By harnessing an innovative mix of tools and approaches, governments can strengthen the economies of urban areas and improve their overall livability,
according to research presented in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World
2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity. Today, nearly 1 billion of the world’s
poor live in urban areas that are dangerously overcrowded and lack adequate access
to basic sanitation and clean water, with wide-ranging health and environmental
impacts. But even in wealthier countries, governments face serious challenges in
making their cities more inclusive, sustainable, and livable.
In 2010, informal urban settlements, known more commonly as “slums,” housed approximately
one-third of the urban population of developing countries. “Slum populations are
often viewed as an eyesore, but few realize that the urban poor are at the core
of a city’s economy, accounting for a large share of employment and performing
essential functions for the city,” said Eric Belsky, Managing Director of Harvard
University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and State of the World 2012 contributing
In his chapter, “Planning for Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development,” Belsky
calls for a new paradigm for urban planning that utilizes all levels of government
to promote more livable, environmentally sensitive, economically competitive, and
socially inclusive cities. Although there are formidable barriers to inclusive and
sustainable development, several bold steps, such as the creation of National Urban
Sustainable Planning Commission, national incentive funds, and international academic
collaboration on urban planning, can be taken to overcome these challenges. “With
deliberate spatial planning, we can mitigate the environmental and health risks
of slum dwellers, as well as harness their potential to contribute to economic growth
and move out of poverty.”
In the United States, meanwhile, more than 200 cities have developed plans for improving
economic, environmental, and social sustainability, but few have established specific
metrics to monitor their progress. A national indicator system would help cities
more uniformly measure their success in moving toward sustainable development,
according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Eugenie Birch and Amy Lynch, co-authors
of “Measuring U.S. Sustainable Urban Development” in State of the World 2012.
Using indicators to monitor sustainable development of urban areas has long been
on the global agenda: Agenda 21, developed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, specifically
called for the development of such benchmarks. In their chapter, Birch and Lynch
provide three steps to develop a national indicator system that will help U.S.
cities achieve sustainability:
Start with a vision. Until 2009, when the government created the Partnership for
Sustainable Communities, the United States did not have a national sustainable
development agenda, much less national standards. To fill this void, the Partnership
crafted and released the Livability Principles, six statements that express what
is needed to create liveable communities nationwide, including affordable housing
and a better mix of transportation options.
Use what already exists.The lack of standardized national indicators in the United
States is due not to a dearth of developed indicators, but to a failure to align
local efforts with the national vision. Effective local initiatives include the
STAR Community Index, created in cooperation with numerous national organizations,
including the U.S. Green Building Council. Based on 81 goals, the index helps local
governments manage their sustainability performance and encompasses broad themes
of environment, society, and economy, but it fails to relate directly to any national
policy. Other indicator systems in use include Philadelphia’s Greenworks 2009 plan,
the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s 62 published economic and social indicators,
and the Green City Index.
Create a national indicator database. As effective indicators are identified, they
should be assessed and culminated into a national monitoring system. In 2010, the
American Planning Association and the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of
Urban Research identified and analyzed 22 existing indicator systems with the aim
of creating a Sustainable Urban Development Indicator Database. Out of the 22 systems,
145 achievable and measurable indicators were identified, with the aim of ultimately
developing a national indicator database.
With effective roadmaps and political will, governments can advance the goals of
sustainability, inclusion, and poverty alleviation through improved urban planning
to create healthier, livable cities.
Worldwatch’s State of the World 2012, released in April 2012, focuses on the themes
of inclusive sustainable development discussed at Rio+20, the 20-year follow-up
to the historic Earth Summit of 1992, also held in Rio de Janeiro. The report presents
a selection of innovative ideas and practices to achieve global environmental sustainability
while meeting human needs and providing jobs and ensuring dignity for all.