Towards a global set of indicators for sustainable urbanisation

Dr.Gora Mboup, Chief of UN-Habitat's Global Urban Observatory Section, addressing the CAP Networking event in Naples.

I was involved as a speaker in an event about indicators for sustainable urbanisation the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum in Naples. The Commonwealth Association of Planners (CAP) has been working with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to explore ways towards harmonising approaches so that policy makers can be used to track progress towards (or away from) sustainable urbanisation. As Professor Eugenie Birch commented in the workshop, “There is lots of uncoordinated activity in this field”. In co-operating in this way CAP and HUD are contributing to global advocacy of the importance of urbanisation to sustainable development. Representatives of the Ford Foundation and of UN-Habitat also spoke on the same platform, demonstrating their support for the initiative.

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is a joint effort by HUD and the US Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Department of Transport. It aims to get better integration so that affordable housing is developed close to transport facilities and in green, safe communities. It provides grants and support to communities to work towards these aims.
It has supported work at the University of Pennsylvania to look at global best practices in the field of sustainability indicators. Eugenie Birch presented this work at the workshop in Naples. A scan of 22 indicator systems has found that many of the indicators found in them are not widely replicable. The criteria sought are that indicators should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-related (SMART).

In general, Professor Birch and her team have found that while there is strong coverage by environmental indicators, the economic and social aspects are less well represented. She stressed the need to identify the users of measures of sustainable urbanisation. In researching this question she has analysed the recipient of HUD’s partnership grants over the past three years.

CAP’s work

Michel Frojmovic, a planning consultant from Canada who has worked extensively in the Caribbean, presented the work that CAP has done. CAP has used national level indicators to target Ministers with the aim of raising their awareness of the need to “reinvent planning” to address the surge of urban growth.
The Commonwealth is very diverse, but overall remains less urbanised than the rest of the world. However, this means that many Commonwealth countries now urbanising very rapidly, and much of the new urban growth is in the form of slums.

Despite this, the general picture across the Commonwealth is that no government agency has a brief to manage urbanisation. Michel also mused on the potential of new data sources that can be accessed from the electronic media.

The Global Urban Observatory

Gora Mboup from UN-Habitat trailed the publication of the latest State of the World’s Cities report. The theme is “The prosperity of cities” and it focuses on five key dimensions: quality of life, productivity, infrastructure development, equity, and environmental sustainability. He also spoke about UN-Habitat’s Urban Info database. The focus is on the Millennium Development Goals, and the fourth version of the database will be published this year.

Ford Foundation


Don Chen from the Ford Foundation also stressed the importance of indicators to meeting the challenges of rapid urbanisation and the urbanisation of poverty. “We still have little information on ‘what works’”, he said. “There is a lack of knowledge amongst practitioners”. Don explained how work on indicators fits into the Ford Foundation’s concerns for empowerment and social justice. By collecting and using information groups such as slum dwellers can hold decision-makers accountable. He pointed to the Transparent Chennai project as an example: it trains slum residents in data collection for basic urban services such as sewage and water.

Other work on indicators

In the discussion that followed, Keith Thorpe from England’s Department for Communities and Local Government was able to draw attention the Sustainable Cities Index, an annual monitoring of Britain’s 20 largest cities. It ran from 2007-2010. Keith also pointed to EU interest in this area.

There has indeed been work funded through the EU’s Framework Programme which looks at urban sustainability indicators. In addition a team from India and Hong Kong has compiled an International Urban Sustainability Indicators List and published their findings in a recent issue of the journal Habitat. As I said in my own contribution to the event in Naples, we do need to press ahead and aim to produce significant convergence in time for the global summit on human settlements, Habitat 3, that will be held in 2016. The RTPI, through its continuing support for CAP, is assisting in this process.