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Measuring urban quality of life – can we do better?

Judy Baker's picture
Judy Baker
January 2014

'Almost 1 billion people currently live in slums, and this number is expected to grow by nearly 500 million by 2020 - if we're to ensure that no one is left behind in the future development agenda, we need to determine whether progress is really reaching these marginalised groups. And for that, we need appropriate indicators and data. In this blog series, experts put forward their key recommendations to improve the way we define and measure progress in the quality of life of the urban poor.'

One could come up with a very long list of the challenges facing urban residents in the developing world.  There are problems of congestion, pollution, inadequate or outdated infrastructure, lack of basic services to the poor, and sprawling slums. Climate change and disasters exacerbate the challenges.

When it comes to getting a handle on these challenges, the obvious place to start is with reliable data. Basic geo-referenced data on municipal revenue and spending, on the location and characteristics of slums, on a city’s housing stock, transport services, flood zones, and land prices are all essential for good urban planning and management. 

Yet in many developing-country cities, such basic information does not exist. It is astonishing to think that in 2014, during an era of massive information and ‘big data’, how limited basic information systems are at the city and intra-city level in many developing-country cities. 

Having reliable and timely data is critical for making informed decisions, for urban planning, for assessing trade-offs, for identifying priorities, for designing and implementing policies and programs, and for monitoring and evaluating progress over time.

There is much work to be done in helping cities develop sustainable systems to collect and maintain open data on a range of topics to be used by citizens, planners and policy-makers. New resources and initiatives will be required to take this forward. 

When thinking specifically about how to capture information on urban quality of life, there is a solid foundation to draw upon. Extensive experience with participatory slum-mapping through Slum Dwellers International and others, decades of experience in collecting and analysing household and other survey data, and newer advances in technology for spatial mapping, data capture and other techniques all make it very feasible to collect basic information in complex urban environments. 

On the measurement side, things become trickier. There are numerous debates around the topic of measuring poverty and living conditions related to the use of money-metric approaches given the multi-dimensional nature of urban poverty, where to set poverty lines, and how to account for the higher cost of living in urban areas in national-level poverty estimates. There are also many debates on the definition of ‘urban’, which affects any urban analysis including estimates of urban poverty. That being said, these are technical issues that can be resolved through additional research and sensitivity analysis. It would be preferable to see the debates shift from how to measure quality of life, to how to improve quality of life.  

In considering these challenges in the context of a post-2015 agreement, a few guiding principles for development practitioners come to mind:

Standardisation: if the global research and practitioner community could agree on a standard set of metrics for measuring urban quality of life, this could provide clear guidance for cities interested in so doing. The Global Cities Indicator Facility (GCIF) has made good progress on broad city indicators; it has a growing membership and could serve as a model.  A comprehensive  approach that captures household information on income, employment, assets, access to social and infrastructure services, mobility, risk, and tenure would comprise basic criteria to capture the many dimensions of urban quality of life. 

Investing in systematic data collection:  the generation of such data in a systematic way will require significant investments. That being said, the resources needed are arguably a small percentage of development assistance. A concerted effort through donors, non-governmental organisations, the research community, the private sector and municipal governments is needed to raise the bar on improving city-level information systems with benefits for all. 

Ensuring open access: open data can ensure transparency and accountability, and promote knowledge and research to foster innovation and development solutions. This can be done in ways to protect the confidentiality of households and communities, while advancing efforts to improve living conditions.

Promoting information-based planning: many cities in developing countries have limited capacity for planning. Demonstrating the benefits of information-based planning will ideally generate new demand for data. For those that have had the benefit of utilising good data for planning, analysis, and monitoring and evaluation, the evidence is clear. 

So, can we do better? Yes!

Judy Baker is the Urban Practice Leader and Lead Economist in the East Asia and Pacific Region at the World Bank working on a range of urban development issues at the regional and country level.  Prior to this she was Lead Economist at the World Bank Institute, and in the Sustainable Development Network focusing on issues of urban poverty, climate change and disaster risk in cities, innovations in service delivery, and impact evaluation.  Judy has worked at the World Bank since 1990 leading a wide range of lending operations and economic work across all regions, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.  She has authored 4 books, and numerous country studies, technical, and policy papers.  She has also been a guest lecturer at a number of universities in the U.S. and in developing countries.