By Renard Teipelke
Is there still a topic about ‘the urban’ which is left to be put into a new index!? Probably yes, but the key aspects have already been indexed abundantly. It is very likely the case that we do not need any more indices for the basic urban issues. Researchers as well as practitioners have become fed up with this abundance of different indices seemingly measuring every bit and piece of a city (see articles on this blog 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). However, this exhaustion should be addressed: Indices can be more than they often appear to be. And their role will increase in significance as the planning and management of the urban space becomes more professionalized.
This is not supposed to be an offense against the current work of local politicians and bureaucrats. It is rather an observation of local politics and city management gradually gaining more attention as regional and national decision makers realize that many challenges are going to be discussed, addressed, and dealt with on the lower levels of government; i.e., in the urban realm.
Alongside with decentralization and increased efforts in local capacity development (hopefully) comes a professionalization of how urban space is planned and managed, how infrastructure and services are provided, and how government and governance are enabled. In order to assess these elements, a set of indicators helps. This is the first step in putting an index to use: to measure its indicators. The important thing is that this measurement is not done as a cause in itself but with a clear objective in mind: developing the urban space in a proper way (many experts would frame this as some sort of “sustainable” urban development). The application of an index would require a variety of criteria a broad and/or representative stakeholder group would ideally agree upon in the first place (cf. indicator development at the Global City Indicators Facility; also see articles on this blog here).
The next step after measuring is usually to compare. However, this does not necessarily mean a comparison with other cities. It is exactly this misunderstanding, misuse, or misinterpretation of indices when they are assumed to support silly competition in city performance ranking. Much more relevant and useful is the comparison of measured indicators for a single place over time to track developments. This is the point where the third step comes into play: to monitor.
It has become clear during the past decade that not a single good governance, sustainable development, or climate change initiative for ‘better’ cities will succeed just because it applies the perfect recipe of doing things ‘just right’. Much more important is the tracking of progress. Having an index in place for measuring and comparing, the third step is to accompany the process whereby a city is trying to improve in its weak spots, while furthering its strengths and realizing its potentials. Newer approaches, such as open data systems and community-based monitoring, can furthermore act as an empowering governance instrument.
In conclusion, a useful index does not only come up with the qualitative and quantitative data to develop a precise profile of a city (measuring) and to see its current status in a historical (or, if useful, geographical/city-to-city) perspective (comparing). It is the relative, process-oriented nature of its indicators, which can support and point the way for a city’s development (monitoring). Eventually, I hope for this change in the perception of indices. If their strength in monitoring processes is better understood, they will advance the professionalization of urban planning and management, as well as strengthen urban governance. The reason for this is that such indices can help city managers and other stakeholders to analyze, discuss, and agree upon those aspects which they found most relevant to reach their urban development objectives. And then, it helps them in tracking the development in each aspect/activity area in order to not lose sight of the identified targets. These development objectives should be framed by a jointly developed urban vision (see article on this blog here). This would help to accompany the cold, harsh-sounding nature of an index with the embracing, story-telling nature of a vision.