“I think data is power — but, more importantly, data is latent power. To actually unlock it is a tricky exercise.” These comments, from UN Habitat’s Robert Kehew, helped kick off the launch of the Urban Environment and Social Inclusion Index (UESI) on December 6 in Katowice, Poland, alongside the latest climate negotiations .
The Index, a first-of-its-kind research project, harnesses a range of environmental and socioeconomic data, to understand cities’ performance on urban sustainability and social equity. By leveraging high-resolution, large-scale data, it tracks neighborhood-level results, and reveals cities’ progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 11, a global effort to make urban settlements “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” by 2030.
Its launch, hosted in collaboration with the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, drew civil society leaders, government officials, researchers, and technologists, to discuss how tools unlocking geospatial and high-resolution data can inform decision-making processes on the ground.
Harnessing synergies between urban sustainability and social inclusion
Opening remarks from Dr. Angel Hsu, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College, and Kim Samuel, Founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, explored the synergies between urban sustainability and social inclusion. Kim Samuel, speaking through a video recording, described how programs that strengthen social ties save lives during heat waves and extreme weather events, helping combat the risks of climate change. Similarly, environmental interventions like parks and public transit enable residents to build these social ties, with enormous benefits for their overall well-being.
Dr. Hsu dove into the ways the UESI quantifies these links between social inclusion and the environment. The UESI’s online portal makes it possible to explore neighborhood-by-neighborhood measures of air pollution exposure, public transit access, green space, and urban heat, across more than 30 cities worldwide. Policymakers and residents can trace how exposure to air pollution changes across different parts of Amsterdam, for instance, or investigate whether high levels of tree cover coincide with lower levels of urban heat in Los Angeles.
The UESI report also determines how equally or unequally environmental benefits and burdens are distributed across city neighborhoods with different average incomes. The report captures trends in cities’ overall environmental performance: urban areas have made promising progress in providing public transit access and tree cover, for instance, while air pollution remains a persistent problem, and wastewater management and climate policy responses vary widely.
How can data shape environmental policies for greater impact?
After exploring the UESI’s findings, the conversation turned to how cities could utilize them. A panel of city makers from Singapore, Buenos Aires, and Paris, and addressing climate change across Mexico, the Brazilian State of São Paulo, and through UN Habitat, reacted to the UESI’s results, and its implications on their work to foster urban sustainability.
Their remarks covered the challenges of obtaining good data. Dr. Claudia Octaviano, the force behind an award-winning use of big data to uncover traffic and social mobility patterns in Mexico City, described how high financial costs can slow data mining and analysis, preventing similarly innovative analyses. Yann Francoise, who heads climate – energy and circular economy strategies for the City of Paris, underlined the need to overcome the high costs of data in order to unlock its potential to tackle urban inequality.
Other speakers, including Singapore’s Ong Tze Haung, outlined the considerations that follow data collection: determining how data should be used to validate insights, flag trends for more exploration, or trigger investigations into previously unnoticed linkages. Panelists from São Paulo and Buenos Aires shared their experiences developing local and regional environmental data repositories and indices, noting the importance of fine-grained data in enabling policy interventions and fostering public engagement. Mzukisi Gwata, Johannesburg’s Principal Specialist in Climate Change Adaptation, described the ways that “the gap between the rich and the poor in Johannesburg is very spatially defined,” and how this disparity influences policy interventions.
Expanding the boundaries of urban research
After hearing from cities, the conservation turned to the perspectives of researchers and analysts. Dr. Maarten Kappelle, from UN Environment, shared the Global Environment Outlook’s findings on the big-picture trends facing cities in the next half-century, and noted the need for data that captures life within informal settlements, a persistent data gap across cities worldwide.
Dr. Yang Li shared key findings from the Innovative Green Development Program’s China Low-Carbon and Green Index for Cities (LOGIC). Like Dr. Kappelle, she flagged the growing impact of cities on environmental performance – the 115 cities included in LOGIC account for 74% of China’s GDP, nearly 60% of its energy consumption, and just over half of its total population.
Dr. Nancy Harris, Research Manager of Global Forest Watch, echoed this point in her remarks, describing the ways urbanization reaches beyond city boundaries, to help drive deforestation — and how cities are working to combat this trend, and integrate both nearby and distant forests into urban plans. Eva Gladek, Founder and CEO of Metabolic, also captured the ways cities influence actions far outside their physical boundaries, describing the vital need to bolster the circular economy, and the lessons from early efforts to foster circular strategies in Amsterdam and Charlotte, North Carolina.
After the launch, guests dove further into these and other projects, during a reception and poster presentation event featuring research from PhD Candidates at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and University of Michigan, and research organizations and networks including Cooling Singapore, IGI3S/World Meteorological Organization, Metabolic, and Origins.Earth.
All of the data informing the UESI are available through the online portal, and over the next six months, Data-Driven Yale will be providing a roadmap for city managers to adapt and localize this data for their specific contexts. Cities not included in the pilot round will also have an opportunity to discuss how they can be included or how to adapt the portal’s tools for their own use.
To learn more about adding your city to the Index, please get in touch with Data-Driven Yale.
To view a webinar introducing the UESI’s key findings and online portal, view the video below:
Photos by Zhi Yi Yeo and Zac Yeow; GIF created by Jane Jia Weng.