The value and limits of urban sustainability indicators

Are indicators a useful way of increasing resource efficiency and resilience in cities – and if so, which indicators are most valuable? Loan Diep and David Dodman report back from the ICLEI World Congress.

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Blog by 
Loan Diep
David Dodman
21 April 2015
Woman using a public water tap in Kliptown, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg uses 32 different indicators to assess progress towards its strategic goals. Indicators need to reflect the needs of marginalised and vulnerable groups (Photo: Ray Muzyka, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Woman using a public water tap in Kliptown, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg uses 32 different indicators to assess progress towards its strategic goals. Indicators need to reflect the needs of marginalised and vulnerable groups (Photo: Ray Muzyka, Creative Commons via Flickr)

What information do city officials need if they are to increase sustainability, resource efficiency, and resilience? This was among the questions addressed at a global meeting of mayors and city leaders in Seoul, South Korea earlier this month: more than 2,500 delegates, representing more than 250 local governments, met at the ICLEI World Congress 2015 to discuss 'sustainable solutions for an urban future'.

'Indicators' are often seen as important instruments for city and local governments as they adopt and implement new principles of management and accountability. They provide a way of setting baselines and targets and evaluating progress towards them.

As a team from the United Nations Environment Programme told the congress, measurable indicators can help to support decision-making, to assess the impacts of policies and investments, and to communicate ideas to diverse audiences.

Indicators can help specify intention. Making the case for setting specific goals and targets in response to climate change, Andrea Reimer from the city of Vancouver told the gathering that "some is not a number, soon is not a time".

As a result, cities are collecting increasing amounts of data on issues including water availability and wastage, energy supply, and waste generation and recycling, and are using this as the basis for identifying priorities and setting targets.

Indicators in action

For example, Johannesburg collects a total of 32 indicators that assess progress towards its strategic goals of being productive, well-governed, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable.

Yondela Silimela, the city's executive director of development planning, explained that the set of quantitative and qualitative indicators adopted is critical to effective planning and action to achieve goals in this rapidly changing city.

Some indicators are relatively easy to measure (e.g. the 'reduction of waste to landfill' or the 'percentage of clean energy') and are helping to track performance towards resource efficiency. Others, such as an indicator on 'quality of life', are more challenging but surveying tools have enabled the city to determine key factors influencing the well-being of the population and prioritise issues of mobility and access to social infrastructure (e.g. schools, health centres) accordingly.

The urban sustainability indicators used by Johannesburg are also aligned with its national vision of sustainable development, as defined in the 'Growth and development strategy 2040' (PDF).

A note of caution

Used effectively, there is little doubt that indicators can be a helpful tool to govern cities more effectively, but they need to be used with caution for several reasons.

The availability or quality of data is extremely limited in many cities – particularly in low-income cities. A balance needs to be struck between the need to generate better data (and the costs associated with this), and the need to address pressing development and sustainability needs more immediately.

A narrow focus on indicators can also mean attention is concentrated on those issues that can be measured more readily – which may, or may not be the ones that are most important (particularly for marginalised and vulnerable groups). Policymakers need to be aware of this, and to ensure that things that are difficult or impossible to measure (particularly more qualitative issues) are not excluded from policies and investments.

Important principles

If indicators are to be used effectively, some particular lessons should be borne in mind. Firstly, it is more important to focus on sound principles rather than on specific methods, which may not be appropriate for all contexts. These might include ensuring indicators are outcome-focused, transparent, verifiable, and appropriate to the context.

Secondly, indicators need to reflect the needs and priorities of marginalised and vulnerable groups – too often, the priorities for measurement (and hence for action) are set by more powerful stakeholders to meet their own ends.

Thirdly, these indicators need to capture the complexity of a city rather than oversimplify its context. Indicators adopted from elsewhere should be carefully examined to assess their relevance and applicability. They must take into account the ways in which different groups are affected – not just based on their geographic location or their economic characteristics, but also the way in which individual characteristics like gender and age shape and are shaped by policies.

New urban data

New forms of urban data are becoming available, and these could be used to develop more inclusive and meaningful indicators for city resilience and sustainability.

Enumerations that are driven by local organised groups of low-income urban residents can provide more detailed information and indicators on issues that matter to the poor – as well as providing a suitable empirical base for investment and action. At the same time, 'big data', including data gathered from mobile phone companies, can show how vulnerable groups move in 'real time' following shocks and stresses and can be used to inform more effective service delivery.  

Where city authorities are able to generate rigorous and reliable data, this can also demonstrate that they are capable of addressing important national development issues, which may include poverty reduction and health.

These approaches can also help cities to move towards global sustainability goals, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or making progress on the urban Sustainable Development Goals of safety, inclusivity, resilience and sustainability.

Loan Diep ( is a consultant working with IIED’s Human Settlements Group, and David Dodman ( is acting head of IIED's Human Settlements Group and team leader for cities and climate change. The authors recently attended the ICLEI World Congress 2015 in Seoul, South Korea.

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