B. Anthony Stewart
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Invasion barges float on peaceful Thames near Houses of Parliament.
B. Anthony Stewart

World’s 10 Most Sustainable Cities? Hint: Not Fast-Growing Jakarta or Delhi

European cities, led by Frankfurt and London, account for seven of the top 10 most sustainable cities while the other three are the well-heeled Asian tigers of Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong, according to a new ranking of 50 major metro areas.

The rankings are hardly a surprise to anyone, including me, who’s spent time recently in the fast-growing metropolises of Jakarta, the world’s most congested city, or New Delhi, its smoggiest. I spent hours last week sitting in Jakarta’s traffic and had a difficult time breathing the December air of India’s capital. So the latest rankings, released this week, are perhaps a cautionary tale of what it takes to make a city truly sustainable. (See related story: “Can Houseplants Really Clean the World’s Smoggiest City?“)

The inaugural Sustainable Cities Index, compiled by the London-based Center for Economics and Business Research, bases its ranking on how cities fare in three areas: social (people), environmental (planet) and economic (profit.) It finds that mature cities achieve the best balance but cannot rely on historic investment. It also finds there’s no utopia, suggesting that all cities struggle in some way to meet the needs of their people.

“Our world is changing at a faster pace than ever before,” says John Batten, global cities director of the consultancy firm ARCADIS, which funded the index. “Developing technology, population growth and the emergence of a truly global economy mean that the notion of national borders is becoming less relevant. Instead, we see the concept of the ‘global city’ taking hold.”

The index finds:

  • Europe. Its cities lead on sustainability. Aside from Frankfurt and London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Berlin and Madrid make the top 10 list. While Frankfurt tops the Profit sub-index, followed by London, Rotterdam does best in the People category because of its high literacy rate and a good work-life balance. Frankfurt and Berlin score highest for Planet factors because of their waste management and low levels of air pollution.
  • North America. Its cities fare best on Profit factors because of their relatively high income per capita and ease of doing business. None make the top 10 overall. Toronto ranks highest overall at 12th place. Boston and Chicago, ranking 15th and 19th respectively, score highest among U.S. cities. In the Profit sub-index, San Francisco is the highest-ranked U.S.city, scoring 7th, while all U.S. cities appear in the top half. Yet in the Planet category, when carbon dioxide emissions are considered, every North American city sits in the bottom half —alongside cities in the Middle East.

  • New apartment buildings rise near trash and construction materials in the northern part of Jakarta on Feb. 2, 2015. (Wendy Koch)
  • Asia. Its cities show the most divergence. While three score in the top 10 overall, four score in the bottom 10: New Delhi, Wuhan, Mumbai, Manila and Jakarta. Because of its strong transportation network, Seoul does particularly well on the People sub-index, reaching second place globally after Melbourne. Hong Kong fares best for university education, life expectancy, and highest percentage of green space. While several Asian cities perform well in the Profit category, notably Singapore and Hong Kong, their long work hours (often 20 percent higher than the global average) and poor work-life balance hold down their People scores.
  • South America. Its cities don’t score well overall, doing especially poorly in the People and Profit categories. All appeared in the bottom 10 for income inequality. Santiago and São Paulo are its highest-ranking cities overall, scoring 30th and 31st respectively. Yet São Paulo scores poorly for greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of only Nairobi and Manila.
  • Middle East. Its cities tend to score much better in the Profit than Planet category. Dubai and Doha, for example, score much lower on environmental factors than economic ones. Middle Eastern cities have seen some of the highest rates of population growth in the past five years as Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi experience 30 percent-plus increase that has strained city infrastructure.

Overall, the top ten and bottom ten cities:

Top ten 1. Frankfurt; 2. London; 3. Copenhagen; 4. Amsterdam; 5. Rotterdam; 6. Berlin; 7. Seoul; 8. Hong Kong; 9. Madrid; 10. Singapore

Bottom ten 41. Rio de Janeiro; 42. Doha; 43. Moscow; 44. Jeddah; 45. Riyadh; 46. Jakarta; 47. Mumbai; 48. Wuhan; 49. New Delhi; 50. Nairobi

People sub-index

Top ten – people factors 1. Rotterdam; 2. Seoul; 3. London; 4. Sydney; 5. Copenhagen; 6. Hong Kong; 7. Amsterdam; 8. Melbourne; 9. Frankfurt; 10. Berlin

Bottom ten – people factors 41. Johannesburg; 42. Riyadh; 43. Mexico City; 44. Jakarta; 45. Wuhan; 46. Rio de Janeiro; 47. Manila; 48. Mumbai; 49. New Delhi; 50. Nairobi

Planet sub-index

Top ten – planet factors 1. Frankfurt; 2. Berlin; 3. Copenhagen; 4. Madrid; 5. Rotterdam; 6. Amsterdam; 7. Singapore; 8. Rome; 9. Toronto; 10. Birmingham

Bottom ten – planet factors 41. Moscow; 42. Dallas; 43. Los Angeles; 44. Abu Dhabi; 45. Nairobi; 46. Beijing; 47. Dubai; 48. Wuhan; 49. New Delhi; 50. Doha

Profit sub-index

Top ten – profit factors 1. Frankfurt; 2. London; 3. Hong Kong; 4. Amsterdam; 5. Melbourne; 6. San Francisco; 7. Seoul; 8. Singapore; 9. Brussels; 10. Madrid

Bottom ten – profit factors 41. Jeddah; 42. Buenos Aires; 43. Jakarta; 44. Riyadh; 45. Moscow; 46. Rio de Janeiro; 47. Mumbai; 48. New Delhi; 49. Nairobi; 50. Wuhan

Overall ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index ranking

  1. Frankfurt
  2. London
  3. Copenhagen
  4. Amsterdam
  5. Rotterdam
  6. Berlin
  7. Seoul
  8. Hong Kong
  9. Madrid
  10. Singapore
  11. Sydney
  12. Toronto
  13. Brussels
  14. Manchester
  15. Boston
  16. Paris
  17. Melbourne
  18. Birmingham
  19. Chicago
  20. New York
  21. Houston
  22. Philadelphia
  23. Tokyo
  24. Rome
  25. Washington
  26. Kuala Lumpur
  27. San Francisco
  28. Los Angeles
  29. Dallas
  30. Santiago
  31. Sao Paulo
  32. Mexico City
  33. Dubai
  34. Abu Dhabi
  35. Shanghai
  36. Istanbul
  37. Johannesburg
  38. Buenos Aires
  39. Beijing
  40. Rio de Janeiro
  41. Doha
  42. Moscow
  43. Jeddah
  44. Riyadh
  45. Jakarta
  46. Manila
  47. Mumbai
  48. Wuhan
  49. New Delhi