With Effective Roadmaps and Political Will, Governments Can Create Healthier, Livable Cities

Authors: Erik Belsky, Eugenie Birch, and Amy Lynch

Erik Belsky is the Managing Director of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. 

Eugenie Birch and Amy Lynch are with the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Urban Research.

  • Nearly 1 billion of the world's population live in crowded and unsanitary slums. Deliberate urban planning can both mitigate the environmental and health risks to slum dwellers and harness economic growth.
  • In the U.S., more than 200 cities have developed plans for improving economic, environmental, and social sustainability, but few have established specific metrics to monitor their progress.
  • By developing a clear vision for evaluation and utilizing the tools and data that already exist, U.S. cities can create a national indicator database to advance the spread of healthy, livable cities across the country.
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A 2.5-acre green roof sits atop San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences. (Academy of Sciences)

By harnessing an innovative mix of tools and approaches, governments can strengthen the economies of urban areas and improve their overall livability. 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. 

As explicated further in State of the World 2012's “Planning for Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development," we need to shift to 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 to 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. (For more, see “Measuring U.S. Sustainable Urban Development.")

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. There are three steps the U.S. can take to develop a national indicator system that will help its 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 Greenworks2009 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. 

Erik Belsky, Eugenie Birch, and Amy Lynch | December 10, 2012