Western Harbour Malmo

Newcastle, Britain’s Most Sustainable City?

Michael O'Hare - November 23, 2009

Newcastle has been ranked as Britain’s most Sustainable City 2009 by Forum for the Future, a UK based sustainable development organisation.

Newcastle?! In the heart of the industrial North East? Home to the expression Selling Coal to Newcastle? Can it be true?

I’m doubtful…let’s look at why Forum for the Future rank Newcastle first.

Why Newcastle is a Sustainable City

Forum for the Future state:

“Newcastle has won because it does fairly well across the whole set of indicators we use to capture a balanced picture of cities’ sustainability, with no particular area of weakness.”

Looking at the full report, they use 13 indicators. Everything from Air Quality to Ecological Footprint, from Education to Employment, from Economy to Recycling. 20 cities are rated from 1 to 20 in each of the indicators, the numbers are combined and hey presto, we have the ranking.

Newcastle scored particularly well in Green Space, Biodiversity and Recycling. Maybe I was wrong to be doubtful of Newcastle.

Or maybe I wasn’t.

Why Newcastle isn’t a Sustainable City

I like the way Forum for the Future have used a range of straight forward indicators. But are they the right indicators to measure a city’s sustainability? We could discuss the rights and wrongs of different indicators until the cows come home (if you really want to), due to their subjective nature. But here are a couple of more that I think are relevant.

Population Growth

Should a city aim for population growth or decline? I don’t know what’s best, but I’m not sure I like the trend you can see on p.63 of the 2006 government report into the state of UK cities. Of 9 cities, Newcastle’s population decline between 1991 and 2001 is second only to Liverpool.

Can a city be sustainable if people don’t want to live there?


Forum for the Future say Newcastle’s economy is one of its less good points, with the city in the bottom half of the rankings. Perhaps things are even worse than that.

The National Statistics Office show that the North East, the region which includes Newcastle, has the worst regional economy in England based on Gross Value Added per person.

Newcastle has a better economy that it’s surrounding region, but it can’t totally separate itself. Curitiba in Brazil is a great example of a fantastic city that has started to struggle to cope with the demands placed on it from increasing numbers of less well off people in the surrounding area.

In my opinion, a strong economy is perhaps the most important thing in a city. Can a city be sustainable if it doesn’t have a top notch economy?

On Balance

On balance I think my doubtfulness is misplaced. An article in The Times states that Newcastle’s population is increasing again and that there are many positive economic trends.

They also comment that the Lonely Planet put Newcastle in the top 30 places to see Worldwide. Quite a vote of confidence for the city.

Newcastle are trying to learn from others too. For example, the city visited the Western Harbour, Malmo to find if Scotswood could follow their example. You can see a BBC news video on Malmo’s website.

All in all I’m impressed. Hats off to Newcastle for their success and hats off to Forum for the Future for measuring and publicising it.

What do you think of Newcastle and Forum for the Future’s ranking?


  1. Great posting and very interesting to read the Forum for the Future’s ranking. By starting to measure these things I’m convinced things will move faster in the right direction and I’m sure the metrics will be improved as this progresses.

    Population growth is a very important metric although the key must be the average “sustainability” per person so in the end it shouldn’t matter too much.

    Would be extremely interesting to see a global benchmark of this kind.

    The Global Reporting Initiative (http://www.globalreporting.org) includes suggestions for a multitude of measures to encourage companies and organizations to measure and report their “Sustainability score”. The three main categories which in my opinion are equally important are “Economical”, “Environmental”, “Social”. Each of these contains a number of sub categories and measures which altogether can help give a relevant picture of the Sustainability of a company.

    Great blog!

    Comment by Lars Lindgren — January 25, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

  2. very interesting article. I am heading to Newcastle next weekend and stumbled upon your blog.

    Comment by ross — April 5, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

  3. i thought this information was intresting but wld be much more usefull if you added the amount of people in newcastle…

    Comment by shannon — September 1, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

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