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Apr 1, 2015

ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index

The first ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index ranks 50 of the world’s leading cities on three demands: People, Planet and Profit.
Adapted from the 2015 ARCADIS Sustainability Cities Index Website (http://www.sustainablecitiesindex.com/).

Scope: 50 cities from 31 countries

First Released: January 2015

Intended Audience: Public and private decision-makers

Potential Application: Platform for public and private decision-makers, tool to take a closer look at the performance of cities through two major global initiatives: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2015) and the Habitat III conference (2016).

Developer: The Center for Economics and Business Research, ARCADIS

Website:  http://www.sustainablecitiesindex.com/

Description: The ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index (SCI) is a composite index of urban sustainable development. It uses data from reputable sources including the United Nations, World Bank, World Health Organization, and International Labor Organization.


Overview of Index Findings

“Love them or avoid them, we are now entering the Age of the City,” says John J.  Batten, the Global Cities Director for ARCADIS, an environmental and infrastructure consultancy based primarily in Amsterdam. With population growth and urban migration occurring at a faster rate than ever before, cities are becoming among the great forces of change upon the well-being of humans and  ecosystems alike. The first ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index looks at impacts cities have on people, the environment, and the economy and how these elements complement one another.

The report finds that cities are performing better in the categories of Profit and Planet, but they are failing to sufficiently meet the needs of their People (Figure 1). Well-established European cities come out on top of the overall rankings, while Asian cities show vast divergence, with some in the top ten and some other in the bottom five. No North American cities make it into the top ten, although they generally perform well in the Profit category. In the Middle East, discrepancy between Planet and Profit performance is stark.

Figure 1. Overall Ranking of the Sustainable Cities Index (Adapted and revised from the 2015 ARCADIS Sustainability Cities Index Report)

How is the SCI Calculated?

ARCADIS defines “sustainable cities” broadly, basing its assessment on an understanding of sustainable development that “[meets] current requirements without jeopardizing the potential for future generations of inhabitants.” The SCI’s findings  reflect various dimensions of cities and development, combining data from many other indices. The data comes from a range of reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the International Labor Organization.

The geographic scope of the assessment covers 50 cities from 31 countries. The ranking is divided into three sub-categories: People, Planet, and Profit, which correspond to the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainability, respectively (Figure 2). The three sub-categories then break into a total of 20 input indicators, comprising nine for the People; six for the Planet, and six for Profit. Each city’s performance within each category is measured relative to each of the other 49 cities. After every city is scored in all three sub-indices, the scores are combined and averaged to deliver an overall score.

Figure 2. Three Sub-Categories of the Sustainable Cities Index (Adapted and revised from the 2015 ARCADIS Sustainability Cities Index Report).

Results Summary

Seven of the top ten performers are located in Europe, with Frankfurt coming top overall, followed by London. Frankfurt’s high ranking is a result of its leading position in both the Planet and Profit sub-categories. London scores highly on both the People and Profit measures in part due to good health outcomes and excellent higher education facilities.

Among Asian countries, Seoul performs particularly well on the People sub-category, where good health and transport infrastructure place it seventh on the overall ranking. Hong Kong and Singapore also make it to the top ten on the list. On the other hand, the fastest growing cities on the Asian continent—Jakarta, Manila, Mumbai, Wuhan, and New Delhi—are ranked as the least sustainable cities. In addition to them, Middle Eastern cities—Doha, Jeddah, and Riyadh—as well as Moscow and Nairobi make up the bottom ten cities. While higher economic development alone does not guarantee greater sustainability, ARCADIS predicts that greater income may help these cities to improve their rankings.


The SCI report neglects to articulate the methodology or criteria for selecting the 50 cities. Although the report covers a wide range of aspects of cities, it is unclear how these aspects were assessed to narrow down to the 50 selected cities. General terms used in the report, such as “50 of the world’s most prominent cities,” should be followed by an explanation of how that prominence is defined. Furthermore, by embracing a broad definition for “sustainability,” the index reflects a variety of different dimensions that are too broad and subjective in defining what makes up a sustainable city.

One indicator that fails to capture this broad definition of sustainability is GDP per capita under the Profit sub-category. The indicator seems to provide a poor reflection of a city’s potential or friendly environment for business and, therefore, it may unfavorably affect developing cities. Instead of simply using current GDP as the measure of cities’ economic performance, taking a proximity-to-target approach or applying different weightings tied to GDP may be a more reasonable method.

Related to the analysis of “sustainability” in a broad sense, the research could delve deeper into the issue around the relationship between wealth and sustainability. The report suggests income as an important factor for determining cities’ rankings, yet acknowledges that “higher economic development does not guarantee greater sustainability.” It becomes crucial then that we explore whether other factors (e.g. equity and social development) have a significant impact on improving poorer cities’ rankings.

Lastly, additional clarity is needed to understand how SCI’s weighting methodology considers overlaps between sub-categories. Besides transport infrastructure (Figure 3) that is recognized as the only possible “double-count” factor, other indicators—such as green spaces, natural catastrophe exposure, air pollution, and drinking water and sanitation—also hold importance in multiple sub-categories.

Figure 3. Methodology and Data Sources of Indicators. (Adapted and revised from the 2015 ARCADIS Sustainability Cities Index Report)

Exclusive Features

Global Urbanization Challenges. Besides providing the overview of each city’s performance in sustainable development, the SCI examines distinct global phenomena that impose challenges on many different cities across the world. One example is the link between sustainability and development. According to ARCADIS, the growth or development is, in general, inversely related to the city’s sustainable development. For example, cities in the upper half of Figure 3 (i.e., high-growth cities) are relatively low-sustainability cities.

Moving Towards a More Sustainable City.  Finally, the SCI concludes the report with a set of suggestions for future progress of cities to become more sustainable. ARCADIS predicts that one of the most important turning points for creating sustainable cities would be the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), which will be held in Quito, Ecuador in 2016. ARCADIS also emphasizes the importance of balancing priorities between People, Planet, and Profit. The balance will support cities in their master planning and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy development in relation to sustainability. While planning for balance is ideal, this is one of the most difficult outcomes to achieve in measuring and managing sustainable cities.


Jeemin Rhim is a 2014 graduate of UC Berkeley where she studied Environmental Earth Science. She is currently a researcher at the Research Institute for Climate Change Response with a focus on urban research.

Jae Pyo Chun is a graduate student studying International Commerce at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. He is a researcher at the Research Institute for Climate Change Response with a focus on urban research.