Sustainability is a complex concept at the level of a product or company, and is inordinately more so at the level of a city or municipality. Nevertheless, a wide range of efforts have emerged that attempt to measure and rate cities on their levels of sustainability. Such city sustainability indexes (CSIs) can be used to assess specific areas of concern like air quality, transportation, poverty, and energy consumption, and can be used to inspire a sense of competition amongst cities. Such universal measures, however, may obscure the issues that are important to local stakeholders and may have limited usefulness to city policymakers.
This study, an honors thesis written by Marcus Carson, aims to explore the relationship between the measurements created by CSIs and the complex economic, social, environmental, and political circumstances found in cities. It is focused on determining if CSIs affect the sustainability-oriented policies that are adopted in cities. The project involved developing a framework for analyzing CSIs, interviewing decisions-makers in several US cities about their impressions of CSIs, and performing a statistical regression analysis to document the relationship between one particular CSI (SustainLane’s US City Rankings) and sustainability-oriented policies in cities. The study concludes that city sustainability indexes do not and are unable, in their current forms, to affect policy-making in cities because they are not consistently implemented and do not adequately measure the concept of sustainability in the context of the complexities of the modern American city.