Comparing Cities’ Performance: A Global Breakthrough

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This is a guest post by Neal Peirce.

Global-Cities-CPGetty Images

How to compare the performance of cities across the world?  What’s the particulate matter in a city’s air?  Debt service as a percent of a city’s own revenue?  Green area per 100,000 population?  Number of firefighters by the same per 100,000 gauge?

Now, for the first time ever, a clear, internationally agreed on set of indicators has been announced.  And it has the seal of approval of the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization — “ISO” –the globally recognized arbiter of standards in every area from electrical engineering to financial management.

The story of how the ISO standard was put together over several years, the effort spearheaded by Patricia McCarney of the University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicators Facility, was reported in an article on the new Citiscope.org website.

The genesis of the effort was a challenge by World Bank officials in 2008.  Nine pilot cities, including Bogota, Toronto, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte put together an initial list of some 115 indicators.  But through a series of technical committee meetings around the world, the proposed indicators were examined and revised repeatedly for quality and relevance.  The list was finally winnowed down to 46 validated by the ISO as its official “ISO 37120″ standard and announced last spring.

The new open standards are for cities to learn and compare — but will also place pressure on them to perform well.  Friends, political opponents, the media will all be checking.  What’s the share of the city population that lives in slums– especially in comparison to similar cities, at home or abroad?  Energy consumption of public buildings per year?  Percentage of a city’s solid waste that is recycled?  Annual number of public transportation trips per capita?  Green acres per 100,000 population?

Supporters also claim the ISO will be a significant game changer, encouraging higher levels of city service delivery.   The verified data could improve cities’ credit and bond ratings, appealing to investment decision-makers.  Cities with strong ratings may also be strengthened in appealing for national government assistance and tax sharing.

Cities won’t be obliged to share their data and join the system.  But they may well find themselves under pressure from citizen, business, academic and the media insisting they use the ISO standards so that their performance can be benchmarked clearly against peer cities, both in-country and — in today’s increasingly globalized economy — across the globe.

“It’s a potential game changer for world cities and everyone who works for cities, for journalists evaluating city performance, for the World Bank in determining grants and more,” notes Dan Hoornweg, former World Bank official, now a professor at the University of Toronto and an early proponent of world city standard setting.

A new “World Council on City Data” has been formed to verify data cities submit and guide the process.  The council’s member cities include London, Rotterdam, Shanghai, Dubai, Chicago, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and others.

But there’s little doubt: not every city, not every urban expert, will agree on the indicators and processes.  But discussion is welcome.

Next week (November 11), in a webinar jointly sponsored by Citiscope and Meeting of the Minds, there’ll be an opportunity to hear more about the new ISO and its processes from key city players, plus a chance to debate its methods.  Speakers will include McCarney as well as Alvaro Lima (Boston Redevelopment Authority), Andrew Collinge (Greater London Authority, and Maria Belen Perez Chada (city of Buenos Aires).  For details and the event password, check this website: http://cityminded.org/cal/new-urban-indicators-city-services-quality-life/.

Neal-Peirce-CSAbout the Author: Neal Peirce is the editor-in-chief of Citiscope