A new report ranks world cities for sustainability, putting Tokyo, London and New York at the top, but its methodology is misleading and its results should be taken with a degree of scepticism.

The report, IESE Cities in Motion Strategies, comes jointly from the Center for Globalization and Strategy and the Department of Strategy of the IESE Business School at the University of Navarra, Spain. It has examined 135 cities, 49 of them capital cities, from 55 countries using publicly available data for the years 2012 and 2013.

It examines cities through 10 what it calls "dimensions" or indicators: Governance, Urban Planning, Public Management, Technology, The Environment, International Outreach, Social Cohesion, Mobility and Transportation, Human Capital, and The Economy.

The University Department responsible for the report is primed to develop leaders of tomorrow; nothing wrong with that, and, rightly, it stresses the importance of networking. Unsurprisingly, this is a feature of its model for cities, but the perspective of the Department is responsible for creating confusion in the criteria for evaluating the cities.

When talking of the benefit of networking for cities, for example, its introduction says, in support, only: "As already indicated in a report by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in 2001, a network focus ensures that local policies revolve around the people."

Firstly, to quote the pro-globalisation OECD, of all organisations, in support of this argument is a giveaway, secondly to rely on a text - whose claim is unsupported by evidence - 13 years old is odd to say the least, but thirdly, and most importantly, a network focus does not ensure necessarily that local policies revolve around people. It depends entirely upon the efforts made to be inclusive.

So what criteria is are included under "the environment"? They are listed as: "fighting pollution, supporting green buildings and alternative energies, efficient management of water, and policies which help counteract the effects of climate change". No mention of Waste minimisation, resource management, closed loop economy, etc. The indicators given for this "dimensions" are confined to: 

  • CO2 emissions;
  • improved water sources as a percentage of the total urban population with access (H2O);
  • PM10 particles;
  • the EPI index, and
  • methane emissions (MET).

The sources for this information are almost exclusively the World Bank, not always known as a guardian of environmental standards.

Under these criteria, it is unsurprising that the results of this survey do not coincide with the majority of similar studies. The top 10 ranking is as follows:

  1. Tokyo, Japan
  2. London, UK
  3. New York, USA
  4. Zürich, Switzerland
  5. Paris, France
  6. Geneva, Switzerland
  7. Basel, Switzerland
  8. Osaka, Japan
  9. Seoul, South Korea
  10. Oslo, Norway.

Copenhagen, often featuring in the top three of similar studies, comes 14th, Amsterdam at number 16 and Melbourne is way down at number 21.

In purely the environmental dimension, the Swiss cities above occupy the top three spaces.

This cannot be correct. Switzerland is a banking centre, extremely wealthy, and many studies correlate poverty with low environmental impact. The impact of these cities' citizens' activities upon the environment spreads far beyond their boundaries and these impacts escape being quantified under the chosen indicators, such as their waste, carbon impact and impact on social equity of all the imports into the cities from abroad.

Furthermore, there are no rewards given for, say, improving cycling and walkability or reducing waste to landfill.

It is clear that it is the weighting given to each of the 10 "dimensions" which is principally the cause of this variance. There is a strong emphasis on governance, public management, international outreach, human capital and the economy. These topics, while important, do not normally figure in similar studies quite so strongly.

Is it that other studies have got the balance wrong, or that the relative weighting leaves something to be desired?

The authors admit that there are some problems with the methodology, and that the winner, Tokyo, for example lags far behind in social cohesion, blaming this on the Fukushima earthquake. London, it judges, also lags behind on public management and social cohesion.

Both cities are financial capitals, responsible for all sorts of unsustainable financial activities. Tokyo was last year awarded a prize for excellence http://cityclimateleadershipawards.com/ in urban sustainability by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Siemens, under the Finance and Economic Development category. This was for launching Asia's first cap and trade program for carbon emissions in April 2010 which required large commercial and industrial buildings to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

But in most other definition of sustainability, Tokyo would hardly figure, being highly car dependent and energy intensive.

London did not figure in this top 10 at all.

They claim in the foreword that the "index is objective and broad, providing widespread coverage while guided by the criteria of conceptual relevance and statistical precision".

I would like to contrast it with what I regard as probably the most rigourous comparable survey, conducted by Siemens, the Green Cities Index, which I will do in my next post tomorrow.