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visionary cities

"The world would be a different place if instead of competing to have the highest per capita GDP, nations competed to have the highest per capita stocks of wealth with the lowest throughout, or the lowest infant mortality, or the greatest political freedom..." 


As some of the most complex systems in existence globally, cities and urban areas have been at the forefront of recent research in the emerging discipline of Complex Systems Analysis. This area of research, which focuses on mapping and modelling the sources, sinks and flows within a system, has observed the importance of defining its purpose or goal. Goals act as rudders, directing the system in a particular direction through positive and negative feedback loops.

A system with an overall goal which is well defined and is measurable is likely to produce that goal, but a system which is guided by a purpose which is poorly defined or for which outcomes are measured inaccurately can produce results wildly different from those intended. Goals which are effort-based will produce a lot of effort, but goals which are quality-based will produce high-quality results. An example is the use of GDP as a measure of human welfare. A country’s or city’s GDP is a measure of throughput, rather than of total capital stock, and as such is a poor proxy for the quality of life of its citizens. Even if it were possible to somehow measure the capital stock present within a city, this measure would neglect all the other non-economic considerations which are immeasurably important to the overall success of a city. When it comes to measuring the strength or success of a city, GDP is clearly inadequate: an alternative measure must be selected which considers the holistic well-being of the city. 

The concept of the Triple Bottom Line was first used in 1994 by a British consultancy called Sustainability, in the face of decades of corporate cost-cutting and profit-maximising actions. They argued that in addition to the traditional measure of financial or economic outcomes, it was important to also measure the social and environmental impacts of their actions. As vital as it is that companies make a financial return for their shareholders and the viability of that company’s future, this economic and financial focus has been exaggerated at the expense of other areas. The financial return is well defined as the return on investment for the shareholders or owners of the company. This measure is widely accepted and understood. The economic return, however, is the return that a company makes to the economy regarding growth, stability, productivity and competitiveness. In the context of city or urban development, where profit is not as relevant as economic growth, the economic return is emphasised.

An analogy of this to consider might be the establishment of a rail network – the economic benefit of this would be the ability for increased trade, connectivity with other areas of the country, and improved transportation services in general for that area. The financial benefits for the owners of the line would be considered separately to this analysis. Therefore, while financial aspects are important to the economic response, it is a subset of a broader picture.

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”​

- Wendell Berry

Socially, this rail network may also allow for increased connectivity between one community and another, thus encouraging social interactions on a broader scale. It may also result in negative impacts such as increased migration which may have detrimental effects on social systems.

Environmentally, this network may support uptake of public transport, thereby reducing traffic congestion and CO2 emissions. It might also require the development of significant parcels of land or create increased impervious areas and run-off. This may have detrimental effects on natural ecosystems, which must be managed appropriately.

A fourth bottom line, “Culture”, has emerged with subsequent research into the human environment within which the entity is operating. In New Zealand, for example, Maori culture must be recognised and respected in the design and implementation process, and the ethos of the nation must be recognised on a political level as well. For any venture, cultural considerations play a huge part in how people perceive and react to change, and so must be included in any analysis.

In more recent times, research has encouraged a more holistic approach to human-centred design and construction with the addition of the spiritual bottom line. While this concept means a great deal to a great

many people, the idea of spirituality is subjective and

permeates all aspects of society. In effect it is the ethical and moral obligation to deliver a plan in a harmonious way, and within the context of the wider worldview of individuals and communities regarding the purpose of life on earth.


Cambridge Leadership Development uses the definition of the quintuple bottom line to include “a result of sustainable development that enables all human beings to live with their basic needs met, with their dignity acknowledged, and with abundant opportunity to pursue lives of satisfaction and happiness, all without risk of denying others in the present and the future the ability to do the  same”. This definition puts human beings and their responsibilities at the centre of sustainability.

There must be consideration of all bottom lines in planning to facilitate any kind of transformational outcome. A recent report from Stanford University suggests that careers and organisations are going to be changing more in the next decade than they have in any other due to the development of computing and technology, which will have the ability to design models to establish, in real time, a company’s adherence to bottom line aspirations. Early indications suggest that a holistic view of the quintuple bottom lines, regarding city infrastructure, has a multiplier effect on financial return on investment, demonstrating the importance of this approach.

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