Metrics for Our Metros

sustanaible circle

The COAG Reform Council’s review of capital city strategic planning systems, released to the public in April 2012, formalised what we have known for some time. An integrated approach to planning – both within governments and between governments – is essential for our cities to thrive, rather than simply survive.

The COAG Reform Council’s recommendations focus on the need for a consistent, collaborative approach to the strategic planning and management of Australia’s eight capital cities.

Among these recommendations are two which have the potential to transform our vision for our cities in a radical way.  The first calls for government collaboration to improve information and data about Australian cities. The second calls for clear frameworks for measuring progress and monitoring implementation of strategic planning in cities.

Speaking at the Built Environment Meets Parliament (BEMP) summit in late June, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, said the government had its sights set firmly on “helping to craft a set of common indicators that cities can use to set targets to improve productivity, sustainability and liveability.”

It’s clear the Australian Government understands that the future prosperity, liveability and sustainability of our cities depends on being able to measure, verify and report on their progress.

This requires a set of evidence-based national indicators.

Many city reports and indicators have already been developed both nationally and internationally.

green city

In Australia, the COAG’s national criteria for future strategic planning are complemented by a range of initiatives, including the State of Australian Cities report, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Measures of Australia’s Progress and the Australian Conservation Foundation’s 2010 Sustainable Cities Index. The Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities is also investing in the Measuring Sustainability Program, which aims to deliver a set of sustainability indicators for Australia representing key factors influencing community liveability, economic prosperity and environmental sustainability.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council has also identified 76 evidence-based indicators that could be used to monitor the performance of Australia’s cities with respect to sustainability and liveability and to inform public policy and decision making.

Internationally, there are a number of initiatives including PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ Cities of Opportunity, Siemens’ Green Cities Index and World Bank’s Global City Indicators Program.

However, there is no agreed-upon set of nationally-consistent, comprehensive benchmarks for Australia’s cities, and no means of monitoring our cities’ progress over the long-term.

Indicators can help us to understand where we are, which way we are going and how far we are from where we want to be. They can also alert us to small problems before they become big problems. They can connect the dots between the economy, environment and society – and show us where the links are weak.

For example, indicators which track a city’s air and water quality can inform our knowledge about the population’s health and well-being, as well as its productivity.

While it is certainly true that some metrics are elusive – it is hard to reduce art and music, for example, to a matter of numbers – there are many factors important to the liveability and sustainability of our cities that we can measure.

The happiness index pioneered by the government of Bhutan, for example, shows us that even the seemingly unmeasurable can be measured.

The Green Building Council of Australia recently launched the Green Star – Communities rating tool to assess the environmental issues within community developments, such as minimising energy and water consumption, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, managing waste and reducing dependence on motor vehicles.

However, the rating tool reaches beyond environmental efficiencies to broader holistic sustainability issues, such as economic prosperity, liveability, safety, health and well-being.

Green Star – Communities has been supported by all three tiers of government in Australia, plus the private sector, and will drive a seismic shift in the way we assess the sustainability of our communities.

However, it does not address whole cities.

We must look to the world’s great cities to see what is possible.

In New York City, for example, PlaNYC is has brought together 25 New York City agencies to work toward the vision of a greener, greater New York.

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg first outlined his bold environmental agenda for New York City in 2007, the city was facing a growing population, aging infrastructure, a changing climate, and an evolving economy.

The city’s integrated plan outlines goals for creating a sustainable city in terms of issues such as housing and neighbourhoods, water supply, transportation, energy air quality and waste.

Since the launch, the City has been transparent and accountable, issuing annual reports on milestones achieved and reporting just as candidly on those that they haven’t achieved.

The 2011 updated PlaNYC contains more than 400 milestones to be met by the end of 2013, pointing the way to the ultimate goals for the year 2030.

The plan also outlines 30 sustainability indicators which are being used to track PlaNYC’s progress towards its long term goals.

These indicators are designed to provide a “quantifiable bellwether” for each component of a PlaNYC goal, ensuring the City can easily identify if one part of a goal is being achieved but not another. This helps them to assess whether changes to the plan are required, or more focus is needed on one particular area.

New York City is already meeting some impressive milestones.

After rising for years, per capita electricity use is declining and greenhouse gas emissions are down.

New York City has introduced a clean air law for school buses, launched the city’s first bus rapid transit route and greened a quarter of its yellow taxi fleet.

It has planted more than 430,000 trees and doubled the number of New Yorkers who bike to work.

The people of New York City know they have a long way to go to achieve the goals outlined in PlaNYC, but as Mayor Bloomberg has said: “If we don’t act now, when? And if we don’t act, who will?”

In Australia, we must ask ourselves the same questions.

By Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Green Building Council of Australia
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