CLIMATE CRISIS | Monitoring urban sustainability in Berlin and London: reconsidering the role of data and indicators

UCL Urban Laboratory
6 min readSep 21, 2022

By Florian Koch, Professor for smart cities and urban development at HTW Berlin, University of Applied Sciences; Visiting Researcher, UCL Urban Laboratory, May — August 2022

“Data is the new oil”. This famous quote by British mathematician and entrepreneur Clive Humby from 2006 sounds nowadays almost absurd, as we are in the midst of a global climate emergency caused by the excessive use of oil. While the laudatory comparison between oil and data therefore is not very appropriate in 2022, the quote paradoxically highlights the value of data for our societies and cities in addressing the climate crisis.

The question of how to generate, use, analyse and communicate data is becoming increasingly important. Especially in Smart Cities strategies, different types of data such as sensor data, big data or citizen science data summarised as high frequency data are increasingly used in addition to traditional statistical data. Many cities have created urban data hubs (such as the London Datastore or the Urban Data Platform in Hamburg), which facilitate access to different type of urban data. Cities often legitimate this new handling of data as vital to improving the sustainability of a city.

Data on CO2-emissions, traffic flows, or land sealing processes is considered as an instrument to evaluate how sustainable a city actually is. The UN’s Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) providing a global framework for sustainability mentions the potential of data, monitoring systems and quantifiable indicators for implementing the SDGs. Cities all over the world increasingly use the SDGs as a framework for urban development and produce data-driven reports on how a city performs regarding the implementation of the SDGs. For example, various cities published so called Voluntary Local Reports (VLRs), which try to quantify the progress and/or failures regarding SDG implementation. The rationale behind this is to evaluate the sustainability efforts of a city and analyze the effectiveness of political strategies to support those.

Temporary art exhibition on climate change in Berlin-Oberschöneweide. Credit: Florian Koch, May 2021

While there is nothing wrong in attempting to define and measure the fuzzy concept of urban sustainability, I argue that a critical perspective on urban sustainability data is needed.

Recent research has highlighted already several strands of critical data science, which are helpful to analyse urban sustainability data: the need to consider the operation of power in data collection and analyses, the negative aspects of so called “algorithmic violence”, the lack of availability of adequate data especially on a disaggregated spatial level, and the issue of indicator selection.

My research visit to London this summer, during record-breaking temperatures for the UK hitting 40 degrees Celsius, provided the opportunity to investigate the city’s recent SDG monitoring reports from London in comparison with those of Berlin in order to highlight the importance of analysing indicator selection. The Greater London Authority GLA published in March 2021 the report ”London’s Progress towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals” and the accompanying “London SDGS Indicator Data set”. The London Sustainable Development Commission (LSDC) elaborated the report with the aim to assess London’s SDG performance and foster SDG implementation in the city. A few months later, in September 2021, the Senate Department for the Environment, Urban Mobility, Consumer Protection and Climate Action of Berlin published its SDG Indicator report and showed examples for SDG implementation in the German capital. The report’s aim is to gather knowledge and facts on how Berlin performs regarding SDG implementation.

The reports of both cities have a partly technical character, including long lists of tables and data. Main findings on specific indicators such as the development of income inequality, the state of water quality in rivers and lakes or on housing affordability are described in more detail. In total, the reports display data for 110 (London) and 40 (Berlin) indicators. Some of the indicators are similar in both cities, while others differ. This localisation and contextualisation of the global SDGs is necessary, as the targets and goals of the UN Agenda 2030 are very general and only partly fit to the urban challenges of London and Berlin. For example, London and Berlin face the challenge of increasing housing costs and gentrification tendencies. Those issues are only indirectly addressed in SDG 11 — Sustainable Cities and Communities of the UN Agenda 2030 — through the indicator “proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing”. The London Sustainable Development Commission adjusted the UN indicator and uses for London the indicators “Rough sleeping”, “proportion of non-decent homes” and the share of housing costs in household income, while Berlin uses the development of rent levels as a local indicator.

Both cities consider the reports and data on the indicators as important instruments in their endeavour to become more sustainable and to strive for “evidence-based” policy-making and more transparency. While the reports are a rich information source on current urban development patterns in London and Berlin, information on how the specific SDG indicators in London and Berlin were defined is only partly included in the reports. In London, the LSDC developed a tailored indicator set in cooperation with the GLA, ONS and Environment Agency using other cities’ SDG work, the previous Quality of Life reports and the available data in the London Data Store. In Berlin, the Statistical office and the Senate for the Environment determined the indicators.

Astonishingly, the choice of indicators is considered as a purely technical process, influenced by pragmatic aspects (eg which data is available?) and following previously used indicators and established data sources from the official statistical sources. However, if the reports on the SDG indicators should contribute to evidence-based sustainable policy-making, much more attention is needed to the process of defining indicators. It is this list of indicators which operationalises the SDGs and defines what sustainable development actually means in London and Berlin. In this context, it is important to note that the conceptualisation of indicators runs the risk of “smuggling a micro-theory into a number” (Pfeffer and Georgiadou 2019). For example, one indicator for SDG 11 in Berlin is the number of newly constructed housing units in the city. The Senate Department has selected this indicator, based on theoretical considerations about the impact of housing on sustainable development. Whether this is the correct indicator to measure sustainable development or if other aspects besides the pure number of new housing starts need to be considered (for example the share of social housing, share of low-carbon housing etc.) has not been discussed publicly. This might lead to less public trust in sustainability indicators and a general lack of understanding of cities’ sustainability goals. Therefore, cities should design the process of defining indicators in a more inclusive and dialogue-oriented way.

The question as to what indicators need to be fulfilled in order to achieve SDG implementation in a city, is highly political and potentially conflictive. For example, London’s indicator for SDG 15 — Life on Land states that the Green and Blue space coverage of London is 48% to 51% of the total land area. However, the LSDC does state whether this percentage is adequate or if the Green and Blue space coverage should increase (for example in order to cool down the city during heat waves and adapt to the climate crisis) or decrease (for example in order to designate areas for the construction of new infrastructure). Also, the socio-spatial distribution of the green and blue spaces is not considered in this indicator, but might be important from an environmental justice perspective.

A broader discussion on how to define local SDG indicators and on the data used in monitoring urban sustainability is therefore urgently needed. Even though data is not the new oil and its more positive potential impact on global environmental change perhaps less obvious, we need to critically analyse how data and especially indicator selection influences evidence-based politics for sustainable development and beyond.

Florian Koch is professor for smart cities and urban development at HTW Berlin, University of Applied Sciences. He is trained as is an urban planner and social scientist and leads the HTW research cluster for Sustainable Smart cities. In Summer 2022, he was visiting researcher at the UCL Urban Lab. In his research, he analyses digitalization, sustainable development and urban sharing practices. He has been involved in SDG localization processes in various German cities and published articles on topics such as How to support German cities in implementing the SDGs , “Smart Is Not Smart Enough!” Anticipating Critical Raw Material Use in Smart City Concepts and Sharing and Space‐Commoning Knowledge Through Urban Living Labs Across Different European Cities



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