While most urban planners in the United States and Canada put an emphasis on sustainable urban design, a new sustainability index released by the UK Center for Economics does not include any North American cities ranking in the top ten. How can local officials and urban design professionals in the US and Canada improve the sustainability of North American cities?
When talking to urban design professionals, ranging from planners and city government officials to architects and engineers, chances are they mention sustainability as one of their guiding principles. Despite the growth of the New Urbanism movement and the focus on sustainable development and revitalization in North American cities, these urban centers lag their Western European counterparts in key elements of sustainability according to a recently released report, The ARCADIAS 2015 Sustainable Cities Index, published by the UK Center for Economics and Business Research. In fact, no North American city ranked in the top 10 of the 50 cities in 31 countries included in this inaugural study. In fact, Toronto ranked 12th in the overall, while Boston (15), Chicago (19) and New York (20) were the only three U.S. cities out of the nine cities included in this study that ranked in the top 20 overall rankings. What factors does the ARCADIA Sustainable Cities measure? Where did North American cities fall short and how can urban design professionals contribute to improving the sustainability of these major urban centers?
Three Areas of Sustainability: People, Planet, and Profit
The developers of the Sustainable Cities Index defined sustainability in terms of three dimensions: People, Planet, and Profit. The People domain take into account factors that contribute to the livability of a major urban center. The Planet domains considers the environmental impact the city has, while the Profit domain addresses the long-term financial viability of the urban center.
The following table illustrates the different factors considered in each of these three domains:
According to Civil and Structural Engineer, the area in which North American cities fared the worst was in carbon emissions as evidenced by all US and Canadian cities ranking in the lower 25 cities included in the study. While U.S. cities performed strongly in the Profit domain, with San Francisco ranking 7th globally and all US cities in the top 25, the cost of doing business and the cost of living diminished North American urban centers standings. In terms of the People domain, no North American city ranked in the top 10, primarily due to poor transportation infrastructure and rapidly escalating property costs, such as in New York City, that make housing unaffordable for most people.
The Takeaways for Urban Design Build Professionals
The main reason for the poor performance of US cities on the Planet domain is the high dependency on cars for transportation and the decaying transportation infrastructure in the United States. This comes to no surprise to traffic and civil engineers that have limited funds to maintain, repair, and replace roadways and struggle with the cancellation of light rail projects. By continuing to lobby and educate government officials about the need to expand public transportation options to decrease automobile dependency, civil engineers can make a significant contribution to the sustainability of our cities.
In terms of improving US cities’ rankings in both the People and Profit, architects who design living and office spaces can encourage developers to include affordable housing and work places in their development plans. The continued escalation in the cost of living is going to hurt the long term viability of major US cities as the workforce moves further away from urban centers, which will lead to a labor shortage, especially in the service sectors. According to a survey conducted by the American Institute of Architects cited by the National Housing Institute, less than one percent of architects considered designing affordable housing as a primary interest in 2006. As the issues of housing affordability become more apparent as more people protest the gentrification of lower to middle class urban neighborhoods, a growing number of architects are developing innovative design solutions for the emerging affordable housing crisis in our major cities.