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Urban Expeditions

The World's Top Cities for People and the Planet

By Alberto Lucas López, Daniela Santamarina, and Kelsey Nowakowski

Today’s cities are finding it hard to be both livable and economically strong. Not one has truly balanced people, profit, and the planet, according to a new report on an index that ranks cities by sustainability. The index, from global design firm Arcadis and the Centre for Economics and Business Research, ranks cities’ success based on social, environmental, and economic factors.

Arcadis used 32 indicators and a cross section of the world’s urban areas, so not all capitals or large cities are necessarily represented. A city is scored on each of the three sustainability factors; its overall score is the average of those.

Zurich was rated as the top city, cited for its livability, environmental policy, climate initiative, public transit, and strength as a financial center. Despite its overall winning score, though, Zurich wasn’t necessarily the top place for people—its citizens are challenged by work-life balance and cost of living. Other European cities were lauded, making up most of the top 20 positions. Two innovative Asian cities—Seoul and Singapore—round out the top ten.

Rapidly urbanizing places, such as Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, tend to prioritize fiscal growth over environmental or health matters—at least at first, says Arcadis’s global director of cities, John Batten. For example, only after it had built a robust economy did Dubai begin investing in mass transit projects that would cut pollution and improve pedestrian safety.

Increasingly, city leaders are seeing the value of raising the quality of life. Seoul, South Korea—ranked first for “people” in the index—is using the fruits of a decades-long boom to enhance its environment. Among the projects: reclaiming once polluted land to create recreational spaces and improve flood control. Read the full report.

City Ranking
(Overall)

The Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index charts the average of three sustainability factors to rank 100 of the world’s major cities. Cities can be explored by overall rank or region.

People
(Social)

Rates health, education, income inequality, work-life balance, ratio of wage earners to dependents, crime, housing, and living costs

Planet
(Environmental)

Energy consumption and renewable energy share, waste management, green space, sanitation, water, greenhouse gas emissions, natural catastrophe risk, and air pollution

Profit
(Economic health)

Transport infrastructure, ease of doing business, tourism, GDP per capita, the city’s importance in global economic networks, Internet connectivity, and employment rates

View by Regions
Overall Rank
HOVER OVER THE SHAPES BELOW TO SEE SPECIFIC RANKINGS
MORE SUSTAINABLE
LESS SUSTAINABLE
North America

Of the three factors, the social aspect ranks lowest for 34 cities. Sixteen of them are in North America.

Chicago’s sustainability plan has led to more than 225 miles of new bicycle lanes. But the city still struggles with limited green space and high traffic congestion.

South America

With 22 million people, São Paulo is challenged by aging infrastructure—water outages are common—and mobility.

Europe

Half the North American cities in the ranking stress economic health. By contrast, that factor is in last place for 19 of the 32 European cities.

Berlin has ambitious environmental and social goals. By 2050, it aims to be CO₂ neutral, add bike paths, and increase energy efficiency.

New ways to combat floods allow Rotterdam to run, and benefit from, Europe’s largest port.

Africa

Its four cities rate highest in environment but ranked near the bottom overall.

Middle East

The Middle Eastern cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Muscat have the greatest contrast between factors. The lowest ranking for all three was in the environment category.

Asia

The continent's top ranked city, Singapore excels at long-term urban planning. The government is investing in more rail and subway networks to improve connectivity.

It's not surprise that with a world-class infrastructure, vibrant economy, and well-educated talent pool, Hong Kong is considered one of the best places to do business.

Oceania

While Sydney scores high for its green space and infrastructure, it's vulnerable to natural disasters, which may increase with climate change.

Ranking World Cities
People
  • Seoul
  • Rotterdam
  • Hamburg
  • Vienna
  • Berlin
  • European cities dominate this category, but Seoul’s strengths in health and education give it the top spot. The city’s sustainability plan aims to bolster South Korea’s cultural identity through historic preservation, and to promote stronger communities by improving public transit.

    Planet
  • Zurich
  • Stockholm
  • Geneva
  • Vienna
  • Frankfurt
  • Ranked first in the overall index, Zurich is recognized for its environmental priorities, including energy efficiency and renewable power. The city is a model, running a sustainable public transit system and holding annual “environment days” to raise public awareness.

    Profit
  • Singapore
  • Hong Kong
  • London
  • Dubai
  • Zurich
  • Singapore ranks high on matters of commerce. It was awarded first place for ease of doing business and for accessibility to tourists. To improve the mobility of its growing population, the city is investing in public transit by building more subways and high-speed rail.

    SOURCES: ARCADIS SUSTAINABLE CITIES INDEX 2016; WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM