were chosen independently of any city governments.
The Green City Index varies slightly from region to region, but generally assesses cities on around 30 indicators across eight or nine categories. The index covers CO2 emissions, energy, buildings, land use, transport, water and sanitation, waste management, air quality and environmental governance. About half of the indicators are qualitative, and half quantitative. The quantitative indicators usually draw from published and official data such as recycling rates and air pollutant concentrations. The qualitative indicators include assessments of the city’s environmental policies. Cities receive an overall ranking , and also a separate ranking for each category.
Regional variations allow the Index to take into account the issues that are key in each region. For example, the African index includes information about access to electricity and drinking water. The index is also presented differently in different regions. The European, and US/Canadian versions have numerical results, while in the Asian, Latin American and African versions, the results are split into five bands from “well above average” to “well below average”. This avoids problems with less than perfect data, but still allows for at least some comparability.
Comparisons are quite difficult in practice. The regional indexes contain different indicators, and there are actually only two indicators that are common to all of them. Data are not always collected on the same basis, or even at all. But the Index gives cities the chance to carry out some benchmarking and also share experience with other cities wrestling with the same issues.
Seven steps to greener cities
The Index also offers suggestions for seven steps that can help create greener cities:
- Good governance and leadership at metropolitan level
Although national directives can drive policy, city leaders play a huge role in establishing local initiatives that address local problems while reinforcing national policies.
- A holistic approach
The best green cities recognise that policies in one area affect results in another. For example, transport policies have a huge effect on air pollution. Cities therefore need to take a holistic approach to environmental sustainability.
- Money matters, but having the right policies matters more
Richer cities can obviously invest more in infrastructure. Green and sustainable policies do not necessarily come cheap. But there are plenty of cities with lower per-capita income that perform better than some of their richer peers. The right policies at the right point in the economic development of a city matter much more than wealth per se.
- Civic engagement
More volunteering tends to go hand in hand with better environmental ratings, but only half the cities get full marks for engaging and involving citizens in environmental policies.
- The right technology
Technology can help cities to go a long way towards meeting environmental targets, without requiring changes in lifestyle or consumption levels, both much harder to achieve. Many technologies also pay for themselves through energy consumption reductions.
- The green agenda needs to go hand-in-hand with economic growth and healthcare improvements
Some cities suggest that economic growth needs to come first, followed by the relative ‘luxury’ of environmental sustainability. Others, however, show that the two can, and should, go hand in hand.
- Tackle informal settlements
Informal settlements exist outside formal planning requirements, and so are often a source of pollution and waste. Tackling them is an important step to developing environmental sustainability.
Embedding good practice
The Green Cities Index has shown that there are many cities pioneering and sharing good practice to improve environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, it has also shown that this is more ‘best’ than ‘standard’ practice. There is some way to go before ‘best’ becomes ‘routine’, but the Index is useful in helping to highlight what is possible.
Image credit: Uschi, Chestnut-lined Avenue in Spring