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Putting Sustainable Development Under a Microscope

Even in countries that have made a lot of progress, measuring sustainable development at the neighborhood level exposes the inequality within cities.
Water drips from a tap as people sit in a slum south of Cairo, Egypt.
Water drips from a tap as people sit in a slum south of Cairo, Egypt.Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

With the world’s population growing fast, and at least two-thirds of all people projected to live in urban areas by 2050, there’s more attention than ever on how to handle this growth in sustainable ways. Just two years ago, the United Nations adopted an ambitious set of 17 sustainable development goals with the intention of meeting them worldwide in just 15 years. But measuring and quantifying sustainable development has never been easy. And since it’s done at the national level, the numbers often fail to reflect the inequality found within each city.

So in a new paper, a group of researchers created a new index to measure progress at all scales, including at the neighborhood level. “It's by taking this microscope and getting closer to people's actual experience that you then see inequality,” says Luis Bettencourt, who studies urbanization at the Santa Fe Institute.