Building a Holistic Measure of Urban Sustainability

Welcome to Li Shen, the latest addition to our Affiliated Researcher Program. Li is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Saskatchewan. Using an innovative combination of GIS techniques, statistical analysis and survey data she is creating a holistic framework for evaluating urban sustainability. The primary focus of her PhD research is the city of Saskatoon. She is particularly interested in the links that exist between objective measurements of urban sprawl and residents subjective perception of changes in their quality of life.

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My academic background is in environmental sciences, remote sensing (RS), and Geographic Information System(GIS). I’ve applied these approaches in oceanography to study things like harmful algal blooms and sea surface temperatures. The results where exciting.

In the first year of my PhD program, I did similar research on grassland ecology. Again the combination of satellite imagery and spatial analysis produced unexpected conclusions.

But at heart I’m more interested in human geography and social science, especially cities. So I began to wonder, can I transfer these same methodologies to urban studies? It’s that question that led me to my current research on the links between urban form and quality of life.

Over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities and the number is growing. As a result urban sustainability has gained increasing attention from administrators, urban planners, and scientific communities throughout the world. Increasing urbanization problems including population growth, urban sprawl, land use change, and environmental degradation have markedly impacted urban residents’ quality of life and threatened the goal of urban sustainability.

The widely accepted interpretation of urban sustainability emphasizes the balanced development of three primary domains: the economy, society and the environment. But how can we assess the status of urban sustainability? The answer is urban sustainability indicators (USI). USIs have been designed to quantitatively monitor and evaluate urban sustainability. USIs based on census data have been widely used to assess urban sustainability .

But there are problems with existing evaluation models. Most show only a weak integration of indicators addressing objective (economy, society, and environment) and subjective (peoples’ perspectives and feelings) variables into one system. In general these models only take into account objective easily extracted measures of urban development (e.g., environment conditions, land use change, etc.). People, and their lived experiences, are completely left out. In reality, urban residents are central participants in urban development; they can greatly affect and be affected by the course of urban sustainability.

For a complete picture of urban sustainability, residents’ perspectives need to be incorporated into the evaluation systems that we use.

Current approaches to USIs also suffer from a lack of investigation into the links that exist between different domains of urban sustainability. Moreover, little attention has been paid to the spatial and temporal dynamics of urban development due to the poor exploration of geospatial techniques (RS and GIS) in analyzing urbanization problems, deriving urban biophysical variables, and modeling urban quality of life.

To overcome these limitations, the goal of my research is to try to create an integrated multi-indicator model for monitoring and evaluating urban sustainability that combines census data and geomatic approaches. Saskatoon will be my case study area. As one of the fastest growing cities in Canada, Saskatoon is committed to developing sustainable neighborhoods and communities for its future urban plan. To begin, I am developing a USI framework that will incorporate both subjective and objective information. The objective information will be extracted from census data and satellite imagery while the subjective information will be collected from surveys conducted among residents. With data from such a holistic set of indicators I hope to be able to make clearer the linkages of the different domains of urban sustainability and show how spatial development patterns impact the quality of life of urban residents.

Stay tuned for more updates on this research.



About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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One Response to Building a Holistic Measure of Urban Sustainability

  1. Pingback: CAAC Commission on Sustainable Urban Development « Toneta Project

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