How to Score a City

July 3, 2024
aerial image of hulhumale city showing a tennis court, skating rink, restaurant rooftop and roads with vehicles adjacent to buildings and the sea on the opposite end

Aerial image of Hulhumalé city

Ashwa Faheem/ UNDP Maldives


Aishath Nayasheen Ahmed, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Maldives

Aishath Laila, General Manager of R&D, HDC

Mariyam Areesha Ahmed, Research Analyst, HDC

Since our last blog "Authenti-City of an Artificial City"UNDP Maldives Accelerator Lab and Housing Development Corporation (HDC) (formerly known as Urbanco) has made the Hulhumalé Liveability Index dashboard live to the public, shared learnings with city councils and experimented with participatory planning methods in Hulhumalé city.

The results are in

The first Liveability Index in Maldives was developed for the city of Hulhumalé, around the five pillars: governance (core infrastructure and services, public participation), economic sustainability (business and investment climate, economic opportunity, marketplace conditions), environmental sustainability (hygiene and circular economy, pollution), social inclusion (education, gender inclusiveness, social protection and poverty) and technological innovation (technology infrastructure and services). The index assessment of Hulhumalé is currently presented on a dashboard that visualizes the city’s performance and scores indicators around these categories, created from more than 30 sources of data across these five pillar indexes, and a unique perception score ranked by the residents of the city. 

Creating healthy cities is increasingly becoming a global primacy. For years, the liveability indices for the Maldives stood at an aggregation at the national level and not reflective of the performance of individual cities. Piloting the liveability ranking of the first individual city in the country, the Liveability Index for Hulhumalé was launched in August 2023 as a collaborative effort between UNDP Maldives and Housing Development Corporation (HDC), with the objective of enabling HDC to shift towards a data-driven approach in urban planning and service delivery. UNDP Maldives and HDC developed a methodology that links to the SDGs, to calculate this index, that is supported by a framework designed to inform and evaluate urban policies that are aligned to the overall health and well-being of the residents.

In the Sustainable Development Report the country ranking for the Maldives stands at 71.27%. The Liveability Index score of Hulhumalé trails behind closely, at 0.69 (69%), which is a calculated combination of Administrative Data (AD) Score built on secondary data sources, and a Citizen Perception Survey (CPS) Score of Hulhumalé residents, workers, and businesses on the assessment of quality of life in the city. 

Country snapshot from Sustainable Development Report 2023

The Assessment and Validation

A Liveability Index is a comprehensive tool used to evaluate and measure the overall quality of life and well-being within a particular city or region. It considers a wide range of factors that contribute to the comfort, convenience, and satisfaction of residents living in that area. The goal of a Liveability Index is to provide a more holistic perspective on the living conditions and amenities available to inhabitants beyond economic indicators like GDP.

The Livability Index is typically presented as a numerical value that ranges between 0 and 1. A score closer to 0 indicates that the city is less liveable, with significant challenges and shortcomings across various aspects of well-being. Conversely, a score closer to 1 suggests that the city is highly liveable, with a strong presence of positive factors contributing to residents' quality of life. A current score of 0.69 indicates that the city of Hulhumalé has achieved a relatively high level of liveability. 

Hulhumalé Liveability Index Dashboard

The data acts as a compass, guiding policies that address the pressing needs of the communities.

In summary, these pillar scores collectively provide a nuanced understanding of the city's liveability. While there are strengths in areas such as governance, technology, and economic development, opportunities for improvement exist in areas of environmental sustainability and social inclusion. In the realm of social dynamics, these scores can be a cue for city planners strategizing to create vibrant parks and communal hubs where neighbors can connect. In navigating the economic landscape, the index may signal a scarcity of jobs, and the city planners can leverage the data to attract new businesses, and to draw in sustainable industries. Other examples can take form as lessons in governance – in making informed decisions that resonate with the people. The index can also guide the adoption of innovation and technology that can speak to 8- or 80-year-olds or tell us how we can harmonise the natural environment and elements in urban sphere. The Liveability Index dashboard is like a report card for cities. As all data has a story, the real assessment of the index lies in how well we can interpret its story, and in understanding how we can contextualize these scores in local realities. While the index must be used with caution, it must also be interpreted in coherence with the public policy logic to provide actions and results that are directed towards building more efficient, productive, and resilient cities. 

Participatory planning has diverted the conventional ways of city planning into a citizen focused approach. We drew inspiration from this planning strategy in carrying out many of our community engagement activities during the Liveability Index development process. Understanding that residents of the city are our biggest resource, and the most significant validators of a city plan, we tapped into their expertise, experience, opinions, and feedback throughout the index formulation process.

From deep scanning of public sentiments through the citizen perception survey to an ‘open house’ style city modelling session for the public, we welcomed residents to join and share experiences of their life in the city, prompting feedback and conversations with planners and fellow residents. A pop-up engagement booth was also set up early in our exploratory stage, at a busy commercial center to reach underrepresented communities who may likely not participate in organized public meetings or be proactively vocal with their thoughts and opinions.

In a public event setting following the launch of the Liveability Index, we were also able to engage with residents and visitors who tested the usage of the Liveability Index dashboard live, and one of the key things that was collectively noted was the ease of data visualization and acknowledgement of the public sentiments in the score itself. Visitors anticipated the use of this index dashboard by students, investors, migrants, startups, and businesses.

Enrico Gaveglia, Resident Representative of UNDP Maldives at Hulhumalé Liveability Index launch event

UNDP Maldives

Mind the Gap - what did we do with the data that we have & didn’t have? 

The index is underpinned by a year-long data mapping and analysis process which revealed data gaps and weakness of data governance protocols within and beyond government.   At the time of the index calculation, nearly 80 indicators were missing data despite a thorough assessment of public and private data. The exercise helped us identify some of these gaps and raise awareness among stakeholders on the need for ongoing local and national coordination on strengthening the data ecosystem, to reap the full benefits of the Liveability index. 

The Citizen Perception Survey (CPS) that recorded over 500 responses played a significant role in addressing information gaps given the data limitations, and this score was also informed by a series of community consultations, stakeholder validation sessions, group dialogues and public sector meetings that were participated by over 100 individuals. 

This helped us to humanize the data – in connecting the numbers to the people and capturing a score that resounded community sentiments. 

Collectively, these responses were mapped to their respective categories to develop the scores of the five liveability index pillars that make up the composite score. We also see the possibility of collecting more real time data on community perception and sentiments for future iterations. 

Mapping Trails & Trials

As one intervention to fill the spatial data gap, we trialed participatory mapping with a diverse group of volunteers that included residents, visitors, migrants, and students to digitally map the city’s infrastructure, amenities, and services through an accessibility lens. 

When the ice is broken, people start to tell you what really matters to them in their city and sometimes this comes as a stark reminder to never underestimate the value of everyday amenities. Guiding one of the volunteer groups was HDC’s inclusivity advocate and member of Maldives Association of Persons with Disabilities, Najeeb – and for him, there are various obstacles to his everyday life in Hulhumalé. 

Ahmed Najeeb and Fathimath Ainnie from HDC at the participatory mapping briefing session

Photo: Ashwa Faheem/UNDP Maldives

Leading the way in his wheelchair, Najeeb took us through rows of commercial buildings, restaurants, and walkways where accessible infrastructure was non-existent, or at times flawed in design. 

From attitudinal barriers to physical barriers such as blocked wheelchair ramps, inaccessible lifts and toilets, buildings and without step-free access, many parts of the city are disabled by design, and unrehearsed for residents like Najeeb with mobility assistive devices and technology.

HDC team and volunteers mapping the commercial district in Hulhumalé

Ashwa Faheem/ UNDP Maldives

A tale of 5 cities

Learnings from the Hulhumale Liveability Index pilot was presented in November 2023, at the “City Dialogue on Liveability” that was held as a 2-day learning experience that brought together over 40 participants from the government, state-owned enterprises, NGOs and city councils across regional atolls (Addu, Fuvahmulah, Kulhudhuffushi and Thinadhoo). The first of this two-part series was an interactive panel discussion that featured local experts including leading women in the field. The incredible line-up of strong female representation re-introduced Aminath Athifa, the first female civil engineer of the country who also helped formulate Hulhumalé city’s master plan over 25 years ago, and Fathimath Rasheed (Thaathu), the first female architect in the country. They were joined by technical professionals from the HDC team; Director of Strategic Planning, Ahmed Aslam and Urban Planner, Mohamed Razzan Abdulla.

Aminath Athifa speaking at the City Dialogue event

Ashwa Faheem/ UNDP Maldives

Pek Chuan Gan, Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP Maldives speaking at the City Dialogue event

Ashwa Faheem/ UNDP Maldives

The dialogue focused on the Index, use of data for planning sustainable cities and communities and how to expand the lessons learned beyond Hulhumalé for replicating and scaling of the index in the other 4 island cities. Through the conversations, it was reiterated that great cities cannot be created in silo – relying on the effort of one single city council, organization or government is not practical. The panelists accentuated that data and learnings are best when shared and to capture the sentiments of unsuspecting stakeholders, we need creative community engagement strategies that are uniquely curated. In the long and short of it, the liveability index process should ideally run in an incessant co-creation cycle between the communities, government, civil society, academia, and companies. 

Ahmed Aslam speaking at the City Dialogue event with Fathimath (Thaathu) Rasheed (left) and Mohamed Razzan Abdulla (right)

Ashwa Faheem/ UNDP Maldives

“Planning is not an invitation, nor a strategy of just listening (to people). It is a right of the people and communities. We must listen to the loudest voice in the room, at the same time making sure that the softest voice is heard. It is often through the voices of women, that we also hear voices of senior citizens and children.” - Fathimath (Thaathu) Rasheed

Fathimath (Thaathu) Rasheed speaking at the City Dialogue event with Aminath Athifa (left)

Ashwa Faheem/ UNDP Maldives

Part two of the learning series comprised of a virtual session with UNDP Digital that focused on the role of data in policy making. The data to policy webinar was led by the chief digital office of UNDP and focused on the DtP navigator tool and how data can be utilized for evidence-based government policies for decision making. 

Tales from all five cities converged into exchanges that helped us to plan, but not predict what an ideal city will look like. If there is ever a definition of an ideal city, it should be one that is constantly metamorphosing. 

Read Full Report here

Stakeholders and partners at the City Dialogue event

Ashwa Faheem/ UNDP Maldives