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Can We Create More Meaningful City Rankings?

They seem to be coming out at an ever-increasing pace: rankings of cities and nations based on how livable they are, or how bicycle friendly, or how green and happy, put together by various advocacy groups, think tanks and magazines. The media loves to pick these up, and let's face it, they're fun. But as Alex Steffen points out in a post today on WorldChanging, they can sometimes be counterproductive.

Such rankings typically use reams of data to make their lists, and all those numbers give them each an appearance of objective authority (although in the case of magazines, the bias is usually more evident, as in Monocle's picks for its well-heeled readership). But the data selected make all the difference. Happiness is to an extent in the eye of the beholder.

812815193_ed9994c018_m.jpgSeattle: Not as green as it looks? Photo by mandj98 via Flickr.
Steffen takes issue with the list recently released by the Natural Resources Defense Council as part of its Smarter Cities project, whose overall mission he applauds. (The list had me scratching my head a bit when it came out, in part because it scores Los Angeles ahead of New York in the transportation category.) They've put Seattle in first place overall, and Steffen, who lives there, isn't having it:

I've explained before why I'm skeptical of city rankings to begin with: what's measured by these rankings tends not to be a good set of indicators of whether these cities as a whole are actually improving in any meaningful way. And Smarter Cities in particular seems to have gotten the wires crossed between its excellent mission and its flawed measurements.

Seattle, for instance, comes in at #1 in the rankings. Living in Seattle, I feel no qualms about probing into how a city with profound sustainability problems managed to make it to the top of a national ranking for "smart cities." I can tell you it ain't pretty.

Though sustainability itself is a somewhat slippery concept, there are absolutely standards by which we can judge progress, as they mean the same things everywhere, and are pretty good measurements of overall impact. What, for instance, are a city's per capita greenhouse gas emissions? How many miles a day do its citizens drive? How large is their average home and how compact are their communities? How much water do they use? How much energy? How much solid waste do they generate? These sorts of numbers actually tell us something about how the people live, and about their overall levels of impact.

But Smarter Cities counts more easily measured, but sort of pointless data.…

[For instance,] "energy production and conservation" was rated by solely by the percentage of green power sources for its electricity, not total direct energy usage (much less total embedded energy usage). This means that a city like Seattle -- with a highly auto-dependent population, which wastes more or less about as much energy as other Americans (more than the average Californian, and far more than the average German or Japanese) -- looks great, because of the region's abundance of hydropower, while in fact not being particularly ahead of the curve in any other way. We happen to have rain and mountains, so we're "green," never mind the landfills full of dead appliances and the smog hanging in the sky.

Why should we care? Steffen continues:

The point here is not to pick on Smarter Cities (or Seattle). The point here is that unless we start defining real success (and measuring our progress in light of it), comparative measurements are worse than useless: they can even become a form of greenwashing. Many, for instance, argue that Seattle's environmental performance (when you take away the hydro and the mild climate) is actually sub-par, but the accolades of others make it hard to hold elected officials feet to the fire over this city's lack of density, low standards and continuing auto-dependence.

I look forward to a city ranking that does the opposite: that makes it easier for individuals to measure their own efforts, easier for citizens to judge progress, and easier for cities to set goals that might in fact make them truly bright green place to live. A truly smarter city would judge itself not by its neighbors, but by what's needed to save the planet.

Interesting stuff. Do any of you have examples of rankings that you find contradicted by your personal knowledge or experience? I, for instance, was surpried to see Mississippi ranked 24th in bicycle-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists. My in-laws live there, and I've traveled to many different parts of the state several times. Over the course of a recent ten-day stay during the most beautiful part of springtime, I saw fewer than a dozen people riding bicycles. And when I passed a "Share the Road" sign for bicyclists, it was unusual enough that I stopped to take a picture of it.

More from around the network: Hard Drive reports on the open source philosophy of Portland's TriMet transit agency, which has made independently produced iPhone apps available at its website. Hugh Bartling looks at a new book by Forbes writer Christopher Steiner called "$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives For the Better." And Austin on Two Wheels posts on a proposed bikeshare system that would add power back to the grid.