The China Urban Sustainability Index (USI) 2013 builds upon the work carried out in USI 2011. USI 2013 has expanded and upgraded the indicators used in USI 2011. The analysis deploys 23 metrics, which cover four categories: economy, society, resources and environment.

We ranked 185 cities, of varying sizes and at different stages of development, by their level of sustainability from 2005 to 2011. To ensure data was available, as well as to reflect the full landscape of Chinese cities, our sample includes all levels of cities from municipalities directly under the central government, to county-level cities with populations ranging from 200,000 to 20 million.

Our study also benchmarks sample Chinese cities against advanced global cities. We studied the basic principles affecting the development of urban sustainability in order to identify closely-related features. Our aim is to understand how China’s sustainability drive is evolving, and to provide an international reference for Chinese cities during this process.

The indicator system serves as a quantifiable scoring tool to evaluate cities urban development. With this tool, Chinese cities can identify models for urban development both within China and abroad, based on their own stage of development. Depending on how they scored in each category and their overall score, Chinese cities can also identify their advantages and disadvantages, craft development strategies, and evaluate the potential impact and effectiveness of development policies.

Key findings of the research include the following:

1. Most of China’s cities have improved their level of sustainability in recent years, primarily in the social and environment sub-categories. This reflects both strong underlying progress driven by healthy economic growth and a renewed emphasis on delivering social and environmental benefits.

2. The top 10 cities with best overall sustainability performance are located mostly in the coastal or eastern regions. Cities in the east showed the strongest level of overall sustainability, followed by cities in central and western China. The same is true of city performance in the economic, social and environmental subcategories studied. From 2008 to 2011, the gap between western and central cities was somewhat widened, with central cities gradually catching up with eastern cities. Situated in geographic locations favorable to trade and investment opportunities, Eastern cities were early beneficiaries of China’s economic liberalization policies. However, since each city is at a different stage of economic development, the strongest economic performers are not necessarily those cities with the fastest improvement in sustainability.

3. In the long term, the sustainability of China’s cities is positively correlated to economic strength, population size, and density, FDI, and migration. However, our sample cities show there are clear turning points at which a city’s sustainability potentially slows down, or stalls. This becomes especially evident when a city with a population size of more than 4.5 million, population density of more than 8000 people per square kilometer, FDI of more than USD 3 billion, or with a more than 30% share of migrants. Most developed Chinese cities are positioned at such sustainability turning points: Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Tianjin, Chengdu, Nanjing, Shenyang, Wuhan and Chongqing.

4. The gap with global benchmark cities is closing slowly. Over the past few years, most Chinese cities are closing in on benchmark cities such as Tokyo, Seoul and London. But unlike the Chinese cities sampled, benchmark international cities are able to improve their levels of sustainability, whether or not they reach turning points in their development. Leading cities make better use of the economic advantages that high population density brings. They are able to deliver security, social stability and efficient allocation and utilization of resources at the same time. Many Chinese cities, especially those that have passed through the turning points, will have their potential for growth limited if they continue to follow existing models of development. A blind pursuit of economic growth, population expansion, and an increase in population density will prevent sustainable progress. Policy-makers in these cities must learn from leading international cities by seeking out new growth models. These include the construction of smart and low-carbon cities, a strategy that would strengthen the urban capacity of these cities. Policy-makers must also improve city planning, construction and management, in the hope that these cities will able to leapfrog development.

5. Bigger improvements in sustainability are possible for cities at earlier stages of economic development. Increases in productivity (GDP per capita), the rise in scale (population and density), and external factors such as FDI and migration demonstrate a much bigger impact on sustainability for cities at earlier stages of economic development, than when they are at a more mature stage of development.

6. Cities can determine their own future; their fate is not determined by GDP, population size or density. Cities can, at any time in their development, make improvements by leveraging inherent strengths, comparative natural advantage or policy instruments. No uniform laws were identified, from our sample of 185 cities, to interpret short-term changes in a city’s sustainability using only changes in macro variables.

7. When a city’s economy reaches a certain level of maturity, imbalance emerges between the economy and the social and environmental aspects. Some rich and large cities are developing at the cost of social and environmental deterioration. Population and economic size expansion cannot help them further without social and environmental sacrifice as they lack advanced city management capabilities.

8. During the transformation from small cities to large ones, small cities should better integrate with cluster cities. This would enable them to leverage the advantages of the cluster while contributing their strengths to the entire cluster.

Download The China Sustainability Index 2013 report here.