For all the conveniences that cities have to offer -- from shorter commutes to neighborhood farmers markets -- many are failing to meet the challenges of sustainable development.
North America's largest cities fare poorly, with not a single one in the Top 20 of the second annual Sustainable Cities Index published by Arcadis, an Amsterdam-based global engineering and consulting company.
The index was produced in partnership with the London-based Centre for Economic and Business Research and covers 100 cities zig-zagging the globe, from Tokyo (45th overall), which houses a tenth of Japan's population at about 14 million, to 400,000-strong Canberra (18th). Zurich and Singapore are doing the best job on sustainable living, according to the index.
The full list was ranked according to 32 indicators split into three overarching categories: business conditions and economic health; the environment; and quality of life.
Only three cities ranked among the Top 20 for all three dimensions: Stockholm (3rd), Vienna (4th), and Amsterdam (11th). Zurich received high marks for its campaign to lower energy usage to a third of the national average and build a world-class public transit system, but was dinged for its high cost of living. The bottom third of the list is dominated by fast-growing mega-cities in developing nations, including six in China and five in India, including Kolkata -- a city heaving under 14 million people with many living in slums -- at the very bottom rung.
"The rate of urbanization in the developing world is quite extreme," said John Batten, Arcadis global cities director, "You look at China: buildings first, people second in terms of priorities of urbanization. Now you find cities in Asia that are sort of retroactively addressing air quality and water contamination."
Meanwhile North American cities, designed primarily for car use, are hampered by high greenhouse gas emission levels, Batten said. Other disadvantages included elevated obesity rates, as well as affordability and work-life balance concerns, especially in cities like San Francisco (39th overall).