Last week, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations Initiative, released its first index to rank U.S. cities on sustainability performance. In this report, Cleveland ranked 99th out of 100 cities. To say the least, this was a surprise. For instance, in previous studies we’ve been ranked in the top 1/3rd, we’re one of 61 communities STAR certified, and earlier this summer Cleveland was one of five large cities recognized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors for its leadership on climate action.
So what gives? Well, it turns out the methodology does. All city sustainability rankings, whether your city performs well or not, should be taken with a grain of salt, and this one is no different. Here are some key takeaways from an initial review of this report:
- The data is not current or local enough. Most of the data in this study comes from 2014 and earlier. The data used is also for Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA), and in some cases state-level data. None of the data is for Cleveland alone.
- The study does not consider support for local food. Cleveland is widely considered a national leader in local food, and most sustainability directors would probably tell you that local food action is key to measuring sustainability. Food was probably not considered because data at the MSA level is not good enough.
- Resource consumption is not a factor. In this index, wealthier cities with a service-based economy generally perform well while lower-income cities with manufacturing (e.g. many rust belt cities) are at the bottom. These differences should not be overwhelming factors in determining sustainability. For instance, resource consumption per person is generally larger in wealthier cities, but that is not factored in here. As the sustainability world works to focus more on equity, biases like these need to be addressed.
- The index is biased against cities that make things. Here’s an example of how that is manifested. The entire climate metric in this index is based on carbon emissions per capita, which is not representative of local climate performance (the U.N. often works at a national scale). This approach means manufacturing cities like Cleveland will generally perform worse than cities with service-based economies, i.e. those economies that consume the things we make. The way this index works, Cleveland would rise the ranks if its relatively efficient integrated steel mill shut down and an inefficient mill opened elsewhere. In other words, production is penalized, consumption is not. That’s unfortunate.
- The renewable energy metric is not local enough. For instance, it appears they haven’t incorporated actions like our municipal aggregation, where participating residents receive 50% renewable electricity, or Cleveland Public Power’s support for renewables.
- The clean water indicator does not incorporate access to sustainable sources of clean water. Cleveland has clean drinking water coming from one of the most sustainable freshwater sources in the world. How is it that U.S. cities located in deserts perform considerably better on the water metric than cities supported by the Great Lakes? Access to fresh water is one of the main reasons cities like Cleveland and Detroit are considered some of the most resilient U.S. cities to the impacts of climate change (along with our relatively mild climate and lack of natural disasters).
- The index’s entire basis for measuring sustainability “implementation” is broadband penetration. While access to high speed internet is important, it is not a reasonable proxy for how sustainability implementation in cities. The City of Cleveland is known nationally for its work not only in developing a Climate Action Plan but also measuring progress, supporting the community in taking action, and updating over time. In fact, we are currently in the process of updating our Climate Action Plan that was first developed in 2013.
With all that said, I know there are things highlighted in this report that we can learn from other cities. And I believe other cities can learn from Cleveland, and do. This is why we participate in several networks, including the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), that work together to solve sustainability challenges.
I know the authors have good intentions – they want to spur local action by calling attention to these important issues, which likely has happened in some cities. In Cleveland’s case however, I think the reverse could happen – stories like this can serve to deflate the momentum generated by thousands of Clevelanders working hard every day to create a sustainable economy.
When it comes to metrics and rankings, it’s critical for performance be tied to actions on the ground. STAR Communities was developed with that in mind. In 2014, Cleveland achieved a 3-STAR Community Certification. And due to progress since, we are hopeful that Cleveland will achieve 4 STARS when we re-certify next year.
Yes, we still have a lot of work to do to truly become a “green city on a blue lake”, and this report highlights many of those areas where we need to accelerate progress. But at the same time, it is by no means an accurate portrayal of where we are in 2017, and I thought it was important to correct the record.
I encourage everyone to join us at the 9th Annual Sustainable Cleveland Summit so we can work together in designing Cleveland’s sustainability future. In less than two years, the nation’s eyes will turn toward Cleveland as we mark the 50th anniversary of the infamous Cuyahoga River fire, and celebrate the culmination of Sustainable Cleveland 2019. Let’s work together now to accelerate the progress we’ve made, not necessarily to rise in sustainability rankings, but so we can tell our own story that we can be proud of.
Chief of Sustainability