A Sustainable Cities Index released this week by global design and consultancy firm Arcadis shows that long-term planning is crucial, with Canberra ranked as more sustainable than Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Canberra placed 18th on the index, Sydney 21st, Brisbane 30th and Melbourne 32nd. The top city globally was Zurich, followed by Singapore, Stockholm, Vienna and London.

The index was compiled for Arcadis by the Centre for Economic and Business Research. It assessed cities across three pillars – people, planet and profit – and 32 different indicators.

Sydney scores very well on “Planet”

The only sub-index where an Australian city made the top10 was “Planet”, where Sydney ranked at number eight, due to the City of Sydney’s emphasis on sustainable buildings, renewable energy, reducing greenhouse emissions and waste management.

The Planet sub-index ranked cities on energy consumption and renewable energy share, recycling and composting rates, greenhouse gas emissions, natural catastrophe risk, drinking water, sanitation and air pollution. .

Arcadis chief executive Asia Pacific Greg Steele said that overall, Canberra’s ranking has a lot to do with long-term planning.

The masterplan put in place when the city was founded has more or less been adhered to, he said. It provides for green space and cycling, for example, and the city has also developed a globally-advanced waste management system. Canberra is also very people-centric.

Singapore’s ranking – number two overall and top of the profit sub-index – also shows the value of adhering to long-term planning, Mr Steele said.

The Profit sub-index examined performance from a business perspective, combining measures of transport infrastructure [rail, air and traffic congestion], ease of doing business, tourism, GDP per capita, the city’s importance in global economic networks, connectivity in terms of mobile and broadband access and employment rates.

One city that surprised with its ranking is Seoul, he said, which came it at seventh overall and topped the “people” sub-index for its “very people-centric planning.”

The People sub-index rated health [life expectancy and obesity], education [literacy and universities], income inequality, work-life balance, the dependency ratio, crime, green space within cities and housing and living costs. These indicators can be broadly thought of as capturing “quality of life”.

Mr Steele said Sydney slipped down the overall ranks due to deficiencies in terms of infrastructure and housing affordability. Melbourne and Brisbane are both weak on sustainable energy, with close by coal-fired power plants that the cities continue to rely on.

Sustainability is strong with top achievers

Greg Steele

“The half a dozen top cities are really committed to sustainable energy and programs,” Mr Steele said.

Mr Steele said the return of Clover Moore as City of Sydney Lord Mayor showed the importance of people-centric planning.

“Local government can and do engage with people. Some of the most innovative programs are coming out of local government.”

He said “stronger governance” is needed in terms of sustainability planning that unites the three tiers of Australian government.

“The Greater Sydney Commission is exactly what is needed.”

Brisbane also has opportunities to achieve good outcomes, as it is a single council for the entire city. Melbourne, by contrast, has multiple councils, and a state government that has a track record of changing the plans when the government changes.

Local government needs to be involved in shaping infrastructure

Because local governments are the “land planners of the country” they should be involved in major decisions around infrastructure, and overall infrastructure planning and land use planning need to be integrated better than they currently are, Mr Steele said

The private sector also has a “huge role to play” in designing projects that are of benefit to people.

Currently, the trend is for transit oriented development. However, in Arcadis research, the term “mobility oriented development” is the focus.

“We compared rail stations and transit nodes around the world,” Mr Steele said. “They have to be planned around people, not the transit system.”

Don’t think about the train station, think about what people need and want

An example is Grand Central Station in New York, which is a destination in itself for people even if they are not looking to catch a train.

“Planning needs a shift in Australian thinking back towards people.”

That means governments at every level and also the private sector need to be asking what people actually want, not just selling to them – engaging more broadly.

Technology and social media both offer ways of tapping into this, and having a more bottom-up approach, he said.

There also needs to be a bi-partisan approach to long-term planning that ensures programs can be followed-through on. Vision is also needed, he said.

“At least Sydney has a vision.”

To change the ranking of our cities for the better in future, there needs to be better governance, more emphasis on green space, renewable energy and a focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Also more public transport, and more support for cycling.

The federal government’s smart cities policy and the state infrastructure plans are all “saying the right things”.

“But strategy is easy – implementing it is the hard thing. The challenge is getting rubber on the road.”

Mr Steele said the Sustainable Cities Index will be useful for government at all levels in terms of benchmarking, and also to learn from what other cities are doing.

There are rewards for taking action.

“The most sustainable cities will be the best ones to live in, work in, and do business in, and the economy [of those cities] will prosper,” he said.

Others that can gain value from the index and its findings are private sector decision-makers, industry bodies, planners, investors and developers. Arcadis is already using the research work to inform work with its clients, he said.

  • The full Sustainable Cities Index Report can be downloaded here

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