Measuring city success

We’ve heard about the most livable cities, the best for raising a family, the most affordable for retirement, even the most bikeable (and let’s not forget the coolest). Indeed, amid a global turn to urban living, it has become ever more complex to pinpoint the factors most crucial to creating dynamic, innovative, and inclusive places. What makes a city succeed, and how do we know when it gets there?

One answer may be in how well it deals with shocks and stresses. To address that issue, Arup and the Rockefeller Foundation developed the City Resilience Index. Launched this spring, the first-of-its-kind Index allows cities, policymakers, and stakeholders to assess their capacity to address social, physical, and economic challenges, both long-term and event based. Brian Swett, Arup’s Director of Cities and Sustainable Real Estate in the Americas, spoke from the firm’s Boston office about how the Index can reshape the way we understand urban well-being.


Cities have long been judged by economic and demographic trends, such as population growth, employment data, and crime rates. What makes the City Resilience Index a better measure of success?

The Index makes transparent and explicit something that has implicitly been a definition of success for a city, which is how it responds to shocks and stresses. What are the attributes that allow a city to be robust and then bounce back quickly? Those are really important attributes, especially as cities are urbanizing and coming under greater stresses from population growth, climate change, disease, and terrorism. We now have a framework and a set of measures that guide you through where you stand — and where your opportunities are for improving your resilience profile.

Credit: Flickr user fortherock via Creative Commons by 2.0

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

Resilience turns out to have many different aspects: the Index’s 52 indicators include things like robust protective infrastructure, quality healthcare access, and education for all.

Yes, and resilience is an interesting lens, because a lot of the other lenses — like the most livable or the most energy-efficient city — are snapshots of particular issues. And typically those are attributes of a city during a normal or “up” time. Resilience is important because we know it’s not an if but a when for both man-made and natural hazards and stresses. A critical attribute of a city is how it responds for its citizens and its businesses and its stakeholders during those times. Even in terms of economic diversity or the role of stakeholders in civil society, we’re using a different lens to measure how they’re set up to deal with downtimes. We want to show that improving resilience doesn’t happen by luck or just by effective leadership in a time of crisis. There’s a lot that goes into creating a resilient city.


Credit: Arup

Resilience framework

We often talk about resilience in physical terms — a storm-surge barrier or redundant energy infrastructure — but the social dimensions of resilience haven’t been as well articulated. What does the Index reveal about the role of social infrastructure?

One thing the Index makes clear is the importance of community connectivity. Collectively, we’re more resilient than we are individually. For example, you could look at the responses of communities in the aftermath of terrible tragedies, such as the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. I think we saw in Charleston a phenomenally resilient community network. Church groups, the government, social organizations, and others in civil society had built a very strong, interconnected web. The shock of the shooting, which had been intended to create disarray and division, had the exact opposite effect. It brought that community more strongly together. From a resiliency respective, it was completely underappreciated how tightly knit that web had been. If you look at other cities, which may have more challenging resiliency metrics, a single incident can be a flash in a powder keg, with very negative follow-on consequences.

Improving resilience doesn’t happen by luck or just by effective leadership in a time of crisis.

Where do you see the next opportunities for the Index to make real-world impacts?

I think many planners and government officials have understood resiliency but haven’t had a framework to put meat on the bones, so to speak. The Index was designed to do just that. For example, as part of the recent National Disaster Resilience Competition, a request for qualifications from Shelby County, Tennessee, called for a regional resilience plan, in which they explicitly reference Arup and Rockefeller’s city resilience framework as a guide for assessing resilience challenges and opportunities. That’s the first time I had seen a regional government put this framework into practice in the US.

Another place where the rubber hits the road is in funding opportunities. Cities have major capital funding streams every year. When we’re rebuilding fire stations or police stations, or updating a library or building a new school, how are we thinking about opportunities to increase our resilience? There are many ways where the Index can help guide not just forward-looking planning efforts but existing capital investment programs.

If we’re going to have hundreds of millions of more people living in cities over the coming decades, this issue is only going to increase in importance. Cities that take advantage of the opportunity that population and economic growth provides have a chance to reshape how they do business. The Index couldn’t be released at a more opportune time to help direct the massive decisions cities have to make — how they can prioritize, how they can create new social, physical, and economic infrastructure, and how they can establish relationships with their citizens to define success for the next century.


Questions or comments for Jeff Byles or Brian Swett? Email or

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