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Sustainability of U.S. Cities Held Back by Transportation, Environmental Factors

The largest U.S. cities—New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—score best in economic factors but are hindered by poor transportation infrastructure, lack of green spaces and diminishing affordable housing, according to the inaugural Sustainable Cities Index by ARCADIS, the leading global natural and built asset design and consultancy firm.

ARCADIS’ overarching goal by publishing this annual study is to help city leaders further identify ways to balance the demands of generating strong financial returns and being an attractive place for people to live and work in, while also limiting their impact on the environment.

This first-of-its-kind sustainability index, which was conducted by the U.K.-based Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), explores three key demands—social (people), environmental (planet) and economic (profit)—to develop a ranking of 50 of the world’s leading cities based on 20 key indicators.

Experts agree a sustainable city should meet the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The 2015 index finds that while no utopian city exists, city leaders are managing a complex balancing act of generating strong financial returns and maintaining an attractive place for people to live and work while limiting damage to the environment.

U.S. and Canada: Profit Over Planet

None of the North American cities studied makes it into the Index’s top 10, with Toronto ranking the highest overall at 12th place. Boston and Chicago (ranked 15th and 19th, respectively) are the most sustainable of all U.S. cities included in the ranking. This is compared to Frankfort, London and Copenhagen ranking in the top three, respectively.

Here are the worldwide sustainability rankings of the nine U.S. cities profiled in the index:

#15 – Boston
#19 – Chicago
#20 – New York
#21 – Houston
#22 – Philadelphia
#25 – Washington, D.C.
#27 – San Francisco
#28 – Los Angeles
#29 – Dallas

Cities in the United States and Canada perform significantly better on profit factors than in the other sub-indices, the result of strong performance on GDP per capita and the ease of doing business. But the cost of doing business in the United States is high, tempering the strong performance delivered in most profit factors measured. San Francisco ranked the highest in this category at seventh place, while all U.S. cities studied appear in the top half of the profit sub-index.

However, while greater income allows some cities to improve their rankings, higher economic development does not guarantee greater sustainability. Every North American city in the Index sits in the bottom half of the rankings on carbon emissions (Los Angeles ranked last among the U.S. cities). This is the same for cities in the Middle East.

People Factor Considered Last

Approximately half of the world’s population now lives in cities and urban areas. Yet, across the world, the index finds cities are more sustainable for profit and planet purposes than they are for people factors.

Many of the world’s economic powerhouses are becoming less affordable for their citizens, with the cost of property in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong penalizing their rankings. There is also a trade-off globally between strong education and poor work/life balance, as demonstrated in Hong Kong, Seoul and New York.

“To truly understand how sustainable a city is, we must understand how well it balances the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Only then can city leaders determine their priorities and develop a roadmap to urban sustainability—for the good of this generation and the next,” says John Batten, global cities director at ARCADIS.

Los Angeles: #28 World, #8 United States

Los Angeles ranks well below the Top 10 most sustainable cities (#28) and at the bottom of the list (#8) of the nine U.S. cities analyzed. It scores high in ease of business, energy efficiency, air pollution and water/sanitation. It scores low in transportation infrastructure, green space and natural catastrophe exposure.

New York City: #20 World, #3 United States

New York City ranks well below the Top 10 most sustainable cities (#20) but at the top of the list (#3) of the nine U.S. cities analyzed. It scores high in ease of doing business, importance of global networks and water/sanitation. It scores low in cost of doing business, energy use, transportation infrastructure, work/life balance, education, inequality, dependency ratio, property prices and greenspace.

Chicago: #19 World, #2 United States

Chicago ranks well below the Top 10 most sustainable cities (#19) but is the second highest ranked U.S. city in the Sustainable Cities Index after Boston of the nine U.S. cities analyzed. Scores were high in ease of business, energy efficiency and air pollution. It scored low in transportation infrastructure, dependency ratio and green spaces.

To watch a brief video about the Sustainable Cities Index, click here. The full study can be viewed at http://www.sustainablecitiesindex.com.

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