Who Gets to Measure? The ISO, Arctic Cities, and Urban Sustainability

Authors: Emily Zhang*, George Washington University
Topics: Polar Regions, Urban Geography
Keywords: Urban sustainability, the Arctic, indicators, cities, ISO 37120
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 39
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Ever since the articulation of sustainable development from the Rio de Janeiro Conference on Environment and
Development in 1992, cities have come to bear an important role in environmental responsibility and inclusive growth. Related to this commitment is the rise in indicators which represent a means of assessing progress, identifying areas to be improved upon, while highlighting shortcomings. Thus, indicators are a tool used to promote the conception of a ‘sustainable’ city. However, their creation and use bring up questions related to what exactly they measure and who really benefits from them. There is also a gap with regard to how the indicators are presented and the reality of how they are made, who makes them, and most importantly, the implications of their use. Advocates of indicators assert that they promote objective data collection, allow for comparisons across cities, and eventually facilitate more effective policy making. A prominent example of such work is the ISO 37120 created by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), its respective members, and the World Council for City Data (WCCD). The purpose of this thesis is to unpack the knowledge production process embodied in the creation and use of indicators. What do urban sustainability indicators actually measure and whose interests do they promote? This study examines these questions with a case study of the ISO 37120, a global voluntary urban sustainability standard, and its application in the Arctic Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE) project, a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project.

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