When It Comes to Sustainability, We’re Ranking Our Cities Wrong

It’s been two weeks since the publishing of my commentary with Daniel Aldana Cohen and Hillary Angelo in Nature on the limits of current urban environmental thinking, and the response so far has been terrific. We argued that policymakers and researchers need to expand the way we define and measure urban sustainability in both social and spatial terms, and while this argument won’t be surprising to critical urban scholars, our goal was to boil it down to its most accessible and intuitive formula.

Building on this goal, I recently sat down with Vanessa Quirk from Metropolis Magazine to unpack some of the arguments we made in Nature, including the idea that the current “leaders” in urban sustainability policy such as New York and San Francisco only look like leaders because we do a very poor job of properly capturing their broader environmental impacts.

Part of the reason why wealthy cities are so wealthy is not that they removed themselves from global manufacturing, but that they occupy a very privileged position there. The banks are located in New York, the same banks that finance all the factories. It seems pretty unjust to say, “Look at how successful New York’s been at reducing carbon emissions” when New York is the center of all the global activity that pollutes other parts of the world. New York has exported its pollution. That’s partly why we say that a lot of sustainability gains actually turn out to be “regressive redistributions.”

We also discuss the difficulties with ranking or comparing cities’ environmental performance. Even if good consumption-based measures of carbon footprints were common, I argue, we’d still have intractable problems of how we define cities and regions:

If we’re comparing cities, we have to compare whole regions. You don’t just look at the city, because the city boundary is a historical accident. We look at the whole urban region that’s all functionally interconnected.

But the problem is that the way that these are defined really varies across place. Even just within the United States, the census bureau defines urban regions based on counties, but if you look at the southwest the counties are huge. But in the northeast they’re tiny. Even just within the U.S., where statistics are really good, it’s very hard to compare cities. If you look at it internationally, forget it. At the end of the day the problem is we don’t have the data to do a good job of comparing cities. Period.

The entire interview is available at Metropolis Magazine, and the original commentary is available at Nature.