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The Metric

Oct 21, 2015

Measuring Urban Sustainability in Seoul, South Korea

Exploring urban sustainability data and metrics in Seoul, South Korea. What can data tell us about building greener cities? What sustainability indicators can be compared city-to-city?
From New York to Singapore to Seoul, cities are shaping the future of sustainability, tackling global problems at the urban scale.

The Seoul subway has 18 train lines and over 500 stops that every day move 10 million South Koreans from point A to B (or 8호선 to 5호선). The Seoul metro region is home to over 25 million people, which is half of the country’s population, making it the world’s third largest. Greater Seoul’s economy is the fourth largest in the world -- after Tokyo, New York City, and Los Angeles -- beating European stalwarts and China’s megacities. Seoul also ranks #1 in the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index and is among the top cities evaluated in the Global Power City Index (#6), Ericsson's Networked Society City Index (#13), and Siemen’s Green City Index (above average).

There are many ways to measure how this Asian Tiger rose to the top of the charts, and our team at the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is studying the environmental impacts associated with such a massive urban footprint. On October 12, the EPI team convened with urban scholars and students at The Research Center for Climate Change Response (RICCR), based at Seoul National University, to discuss sustainability in growing, dynamic cities. Under the auspices of the EPI Guiding Stars initiative, the conference’s agenda had urban experts explore new data and metrics for urban sustainability. Here are highlights from the presentations and proceedings.

Down-scaling the EPI to the urban scale.

The EPI team presented research that applied the EPI framework to analyze urban sustainability indicators and frameworks. Building from the work of Penn Institute for Urban Design and Partnership for Sustainable Communities, we have created a database of U.S. and international indicators, comparing the strengths and weaknesses of different metrics and approaches. As part of this project, we assess target types (i.e., not specific, directional, specific) and the scientific rigor used to establish performance measures. Developing a core set of universal urban sustainability indicators would be a key component of effective strategies for implementing the Urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG #11).

The Heart and Seoul of urban sustainability.

The Seoul Plan 2030 for sustainable development, presented by Chang-Woo Lee, a Senior Research Fellow at The Seoul Institute, includes 30 indicators to track and measure implementation. The plan has three main strategies on environment, society and culture, and economy. Notable goals include limiting reliance on nuclear power, addressing energy consumption in the building sector, and increasing female economic activity and decision-making. Lee notes that Seoul city officials are now thinking about how their evaluation model can meet reporting requirements for the Urban Sustainable Development Goal.

Putting energy smart-meter data to use.

Future City Lab’s Clayton Miller spoke about energy use and building stock in different countries. Floor area, he explained, in Chinese commercial and urban residential buildings has more than doubled since the year 2000, a trend that is predicted to continue. Since it is easier (and cheaper) to build energy-efficiency into new buildings than it is to retrofit old ones, there is an opportunity to avoid emissions from wasteful energy use. To do so, we need better data for planning. Fortunately, Miller notes, new sources of building performance data, such smart meters, produce 1 billion data points each day. Accessing data for Miller’s research, however, is still a challenge, because most buildings are privately owned. As a result, he mostly works with university data to analyze energy use patterns in order to build better, more efficient buildings.

(Images: Ongoing research by Clayton Miller, Future Cities Lab. Top: Building Performance Analysis; Bottom: Portfolio and Smart Grid Analysis.)

Foreseeing the future of city data and monitoring.

Adam Rysanek, also with Future Cities Lab, emphasized the importance of analyzing the input data that goes into a tool like the EPI. Analyzing and visualizing data can help with policy evaluation and is often cost-effective when information is available to independent groups who produce their own analyses. To demonstrate this point, Rysanek showed a video (see below) from colleagues at Future Cities Lab that demos modeled data of transport patterns in Singapore. The visualization intends to build our understanding of how people move around the island state.  This knowledge would then lead to improved transport nodes and design.

VIDEO: Mobility and Transportation Planning, Future Cities Lab (


The conference underscored data’s fast changing and increasingly prominent role in urban policy-making. The global EPI is constantly evolving to include new and alternative information, like satellite and crowd-sourced data as our ability to measure and track environmental performance becomes more sophisticated. Rysanek points out that it is only a matter of time before the next generation of 14 and 16 year olds are capturing and visualizing sustainability data in ways we cannot imagine now. An urban future worth looking forward to.