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A Brief History of Indicators Part 2

Assessing Cities: Current Trends and Standard Approaches
Stephen Macekura

In my last post, I highlighted some of the history surrounding indicators and measurements. How do all these measurements help us understand what it means to thrive in today’s cities?

To begin to answer that question, we must first examine the evolution of city assessments. Until very recently, efforts at city and community-level assessment lagged behind the attention paid to country-level assessments. Today, however, many experts, reformers, and city leaders are measuring the health of their cities and tracking efforts to improve the conditions of urban dwellers. These efforts underway in cities mirror those occurring within the surging world of social progress indicators more generally.

As with national polities, the most prominent urban metrics remain the usual economic suspects, e.g., indicators measuring output, income level, employment rates, tax burden, and overall economic competitiveness. In the past few years, economists and other experts have also created more sophisticated instruments, e.g., the Global Economic Power Index, the Global City Competitiveness Index, the Global Cities Index, the Global Financial Centers Index, and the Global City GDP 2025 index to assess the economic vitality of cities.

The underlying concern of these new instruments, however, goes beyond simple economic health. They also carry with them a sense of social urgency. In an age of economic globalization, technological disruption, and high demographic mobility, city leaders and their attendant experts operate in a context of tremendous anxiety. They often feel as though they must adapt and compete in what appears to be a starkly Darwinian struggle to attract (and keep) talent, industry, and revenue, lest they suffer the consequences of relative impoverishment. Not surprisingly, the largest and most prominent of the world’s cities have become obsessed with competition, challenging one another on their relative globality in a form that Harvey Molotch calls, zero-sum urbanism.

Amid this considerable anxiety over the future of urban life, reformers now speak of the need for “smart cities” to improve urban life. “Smart city” evangelists argue that urban performance depends not only upon a city’s endowment of hard infrastructure—its physical capital, stock of buildings, roads, ports, factories, and the like—but also upon the availability and synergy between cutting-edge information technology and a highly educated and innovative class of residents who know how to use that technology to maximum effect.

With the increased desire for building “smarter” cities, we find a growing group of single-issue, domain-specific concerns and related indicators. Encapsulated in concepts such as the “creative class” or grouped under the heading of popular terms like “resilient” or “eco” cities, many urban experts yearn for metrics that encompass various facets of social life. So, alongside the dominant preoccupation with economic innovation and competitiveness, we see measurements that attempt to capture everything from access to essential social goods—such as transportation and affordable housing by the poorest and most disadvantaged residents—to the existence of environmentally friendly technologies, such as smart buildings and smart grids.

Beneath the optimistic rhetoric of smart cities, though, lurks a highly technocratic, managerial style of leadership. Smart cities seem to require a vanguard of technological experts that promise revolutionary change and ever-greater betterment through scientific knowledge, big data analysis, and digital technology. Concepts such as planning, coordination, and efficiency get treated as supreme values in service of top-down ordering. These approaches fit in a longer history of synoptic economic development strategies that leave little room to allow local citizens to express what they envision for their cities. Furthermore, such strategies tend to give priority to economic growth above all other considerations, and they often focus on sectors of local economies that prize technological and economic innovation. It is no surprise that major corporations from IBM to Bechtel to Sharp have all enthusiastically embraced and offered substantial financial support for smart city approaches.

In recent years, alongside the “smart” moniker, reformers now also advocate for urban livability. “Livability” attracts significant interest because it seems to offer a holistic, full-spectrum alternative to the more standard economic measures without resorting to the language of environmentalism i.e., green or sustainable communities, or the tech-driven hyperbole surrounding “smart” cities. Supporters of the “livability” concept point to a diverse assortment of issues including affordability, walkability, good shopping, attractive cityscapes, public safety, little or no congestion or pollution, easy access to the outdoors and other recreation, good schools, responsive municipal and emergency services, and the like. Livability offers the promise of spreading a more holistic conception of urban life. But it also risks requiring a long laundry list of single-issue indicators that do not offer a clear sense of which indicators deserve priority or how each indicator relates to or interacts with any other in the real world.

The abundance of indicators now speaks to anxieties about whether growth itself remains worthwhile and what a good society should look like otherwise. The indicator boom has offered a way to think about the place of growth as a central policy goal and allows us the chance to reflect on what kind of society we want. The new Thriving Cities Indicator Explorer offers one such method for reflecting critically and choosing indicators wisely.