Piecing together the world’s most sustainable city

Building a city that’s truly sustainable is a bit like assembling an enormous three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Building a city that’s truly sustainable is a bit like assembling an enormous three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. You can build as high or as wide as you like, but if you don’t get the pieces in the right place it won’t look right, it won’t feel right and, ultimately, it just won’t work.

This, for me, is what I think of when I look at any urban environment. Wherever you are in the world, the three critical pieces of the puzzle each city needs to carefully consider are People, Planet and Profit. That’s to say that away from the rhetoric and buzz-words we’re all so familiar with, first and foremost, a city must look to improve its residents’ quality of life, not destroy its natural habitat and be financially strong enough to withstand the effects of the topsy-turvy mystery that is the global economy.

Clearly, this is a whole lot easier said than done. If we could go back to the drawing board and build the world’s cities again brick-by-brick, the job would be a whole lot easier. Sadly, outside of areas like the Middle East and parts of Asia, this is an exceptionally difficult (if not impossible) thing to do. You can’t just go to an ancient and beautiful place like Istanbul or Rome, raze it to the ground and redevelop it to meet modern energy performance targets or accommodate commuting patterns. Nor, quite frankly, would you even want to.

A city is much more than just a place for people to live and do business. Cities are areas of emotional attachment, each with their own distinct personality, traditions and attraction factor. We, as the current tenants of this wonderful planet called Earth, have an absolute responsibility to preserve these charms and eccentricities for the next people on the lease by making our cities as sustainable as feasibly possible. But how exactly can we go about doing this in a world that’s changing faster than most of us can comprehend?

As with any puzzle, if you’re going to be successful you need to understand precisely where you are and what challenges lie ahead. That is exactly why we developed the Sustainable Cities Index. Taking 50 of the planet’s most prominent urban centers and looking at how viable they are as places to live, their impact on the world around them, their financial stability, and how these elements complement one another, we have created a remarkable picture.

The truth is all these brilliantly different cities – many of which I have been fortunate enough to visit – are in various stages of evolution, some being further along the sustainability journey than others. However, the one thing uniting them is that not one of them can be considered truly ‘sustainable’. In short, ancient or modern, large or small, no utopian city exists; rather, it is a difficult and heavily complex balancing act between the three pillars of sustainability – People, Planet and Profit.

That said, one other thing catches my attention when I look at the results. Right across the world, cities perform better on Planet and Profit factors than they do on People ones. That’s to say, environmental and economic progress seems to come at a cost to social factors such as quality of life, real estate prices and the all-important work-life balance. And, looking back at our jigsaw puzzle, if we don’t get this People piece in the right spot, the city’s picture just isn’t complete and it isn’t quite sustainable both for the people who live there and the businesses and institutions they support.

So, as our planet evolves and people continue to flock to its busy and imposing urban centers, we’re at something of a crossroads. Love them or loathe them, cities are the future of our civilization and we need to look after them in a more balanced and sustainable way. Cities can thrive as an economic engine and be the most stimulating and exciting place on Earth to live, but if that’s at the expense of the planet and its natural resources, it won’t remain that way for long – people will suffer and cities will wither. Today, is truly the Age of the City but let’s try and make tomorrow the Age of the Sustainable City.

John Batten

Global Director of Cities Ask me a question