Creating a framework to define a successful city

Urbanisation is a global phenomenon and it is rapidly changing the world. Academic researchers, city governments and the corporations need to understand the implications urbanization will have on people’s habits, needs and everyday lives.

City rankings are a useful tool to gain insight into what trends drive urbanisation. However, the process of measuring cities is subject to comparability challenges and application of city indicators. Inevitably, any attempt to rank cities will suffer from the limitations in its approach.

Be it city size, clusters, workforce education or any other factor, establishing a framework for what represents a successful city is a useful guide for making the subjective choices necessary when producing a city ranking. A sound framework guides the selection of indicators, the decision on indicators’ weights, preferences for data transformation and even the criteria to determine what a successful city is.

Creating your framework

Chosen indicators may measure city success, but data standardisation is an important component to ensure city evaluations make sense. First, the emphasis should be put on exceptionally well or poorly performing cities, as small differences in indicator value may simply be a measurement error. Second, when comparing cities from different countries, the context of specific countries should be taken into account – sometimes extreme city growth is a result of country-level developments.

Indicators chosen can tell a great deal about trends happening within a city. Indicators could focus on anything from city services to quality of life measures – the specific choice of indicators should depend on your definition of successful cities.

We propose the following framework to grasp the key characteristics to define what makes a successful city. Based on the framework proposed, we also suggest some indicators to measure city success.

Impact of Population

Cities are attracting people due to their offer of education, jobs, and shelter. This trend is called Urbanisation which is probably one of the most cited social phenomena in modern times.

Job and population density eventually create a snowball effect in driving city growth. Densely clustered business activities tend to foster innovation and productivity, which in turns boosts wages and attracts even more people. Therefore, population and job growth are two of the critical indicators that highlight the success of the city.

Housing prices and commuting times

Population and job growth simultaneously cause two primary challenges. One challenge is the lack of affordable housing. As a city’s population density rises, the land becomes one of the first scarce resources. At times, land scarcity is exacerbated by natural constraints (for example cities nearby deserts or surrounded by sea or mountains).

The other challenge is a rise in citizens’ commuting time. When housing costs increase, the city usually starts to sprawl into areas where housing is more affordable. However, as jobs remain densely concentrated in the central regions, urban sprawl results in increasing commuting times, traffic congestion and costly transportation options.

To account for how transportation and housing are managed in the city, consumer expenditure on housing and transport can be two other critical indicators when evaluating the success of a city.

Environmental concerns

The environment is another key indicator to use in your framework for defining city success. If the city benefits in terms of wage premium continue to outweigh the extra costs incurred due to rising housing prices or increasing length of commuting times, the city continues to grow.

Growing concentration of population results is another challenge, namely managing the environmental quality of a city area. Sewerage systems, waste removal and overall air quality, are some of the ecological challenges facing any city. If the environment is not managed properly, it can rapidly degrade the quality of living in a city and, in turn, slow down its growth rate.

With cities becoming more and more complex, our understanding of them and how they operate must improve. With no two cities being alike, however, challenges arise. Through the use of population, housing and commuting times and environmental indicators researchers, city governments and the corporations can create a transparent picture when looking for city success.

If you want to learn more about the framework we discussed above, please download our strategy briefing.