Publication Date

March 2023

Sustainability assessment literature is often based on large indicator sets, frequently lacking organizational framing. Previous research calls for stronger theoretical groundings and for urban sustainability assessments specifically to be goal-oriented, meaning that assessments should articulate goals for sustainable cities and select the indicators most appropriate for tracking progress. Here we analyzed the content of 69 papers from sustainability assessment literature. We asked: What common sustainability goals guide indicator selection? What is the distribution of natural, proxy, and constructed indicators across the literature? And what is the distribution of indicators within and across capital types? We found that less than half of the papers define clear goals. Still, the majority of indicators used were natural indicators as opposed to proxies or constructed indicators. Most indicators are linked to the natural sciences, suggesting a need to expand and diversify indicators across additional capital assets, broadening the disciplinary foci of such assessments and better tying into the holistic and systems nature of sustainability. We conclude that urban sustainability assessment should be framed around sustainability goals, and that such a framing would facilitate the selection of indicators, which yield more accurate evaluative results. This is significant in that the relationship between sustainability assessment goals and indicators is mutually reinforcing.