A sustainable Edinburgh?

Gavin Corbett says Edinburgh has a long way to go to be a “sustainable” city.

I am flabbergasted at the reporting of a review of global sustainable cities today.

A consultancy called Arcadis has taken a sample of 100 cities from across the world and ranked them according to 3 criteria – people, planet and profit – which then it has called “sustainability”.

In the ranking Edinburgh comes 13th which then leads to the headline, “London and Edinburgh among the most sustainable cities in the world.”  This has, in turn, been repeated uncritically without looking at that what that actually means.

Thumb Gavin-at-City-Chambers-close-815x1024So what does it mean? The classic definition of sustainable development from the 1980s is that it is about meeting the needs of people (for food, shelter, warmth etc) within the carrying capacity of the planet (energy supplies, materials, pollution and waste and so on).  Those are the people and planet parts of the equation.

The classic definition of sustainability says nothing about it being a good place for private companies to make profit.  However, this is the third Arcadis criterion.

In other words the use of the term “sustainability” in today’s report is an utterly debased use of the term.

It matters because Edinburgh’s ranking of 13th depends heavily on its ranking for “profit” where it comes 6th. Its rankings for planet (22nd) and people (38th) are rather less flattering.

So, Edinburgh’s high “sustainability“ ranking is as a result of something that has nothing to do with sustainability at all.

Further, the scoring is a product of the sample chosen.  Is Edinburgh the 13th most sustainable city in the world?  Of course not.  Only 100 cities were chosen.  If Edinburgh were a city in the Netherlands it would not even be the 13th most sustainable city in the Netherlands. Or Denmark. Or Germany.

To be fair on Arcadis, at an event in Edinburgh today, the spokesperson for the company did not disguise the fact that Edinburgh is the worst city in the UK for “environment” and second worst for “people”.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Edinburgh.  I desperately want it to be THE leading city in the world for sustainability: to have transport systems which match those of Utrecht; to have an energy company which is as ambitious as Munich’s; to have food policy as progressive as in Copenhagen; to prioritise affordable housing, to reduce wealth gaps; to treasure green space; and to give children from disadvantaged backgrounds a real step up.

But I don’t think that cause is well-served by half-baked reports with misleading headlines. If Edinburgh is truly to be a sustainable city by 2050 it has a long way to go to catch up with the best of its competitors.