Best practices for sustainable development in emerging-market cities

The need to prioritize sustainability has never been more urgent than it is today. This is particularly true in emerging markets, which are entering a period of mass urbanization that could dramatically raise productivity and standards of living, but that also poses environmental and other threats that could significantly reduce the benefits of growth.

Many emerging markets are already pursuing sustainable development—economic growth that improves lives without exhausting the environment or other resources—but the absence of accepted frameworks for evaluating success in emerging-market cities often prevents officials from discovering and implementing effective solutions.

Our team created a new metric, the urban sustainability index, to address this gap and help policy makers in emerging markets identify approaches that will work in their cities. The index is designed to measure the performance of cities in five sustainability categories: how well they are meeting their citizens’ basic needs, resource efficiency, environmental cleanliness, built environment, and commitment to future sustainability.

China became a test bed for the index for a number of reasons. It has more emerging cities than any other country, and they are growing faster than any other cities in the world. Moreover, the necessary data are increasingly available in China, and the country’s leadership is showing increasing commitment to urban sustainability.

By analyzing the policies and programmes of some of China’s most sustainable cities, we identified five common themes for achieving sustainability in emerging-market cities: industrial restructuring linked to land renewal, “green” urban planning, transparent standards and charges, integrated large-scale recycling, and cross-departmental coordination.

A question naturally emerges as to whether the insights gleaned in China would be relevant in emerging markets elsewhere. Certainly regional variations would yield differences in the particulars of policy, and ultimately cities will benefit from using the index to conduct analyses in their specific geographies. But in the interim, our experience working in cities around the world suggests that the themes we identified in China are generally valid across cities in emerging markets, and thus policy makers, companies, and civic organizations in other emerging markets can use the findings from China to advance sustainability in their own cities.

Rapid growth, little guidance on sustainability

Our analysis indicates that 423 emerging-market cities will generate more than 45 per cent of global GDP growth from 2007 to 2025. The population of these cities will grow by an estimated 40 per cent over this period, and the average income (measured in GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity) will more than double from $13,000 to $31,000. As a result, these cities will account for nearly 20 per cent of the global population and about 30 per cent of global GDP by 2025.

Cities in these regions lag significantly on sustainability when compared with cities in the developed world, but they face challenges so different that the benefits of the comparison are limited. Moreover, there is very little sustainability data on emerging-market cities, so it has been difficult even to identify reference points against which these cities could measure their performance.

While the United Nations, the World Bank, and other institutions have made great contributions by developing approaches that measure sustainability in cities, incompatibility remains a challenge.

The urban sustainability index

We created the urban sustainability index to fill the gap in current analysis of sustainable development. The index measures the performance of cities in the emerging world on a common set of sustainability categories. We wanted to gauge not only the environmental sustainability of cities but also city officials’ commitment to handling their growing urban populations in a sustainable way, and their efficiency in using resources.

We evaluated 112 cities selected by China’s national government as the focus of sustainable development, using data for 2004 to 2008. We examined policy successes and failures among urban areas featuring similar financial constraints, policy environments, and experience. We then created a five-part definition of sustainable development, encompassing 18 individual indicators (exhibit):

Basic needs. Access to safe water, sufficient living space, adequate health care, and education are fundamental priorities for urban populations.

Resource efficiency. A city’s efficiency in such areas as the use of water and energy and the effective recycling of waste directly correlates to the quality of life of its citizens.

Environmental cleanliness. Limiting exposure to harmful pollutants is fundamental to a city’s livability.

Built environment. Equitable access to green space, public transportation, and dense, efficient buildings makes communities more livable and efficient.

Commitment to future sustainability. An increase in the number of employees and the level of financial resources devoted to sustainability suggests how vigorously city governments are committed to implementing national and local policies and standards.

Original article published at

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