How Do We Measure Thriving?

How are we to assess the health of our cities? By what metrics and indicators can we measure both the object and subjective dimensions of urban life that would count as well-being? On what basis would we be able to evaluate genuine progress? How, in short, would we know if our cities, and the people and places that constitute them, are thriving? Such questions rest, in turn, on more fundamental, and more challenging once: what is the nature of thriving? And, can such a thing as the thriving of a city even be measured? These are the important and timely questions Thriving Cities seeks to help us wrestle with and answer.

More immediately and concretely, however, Thriving Cities also seeks to provide tools for community residents, leaders, and practitioners assess, understand, and ultimately improve our neighborhoods and cities. One such tool is our Indicator Explorer - click below to access.

You Can’t Simply Measure Thriving

This means two things: first, measuring thriving isn’t simple. Getting the right data at the right scales and then understanding the data adequately in context is a difficult job and one that practitioners have little time or the necessary expertise for. Too often conventional urban assessment methods reinforce silos by amplifying easily obtained data at the expense of deeper connections and commitments.

Where many existing “dashboard” approaches focus on “the trees,” Thriving Cities looks at “the forest.” In fact, its aspires to see entire ecosystems constituted by six key realms of community life—areas such as design and aesthetics, the natural environment or the economic sphere—that together shape our common civic destiny and define the potential for genuine urban thriving. By studying cities as ecosystems rather than disparate array of overlapping interests, Thriving Cities looks to uncover previously hidden connections, thus integrating marginalized groups and uniting previously isolated communities.

Second, measurement by itself isn’t enough. You can’t stop with measurement. We see the trend toward measurement as an essential, but still partial determinate of thriving. You can have the best data and the most sophisticated ways to measure and track outcomes, but still lack the necessary public engagement, civic skill, and political will to employ it. No amount of data can replace the role of a knowledgeable, empowered, and commitment citizenry.

The deeper, and more difficult, challenge is to understand the limits and proper uses of measurement in the first place. What is needed today is a coherent framework for discerning among the proliferating lists of metrics and indicators and for putting them into a context for wise civic action. Thriving Cities exists to meet this need.