Rankings with Teeth: Livable or Liability?

New rankings of urban sustainability seem come out almost every week. The SustainLane rankings are one of the best established and best regarded though, and their 2008 assessment of America's 50 biggest cities (released Monday) is attracting a fair amount of attention (here, here, here and here). Everyone likes a good fight and this year Portland came out on top again, with Las Vegas, Oklahoma City and Mesa, Arizona trailing the pack. The ranking covers indicators from transit and green economic development to energy policies and air/water quality. Portland scored its third consecutive win thanks to high scores in Energy and Climate Policy, Green buildings and Planning and Landuse (see graphic for full breakdown).

There is a new edge to this years rankings though. In the past they have stopped at celebrating success and inspiring some friendly competition. This time James Elsen of the SustainLane foundation is drawing some more serious conclusions:

"We're beginning to see the top and bottom-ranked cities move farther apart, with the cities taking sustainability seriously increasing in desirability nationwide and enjoying better odds of long-term economic prosperity. ... Specifically, the top 15 cities are creating more vibrant city centers and offer higher quality air, water, food and transportation choices ... We predict that the lower-ranking cities will increasingly struggle to sustain their resident and business populations and local economies."

Elsen's comments about vibrant city life are a green echo Richard Florida's now familiar arguments about the social and cultural characteristics needed to attract the “creative class.” But they open into another issue that, just like Florida's arguments, is changing how we think about cities -- changing it in a way that re-establishes the importance of well designed infrastructure for long-term prosperity. For municipalities (and regions and countries) poor environmental performance is becoming a liability.

A carbon intensive economy vulnerable to tariffs, taxes, and fuel price hikes; a city infrastructure poorly prepared for a more violent climate; a sprawling un-walkable metropolis with poor transit – all these things (carbon intensity, environmental risk and exposure, and livability) are more and more coming together to class a city as either an environmental liability or an oasis/safe-harbour for both residents and investment. These issues are partly about culture and lifestyle, but they are also about the shape of our cities and the design of their infrastructure. Dealing with them in any real coherent way is going to mean real work and will rub some stains and grit into the shiny green luster that often covers environmental politics.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.