Developing an Arctic Urban Sustainability Index to Promote and Measure Reform Progress

Robert Orttung

The Arctic regions are experiencing an unprecedented rate of climatic and environmental change. These changes are creating greater opportunities to exploit oil, natural gas, and mineral resources, while extracting these resources will require labor migration into the Arctic. These effects are exacerbated in urban centers, areas of economic activities where resource and infrastructure development are concentrated and where most of the Arctic population lives.

Promoting urban sustainability in the Arctic is critical because the fragility of the environment, economy, and population makes mistakes more costly and likely to have a lasting impact than they would in more resilient parts of the planet. Policy makers and corporations focused on maximizing profit margins are not paying sufficient attention to such sustainability concerns meaning that the continuation of current practices could do irreparable damage to the Arctic environment.

To minimize negative human impacts on the fragile Arctic environment, it is necessary to promote greater urban sustainability in the region. Such an effort should be part of the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council from May 2015 to May 2017.

Promoting Arctic urban sustainability will require tools to measure progress, identify areas of most urgent needs, select best practices, examine opportunity costs, and determine where external actors can have the greatest impact. One useful way to achieve such goals would be through an Arctic Urban Sustainability Index, which will make it possible to assess the consequences of human activities in the region across a number of important dimensions.

Such an Arctic Urban Sustainability Index could be used to measure sustainability outcomes and progress toward achieving those outcomes in a wide variety of Arctic cities. Measuring sustainability requires addressing a highly complex and interconnected set of systems with a large number of important individual factors to assess. For example, among the crucial factors that need attention are: the shorter operational season for ice roads and thawing permafrost, which undermines buildings and pipelines; the boom-bust economic cycle, which makes it difficult for city planners to provide sustainable housing and social services; and an influx of workers, including Central Asian migrants coming to Russia and Filipinos moving to Canada, who do not always integrate easily with the existing population and whose arrival sometimes stokes ethnic and religious tensions in the destination cities.

Measuring sustainability efforts across the full range of scales (from individual households to national governments) and mechanisms (energy use, transportation, food security, climatic resilience, and environmental impact) will trigger efforts to improve urban planning. To address the full complexity of the problem, the project must be multi-disciplinary in nature, incorporating the analytical tools of geography, climatology, architecture, design, sociology, and political science. Such an Index will benefit from studying best practices in other efforts to promote urban sustainability, particularly in areas with extreme climate conditions, such as the Persian Gulf and the American desert.

Conventional definitions for sustainable cities focus on using resources in a way that does not impinge on future generations. There are numerous examples of sustainability indexes produced by a variety of groups. Among them are the European Union, Sustainlane, and the Siemens Green City Index. In reviewing many of the existing indexes, Texas A&M Professor Kent E. Portney argues that they tend to mix policy measures with outcome measures. He notes that there still is not enough empirical data to state with confidence how much specific actions, policies or programs influence objective measures of sustainability. Nevertheless, cities that “take sustainability seriously” in terms of the policies they adopt are presumably making progress toward greater sustainability in measurable ways.

In order to avoid mixing outcome measures with policy-formation measures, the Arctic Sustainability Index will include two components: outcome measures and policy measures that are designed to produce these outcomes. The outcome measures break the concept of sustainability down into three modules: 1) economic, 2) social, 3) and environmental. The policy measures can focus on political and planning institutions designed to achieve these results.

To take just one of example of what the Index will ultimately contribute, we can examine the economic sphere. Here the central concern is that the city needs to be a place where individuals can find work and where corporations can both produce goods and sell them effectively. For Arctic cities today, the key driver of development is natural resource exploration. A defining problem for many Arctic cities is that they are monotowns: cities that are dependent on one factory for the vast majority of their jobs and tax revenue. In Russia, these towns have been a source of concern since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Following earlier efforts to reduce the population of these towns, more current Russian thinking is that they can survive without diversification since the state provides subsidies to support industries and their related jobs. The Kremlin’s goal is to alleviate economic pain and prevent social unrest. Such city-defining factories often provide municipal services that one would often expect from local government. The downside is, however, that such subsidies support inefficient industry. In fact, one analysis found that monotown enterprise output is up to 70 percent less efficient than its more diversified peers. Providing such subsidies is expensive for the national government.

To increase sustainability, it will be necessary to increase performance across five key indicators. First is the level of access or remoteness of the city, particularly its connection to transportation infrastructure. Second, is the well-being of the population, particularly the level of income for residents, unemployment rates, the potential for layoffs in factories, and level of state subsidies required to keep local factories operating. Third is infrastructure vulnerability, measured in terms of the possibility of collapse as a result of permafrost thawing. A fourth measure examines intellectual capital, defined in terms of the presence of local institutions of higher learning and training facilities. A fifth and final measure is the availability of labor. Currently, government statistical agencies provide this kind of data, but do not usually do so in a manner that facilitates measuring sustainability.Ultimately, producing an Arctic Urban Sustainability Index will help guide policymakers in the best ways to improve the lives of Arctic citizens and minimize deleterious impacts on the environment in urban areas.

Ultimately, producing an Arctic Urban Sustainability Index will help guide policymakers in the best ways to improve the lives of Arctic citizens and minimize deleterious impacts on the environment in urban areas.

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