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New Sustainable Cities Index puts Europe in lead

New Sustainable Cities Index
puts Europe in lead

by ANDY ROWLANDS, ARCADIS | Feb 25, 2015

Across the world, cities are failing to meet the needs of their people, according to the inaugural Sustainable Cities Index from ARCADIS, the leading global natural and built asset design and consultancy firm. The Index, which was conducted by the Center for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) explores the three demands of social (People), environmental (Planet) and economic (Profit) to develop an indicative ranking of 50 of the world’s leading cities. The 2015 report finds that no utopian city exists, with city leaders having to manage a complex balancing act between the three pillars of sustainability. 

Well-established European cities top the overall rankings, taking seven of the first 10 places. Frankfurt leads the world, followed by London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Frankfurt also takes first place on the Profit sub-index, just ahead of the UK's capital city. Rotterdam tops the People sub-index, due to broad success including high literacy and a good work-life balance.

Meanwhile, two Germany cities – Frankfurt and Berlin – lead the way on Planet factors, scoring particularly well for waste management and low levels of air pollution. Although mature cities achieve the best balance, they cannot rely on historic investment. In a rapidly urbanizing world, the way in which cities are planned, built, operated and redefined has a huge social, environmental and economic impact. 

"Our world is changing at a faster pace than ever before," says John Batten, Global Cities Director for Arcadis. "Developing technology, population growth and the emergence of a truly global economy mean that the notion of national borders is becoming less relevant. Instead, we see the concept of the ‘global city’ taking hold. The Sustainable Cities Index highlights the areas of opportunity for cities, to inform decision-making and hopefully make them more sustainable economically, environmentally, and for the welfare of their inhabitants."

John Batten

John Batten

"City leaders need to find ways to balance the demands of generating strong financial returns, being an attractive place for people to live and work in, whilst also limiting their damage to the environment," adds Batten. "To truly understand how sustainable a city is, we must understand how it ranks in People, Planet and Profit. Only then can city leaders act to assess their priorities, and the pathway to urban sustainability – for the good of all."

In general, cities are performing better for being sustainable for Profit and Planet purposes than they are for People factors. Many of the world’s economic powerhouses are becoming less affordable for their citizens, with the cost of property in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong penalizing their rankings. There is also a tradeoff globally between strong education and poor work-life balance, particularly demonstrated in Hong Kong.

No North American city makes it into the Index’s top 10, with Toronto ranking the highest overall at twelfth place. Boston and Chicago (at 15th & 19th, respectively) are the most sustainable of all U.S. cities studied. Cities in North America perform significantly better on Profit factors than those in the other sub-indices, this is a result of strong performance on GDP per capita and the ease of doing business. 

San Francisco is the highest ranked at 7th place while all U.S. cities studied appear in the top half of the sub-index. However, whilst greater income allows some cities to improve their rankings, higher economic development does not guarantee greater sustainability. Every North American city in the Index sits in the bottom half of the list for carbon emissions, alongside cities in the Middle East. 

In a rapidly urbanizing world, the way in which cities are planned, built, operated and redefined has a huge social, environmental and economic impact.
— John Batten, ARCADIS

Asia's diverse tigers

Cities in Asia demonstrate the greatest divergence: Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore all make it into the top 10 of the overall ranking, while New Delhi, Wuhan, Mumbai, Manila and Jakarta sit at the bottom. Seoul performs particularly well on the People sub-index, reaching second place globally. In part this is due to strong performing transport infrastructure, which is second only to another city in the continent, Melbourne. Meanwhile, Hong Kong leads the way on university education and life expectancy, and offers its people the highest percentage of green space. 

Yet, the Index shows that high working hours (20% higher than the global avg.) and a consistently poor work-life balance hold Asian cities back from performing stronger on its People factors.

It is therefore unsurprising that some Asian cities perform well in the Profit sub-index, with many scoring highly on their importance to global networks. Of all the cities studied, Singapore and Hong Kong are the world’s best performing for the ease of doing business. 

South America: a mixed bag

The cities of Central and South America are held back by particularly weak People and Profit scores, in addition to a mixed score on Planet factors. Santiago and São Paulo are South America’s highest-ranking cities in the Index (at 30 & 31, respectively). São Paulo scores poorly for greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of only Nairobi and Manila. Cities in South America also do not perform well on income inequality, with all those studied appearing in the bottom ten of the rankings for that score.

Middle East: a STARK trade off

The trade-off between Planet and Profit is most starkly seen in the Middle East where Dubai and Doha score much lower on environmental factors than economic ones. Cities in the Middle East have seen the highest real term population growth over the past five years, with Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi experiencing a rise of over 30% each, putting a strain on city infrastructure. 

The Index shows that city leaders in all 50 cities must plan for population increases over the coming years, but the pressure on some will be immense. 

Based in Amsterdam, the author is head of Corporate Communications at ARCADIS. He can be reached at +44 (0)20 7833 6662 or To contact Mr. Batten, tweet@JBattenBUC 

This article first appeared Feb. 9th on Sustainable Cities Index.

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