A sustainability ranking of 30 major European cities was released today in Copenhagen, the Scandinavian city that besides hosting the UN COP15 climate talks, has been chosen as top scorer in the new European Green City Index.
The study, sponsored by Siemens AG and developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked 30 major cities across Europe relative to one another in eight categories with 30 underlying qualitative and quantitative indicators.
The top cities, in ranked order:
1. Copenhagen, Denmark
2. Stockholm, Sweden
3. Oslo, Norway
4. Vienna, Austria
5. Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Don’t think that this ranking is of the “Greenest Cities” in Europe, even though it’s called The Europe Green City Index. Such an assumption is made by many about city sustainability indices. The cities at the bottom of this list are the poorest overall performers out of the study universe of 30. (Many thought the sustainability ranking for 50 US cities that I created in 2004 was a list of “America’s greenest cities,” even though we called it the SustainLane US City Rankings; the study is also featured in the 2007 book, How Green is Your City?)
The lowest-ranking cities in the European study, out of the total of 30 cities:
26. Zagreb, Croatia
27. Belgrade, Serbia
28. Bucharest, Romania
29. Sophia, Bulgaria
30. Kiev, Ukraine
Interestingly, all the laggard cities are located in either the former Soviet Union, or in former Soviet-controlled Eastern European nations. The difference between the overall highest ranking city, Copenhagen, at 87, and the lowest-scoring city, Kiev at 33 is substantial.
The new European city ranking analyzed cities by the following eight categories:
- Waste and Land Use
- Air Quality
- Environmental Governance
These categories leave out food, the only large oversight. Food accounts for a significant amount of greenhouse gas and other environmental impacts in its production, processing, transportation, storage, retailing and disposal. Siemens does not have a direct interest in the food business, so such an omission is not surprising.
When I added “food” as an indicator category for the 15 SustainLane US City Rankings categories–as measured in community gardens and farmer markets per capita–many, even in the “environmental community,” were baffled. It’s amazing to think that just five years ago there was so little connection seen between food to sustainability, especially in urban areas.
Fortunately, times have changed and the emphasis on local food and on sustainable agriculture and food production has been significant, especially in certain US urban areas (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle).
Back to the Europe Green City Index, Copenhagen ranked high in energy use–number 2–as measured in percentage of renewable energy, and also in environmental governance, in which it tied for first with Helsinki, Stockholm and Brussels, all scoring a perfect 10 points.
Copenhagen also ranked third in transportation; it has the highest rate of commute cycling of any major European city, with 36 percent of all trips taken by bicycle. Portland, the leading US city for cycling, by comparison, has an overall bike rate of 6 percent.
City cycling in Copenhagen
There is an obvious correlation in overall scores between the more wealthy–and higher-scoring–northern European cities and their poorer Eastern European counterparts, but the study did not include criteria for any direct economic or social factors. Housing affordability was one ranking criteria I added to the SustainLane US City Rankings after teachers that couldn’t afford living in pricey San Francisco asked, “How sustainable is that?”
Some of the specific underlying indicators for the European Green City Index, included quantitative data points such as recycling rate, and use of public transportation along with other qualitative indicators (e.g. CO2 reduction targets, efficiency standards for buildings).
Besides these tidbits of indicator information and the chart provided at the beginning of this post showing overall scores, the study has not yet provided adequate methodological factors such as weighting of indicator categories and a better explanation of exact scoring within the eight individual indicators for qualitative categories.
The index would also benefit by breaking out categories of analysis that are artificially grouped in a single category, such as “Water and Land Use.” Water itself can and should be broken into separate categories such as “Water Supply” and “Water Quality.” Land Use is also significant enough to merit a separate category of analysis, since planning and zoning can create large-scale urban sustainability impacts for many decades.
Still, the results of the Europe Green City Index should be very useful, and will hopefully have the impact on European cities that other city sustainability rankings have achieved elsewhere with citizens, business, media and politicians: making urban sustainability performance more transparent, understandable within a class of peers, and subject to competition in “a race to the top.”
Some of our biggest challenges in cutting carbon to reduce global climate change will be in understanding the system dynamics that cities and other complex entities such as corporations, neighborhoods or even our households comprise. We no longer have the luxury of viewing our energy sources, food, water, buildings and land as separate, unrelated systems, even if business, government and academic institutions have been formulated according to these silos.
Nor can we view our cities as separate systems from nature, the global climate and our social fabric.
Keeping score matters, or else we wouldn’t know the score.
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.