Uses and abuses of urban sustainability indicator studies.
Cities and towns (Growth)
|Publication:||Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2001 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774|
|Issue:||Date: Winter, 2001 Source Volume: 10 Source Issue: 2|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: Canada; United States Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada; 1USA United States|
Les travaux relatifs a l'elaboration d'indicateurs de developpement durable se multiplient dans les municipalites au Canada et aux Etats-Unis. Cet article decoule d'entrevues aupres de chercheurs de premier plan dans trois villes canadiennes et quatre villes americaines de meme que d'une recension des ecrits et d'entrevues supplementaires avec d'autres chercheurs cles dans le domaine. Il se degage de notre recherche que les travaux relatifs a l'elaboration d'indicateurs de developpement durable peuvent servir a Ia planification a long terme tout comme ils peuvent repondre a certains besoins de court terme. Ils aident aussi a faire des liens entre les enjeux sociaux, economiques et environnementaux au sein d'une communaute. Ils permettent eaglement de faire participer des gens de tous les secteurs de la vie de la cite a des processus d'evalutation et de suivi des indicateurs. Les projets peuvent etre evalues selon leur degre de realisation dans ces secteurs en faisant appel a la methodologie presentee ici qui s'articule a un apprentissage de l'environnement social. L'article conclue sur une mise en garde concernant les possibilites que presentent les travaux relatifs a l'elaboration d'indicateurs de developpement durable par rapport au changement qui, pour s' averer benefique, ne peut etre trop prescriptif.
Mots-cles: Les Indicateurs de Durabilite; L'Edification Sociale-Environmentale.
Sustainability indicator studies are proliferating in municipalities in Canada and the United States. This paper draws from interviews with indicator project leaders in three Canadian cities and four American cities, as well as from the literature and interviews with other leaders in the field. The results show how sustainability indicator studies can assist in planning for long-range as well as short-term needs; in integrating social, economic, and environmental issues in the community; and in drawing people from all parts of city life into the indicator monitoring and evaluation process. Projects can be evaluated according to their achievements in these areas, using the theoretical methodology discussed here; social environmental learning. The paper closes with a cautionary note on the potential of sustainability indicator studies to bring about change that is not too prescriptive to be beneficial.
Key words: Sustainability Indicators; Social Environmental Learning.
This paper asks the question: what are urban sustainability indicator projects good for? Indicator projects often are cited as ways to inject hard data on important social, environmental, and economic issues into the policy-making process. I argue here that the greatest effects such projects have on the creation and revision of policy have less to do with the information they derive and more to do with the collaborative, adaptive, learning-oriented policy models they help promote. After a brief discussion of the origins of sustainability indicator studies and how they have been put into practice in the Canadian and American projects examined here, I will address three questions by which sustainability indicator studies may measure their success or failure. First is the question of focussing on linkages, both among social, environmental, and economic issues and between citizens and government. Second is the trade-off between aggregated indexes that are attractive to decision-makers, and more complex, locally-c reated lists of measures that are more realistic, transparent, and inclusive. Third is the question of using indicator projects solely for long-term planning efforts compared to using them in a more action-oriented way. Evaluation according to questions like these espouses a social environmental learning perspective, a theoretical method discussed at the end of this paper.
Urban Sustainability Indicator Studies
Sustainability indicator studies got their impetus from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the publication of Local Agenda 21 (UNSD 1992). Concurrent with an awakening to the urgency of change to address environmental problems in the 1990s, local governments in Canada and the United States began to recognize the need for greater accountability and inclusion of local residents in their activities. This paper sits within a growing literature presenting sustainability indicator studies as a promising tool for the reinvention of local governance and policy-making, processes of valuation, and the behaviours that result (Kuik and Verbruggen 1991, Hart 1995, Michalos 1997).
An indicator project may be seen as a "tool which gives regular people the ability to know, based upon information that tries to be objective, whether the things that matter most to them are getting better or worse" (Lawrence 1998: 9). Urban sustainability indicators aim to monitor progress in the city toward the broad and varied goals of environmental, economic, and social sustainability, in order to improve policy and public awareness.
Interest in monitoring progress and programs has existed throughout the past century. Economic indicators were initially appealing as a means to convert hosts of qualitative values into a single dollar metric so that economic policies could be devised rationally and ranked quantitatively (Anderson 1991). Stock markets respond to new reports on inflation, unemployment, and money supply. Central banks construct policy instruments based on economic indexes, leading stock markets to move in anticipation of central bank responses. Still, the many deficiencies of a strictly economic approach to national accounting led to the social indicator movement (Johnson 1988).
Social indicators are measures of general welfare that give social problems more visibility, change policy priorities, and offer policy makers the means to measure social progress 'over and above' economic statistics (MacRae 1985). The collection of labour statistics, for example, was an early rallying point for social reformers in the United States and Europe in the later 19th Century (Cobb and Rixford 1998).
The Russell Sage Foundation established the first "community indicators" in 1910 by providing a grant to the Charity Organization Society of New York to survey industrial conditions in Pittsburgh (Smith 1991:40-41). The resultant report brought on requests for similar studies and led to surveys of over 2,000 municipalities on issues including education, recreation, public health, crime, and general social conditions. Sage provided technical advice for these surveys, which were conducted by citizens' committees, church federations, chambers of commerce, and civic improvement associations. The efforts resulted in large collections of facts and an expanded understanding of their importance, but few theories to relate the facts to causes of observed problems or other potential links to policy reform.
In Canada, a number of initiatives support the development and regular publication of measures to indicate the country's economic, social, and environmental well-being. These include the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (2001), Health Canada's Indicators of Population Health at the Community Level (Hancock et al. 2001) and the Canada WellBeing Measurement Act (2000). Worldwide, many non-governmental initiatives for sustainability indicators exist as well, resulting in, for example, The Community Indicators Handbook (Tyler Norris et al. 1997) and the Bellagio Principles for the Practical Assessment of Progress Toward Sustainable Development (Hardi and Zdan 1998).
Indicator projects strive to balance the utility of reporting many indicators in an attempt to capture the entirety of urban processes, and the problems related to logistics, comprehensibility, and inefficiency when reporting too many indicators in a single project. Urban sustainability indicators simultaneously simplify complex urban phenomena and integrate environmental, economic and social dimensions of urban policy issues. Urban sustainability indicators also are adaptable to change over time, whether against historical trends or against established reference points, such as targets and thresholds. In addition to this emphasis on change overtime, sustainability indicators are concerned with the spatial distribution of urban conditions and the equitability of conditions among different demographic groups, and as compared to other people and places in different regions. A final important characteristic of this type of indicator project is that of a democratic development process, involving input from many p olicy actors throughout the city.
Good sustainability indicators, according to a survey of the literature conducted by Maclaren (1996: 192), are: "scientifically valid, representative of a broad range of conditions, responsive to change, relevant to the needs of potential users, based on accurate and accessible data, based on data that are available overtime, understandable by potential users, comparable with indicators developed in other jurisdictions, cost-effective to collect and use, attractive to the media, and unambiguous." These criteria may need to be appended or modified in any particular city.
At the local scale, municipal and regional governments are under pressure from higher levels of government and from citizens to cut expenditures. Local governments are increasingly expected to emulate the private sector in its aim for continuous improvement through comparative evaluation, and to involve larger segments of the community in policy-making processes. These circumstances make the development and monitoring of a set of legitimate indicators an important emerging activity for local government (Wong 2000). At the same time, funding and staff expertise for both policy-making and evaluation is limited in many local governments across Canada and the United States. Additionally, most government statistical systems, at national and lower levels, are so entrenched and separated from the policy process that they may not be applicable to changing policy (Flood 1997).
To date, most local governments measure performance in terms of workload and cost rather than quality of service, achievement of goals and standards, or other outcome measures. A 1997 US Governmental Accounting Standards Board survey, for example, shows that of 553 respondents (18 per cent of the 3,000 local governments surveyed), 26 per cent reported developing outcome or output measures (Kopcynski and Lombardo 1999). This situation is no accident. Developing and reporting results and indicators of the effectiveness of government projects is the beginning of a significant reorientation of the role of the planner or expert. With accountability to the public comes public empowerment and devolution of institutional power, along with a redefinition of who has the right to participate in policy decisions. This means political, professional, and institutional risk to elected officials and policy makers (Innes 1990). In the words of former Seattle city planner and Sustainable Seattle trustee Gary Lawrence (1998: 6 ): "Except in times of emergency, maintenance of the status quo seems safer than change for organizational beings. In many instances, continuing to do something that is familiar and accepted, even if it doesn't actually work, is deemed safer than trying something new that might work".
Because of these limitations, reliable and relevant indicators with the potential to drive real change must include citizen involvement. At the local level, citizens have more opportunities to come in contact with their elected representatives and government staff, increasing the potential for meaningful exchange of ideas and implementation of grass-roots plans and ideas. Local governments may have more leeway to conduct pilot projects or to dovetail new policies with existing citizen-led project experiments. Concerted action by government and citizens, including non-government organizations, can result in stronger solutions by leveraging public and private resources.
The large lesson learned from attempts to guide policy with indicators is that all valuation is: "a way of organizing information to help guide decisions but is not a solution or end in itself. It is one tool in the much larger politics of decision-making" (Daily et al. 2000:396). Sustainability indicator projects attempt to use the data they report to call attention to community issues, especially problems affecting present and future community or regional sustainability, and try to rally leaders and organizations to collaborate on addressing the problems.
The next three sections of this paper will provide examples and discussion of the routes that indicator projects in Canadian and American cities are taking as they become more refined decision-making tools. The results discussed are from telephone interviews conducted with the leaders of the following indicator organizations: Sustainable Seattle; Olympia, Washington's Sustainable Community Roundtable; Quality of Life in Jacksonville (Florida); Vancouver's Sustainability Indicators for the Fraser Basin; Sustainable Calgary; Toronto's Vital Signs; and the Santa Monica Sustainable City Program. All of these projects represent multi-year efforts to determine, monitor, and report on a set of 15 to 90 essential social, environmental, and economic conditions in the city. Most projects identify with the framework of 'sustainability,' although Jacksonville has a 'quality of life' framework and Toronto's framework is 'taking the pulse of the city.' Most of the organizations are non-government based, although Vancouver' s project is run by the Fraser Basin Council and Santa Monica's project is run by the city. For balance, additional information was gathered from discussions with other leaders in the field of sustainability indicators and from a survey of the literature.
The Government/Citizen Coalition Issue: Great Philosophy, But What Are the Policy Goals?
Monitoring society through sustainability indicators furthers the sophistication of our notions of development, wellness, and progress beyond what has been aspired to through the use of economic and social indicators. Sustainability indicator projects reject ideas like atomism, the notion that individuals are the only units of society and that all goods are decomposable to their instrumental value. They also reject the idea that people's levels of satisfactions are based on purely utilitarian value judgements, devoid of considerations of loftier notions of true happiness and metaphysical satisfaction. Thirdly, they reject consequencialism, the idea that the value judgements of individuals weigh outcomes and not moral qualities, virtues, or ethics. Indicators cannot be expected to point to causality or to some ultimately most appropriate policy, but they can and should influence the context and content of dialogue, facilitating the work of more people and organizations to better design and effectively implemen t policies and solve more problems (Meter 1999).
The process and philosophy of sustainability indicator studies are criticized as excessive and impossible aims for policy, however admirable the ideas as ultimate ends for human development (Cobb and Rixford 1998). The challenge of excessive aspirations comes to sustainability indicators from the ranks of those who say rational, utilitarian models of progress are preferable to more holistic models due to their numeric simplicity (Wong 2000). Social indicators have kept to utilitarian welfare economic formulations of society, adding the dimension of social equity to that of the quest for efficiency. Even this modest expansion of goals was cited as a reason for the demise of the social indicators movement. Sustainability indicators aspire beyond this, with notions such as irreducible social goods and altruism. Take, for example, the following portion of the purpose statement for San Francisco's Sustainable City Plan (Magilavy 1997: no pagination):
To construct a sustainable society, one that can provide for the physical and other needs of local residents while reversing the trends of increased pollution and environmental degradation now threatening the quality of urban life and the health of the earth's other life forms, it is necessary to start changing the conventions of society. Sustainability can be divided into manageable sections, specific strategies can be proposed and action can begin. It is important to emphasize that the sustainability plan should be a means, not an end. The plan is only a tool for future action. However, to proceed in a sensible way to change long-standing environmental practices, it's necessary to come up with some goals, actions, and objectives to be achieved. To begin to fulfil our responsibility to our own futures and that of our children is the aim of this sustainability plan.
It is no easy task to formulate and effect studies on such far-sighted grounds. This does not mean that attempts to reach beyond current policy alternatives are unrealistic or not beneficial. The practicality of different policy alternatives can change over time as public values change, and values are likely to change as more information is uncovered and distributed about the dangerously unsustainable state of issues from climate change to waste disposal. The legacy of social indicators research suggests that attempts to stretch people's sense of responsibility across time and continents were useful because they made "efforts to measure elusive but basic social concepts... more sophisticated" (Innes 1989: 429). They provide concrete and "unarguably legitimate" (Innes 1988: 276) issues to support focussed communication between officials and citizen groups. They can change the goals and understandings of policy-makers by "shaping the agendas and norms of discourse and by influencing which values become the 'tak en-for-granted' basis for choice" (Innes 1988: 275). As indicators "become part of the language" (Innes 1988: 277) of policy debate, they increase the probability of rationality and the public interest becoming decisive factors in policy outcomes.
In policy-making circles, getting indicators into the current language of debate may be an important first step toward incorporating these new sources of input into policy decisions. For community activists, indicator project involvement offers the promise of constructive efforts, first through collaboration with other like-minded citizens, and hopefully later with the policy-makers themselves. Cairney (2001) reported that one of the major debates at Taking Toronto's Vital Signs is how to expand the community involvement process so that individuals' and organizations' efforts can add up to measurable change in policy and behaviour. In their second round of collecting and reporting on an indicator set, Vital Signs hopes to involve 200 to 300 people, twice to three times as many as were involved in the first round. Vital Signs hopes to coordinate the many existing efforts to identify and act on particular trends in particular parts of the city, helping smaller and isolated efforts to contribute meaningfully to decisions for change.
As linkages between issues become linkages between people from different walks of urban life, it is not surprising to note that many indicator organizations cannot properly be described as discretely government- or citizen-led. Instead, many are attempting to create new forms of collaborative effort. Sustainable Seattle, for example, one of the most famous bottom-up projects, has had several high-ranking government employees as board trustees; one former trustee is now director of the city's new Office of Sustainability and Environment (City of Seattle 2001). Sustainable Seattle, it should be added, no longer produces city-wide indicator reports: they stopped after three reports in 1993, 1995, and 1998, seeing that it was time to direct their limited volunteer energies elsewhere (Sustainable Northwest & Oregon Solutions 2001). Quality of Life in Jacksonville, another famous citizen-led initiative, began as a joint project between a non-government organization and the city's Chamber of Commerce (Swain 2001). T oronto's Vital Signs project is run by a small community foundation but only as a three-year start-up project. At the end of 2003, the Vital Signs project will be looking for another home, whether this is in government or in the nonprofit world (Cairney 2001). Sustainable Calgary, a citizen-led non-profit organization, is currently negotiating with municipal officials for the creation of a new quasi-governmental office to take on the indicator work (Keogh 2001). The Sustainable Community Roundtable in Olympia, Washington, has at times been pulled into the possibility of partnering more closely with the City of Olympia, but the city has pulled out, for various reasons, before the contracts were signed (Smith 2001).
The Valuation Issue: Trying to Count More than Dollars
Social and environmental values lack a single metric while economic indicators have the mighty dollar. To avoid the complicated valuation problems of sustainability indicators, some advocate reformulating economic indicators to capture broader values. Anderson (1991), for instance, argues that economic indicators are important not as measures of societal well-being, but as a way to check the pressure placed on the environment by the flow of resources through the economy. More than this, economic indicators may help develop a new conception of economy for a sustainable society, exposing points of strain on the natural and social environment.
To this end, Herman Daly (1996) offers the concept of "full world economics", whereby the real world no longer is perceived as mostly empty and thus amenable to reductive modelling of only the most immediately economically-relevant aspects. In a world full of innumerable, interconnected, and ever-changing agents that are all somehow significant, the goal of economic activity becomes the reduction of total economic throughput. This idea follows from the work of Meadows et al. (1974: 12), who coined the term "ecological demand" as "a summation of all man's [sic] demands on the environment, such as the extraction of resources and the return of wastes." At the time, Gross Domestic Product was the most convenient, though very imprecise, indicator of ecological demand. Finding more accurate measures of concepts like ecological demand and economic throughput will move the sustainability agenda from a vague anti-growth reaction toward constructive alternative policies.
Some ecologists have risen to the task of valuing more-than-human nature in dollar terms. Their argument is that: "wielded together with financial instruments and institutional arrangements that allow individuals to capture the value of ecosystem assets... the process of valuation can lead to profoundly favourable effects" (Berkes and Folke 1998: 113). Costanza et al. (1997) produced the most famous such attempt, valuing the ecosystem services of the world at an average of $33 trillion per year. Just as is the case with the monetary valuation of human life, however, there are significant dangers to "attaching economic values to ecological services" (Gatto and De Leo 2000: 348) or putting a price tag on nature. Sagoff (2000: 8) goes so far as to say that attempts to do so "can succeed only in lowering the credibility of [ecological economics as a discipline] while increasing the legitimacy of the standard cost-benefit policy framework most likely to defeat attempts to protect the natural environment." The two sides of this coin are: should we focus on learning to value what we can't measure rather than learning to measure all that we value? More than legitimizing public discussion and policy addressing complex quality of life issues, the indicator approach, particularly when it restricts valuation to a single metric -- the dollar -- may merely render these issues in a simplistic manner.
Somewhat smaller in scope are projects that attempt to evaluate what nature provides people (1). Approaches include methods of indirect revealed preference (for example, valuing clean air by comparing land rents in clean versus polluted areas), or avoidance of costs (for example, valuing natural water purification at the cost of its technological alternative, a filtration plant). The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), developed by the San Francisco group Redefining Progress (Cobb et al. 1999), is a more comprehensive single measure of development, based on a combination of 22 social, economic, and environmental components. The annually calculated GPI, now used in demonstration projects in Alberta and Nova Scotia, is intended to provide policy makers with signals of strengths and weaknesses across a broad range of social, economic, and environmental areas (Pembina Institute 2001, GPI Atlantic 1998).
Even with the most sophisticated methodology, such projects provide only partial, lower bound indicators of value. Aside from the issues of existence values of some goods and services that have no substitute (such as global climate regulation), there is a problem with the unit of analysis of this kind of valuation. Daily et al. (2000: 396) describe it thus: "Reliance on individual preferences to construct social values, though defensible on ethical grounds, has serious pitfalls. Preferences depend on institutional context -- how much individuals know about the environment, for instance. The outcome of economic valuation is in this respect not more informed than the people whose values are being assessed." Contingent valuation surveys that try to elicit how individuals value hypothetical incremental changes are improving in precision and credibility but still are unreliable, especially concerning less familiar issues.
Many indicator projects struggle between, at one extreme, completely integrated sustainability measures, with the perils of deciding on weighting scales for integration and combination of statistics, and at the other extreme, long lists of measured indicators that do not speak to linkage issues among various indicators. Some projects favour one aspect of 'sustainability': British Columbia's Capital Regional District, for example, is still debating whether sustainability should include economic as well as ecological considerations (Thornburn 2000). The New Orleans 'Top 10 by 2010' non-governmental project is primarily interested in improving the attractiveness of the municipality to investors (Yerton 2001).
Issue-oriented and vision-oriented indicator projects are not mutually exclusive. Standard or expert-produced indicator sets are very unlikely to influence action; on the other hand, if experts are not included in indicator development, results may not be credible. In a thesis evaluating community sustainability indicator projects, Lisa Cash-Driskill (1998: 45) saw the union of the two approaches: "Communities can choose to focus on broad concepts such as the future they want to pass on to their grandchildren's grandchildren, without losing sight of the policy levers available to achieve that future." Innes and Booher (2000: 177) conclude that the ideal process for sustainability indicator projects is "to develop the policy in the process of developing the indicator." It is during this developmental phase that collaborative learning occurs, when the people involved relate the policy issues and indicators to their personal and organizational contexts and perspectives.
Sustainable Calgary's project is one that actively addresses the importance of linkages among indicators. According to Noel Keogh (2001), coordinator of Sustainable Calgary's State of Our City Project:
...there are different ways to look at the value of indicators. I think the key thing is developing the ability to make reasonable decisions from a broad array of circumstances, rather than summarizing or developing a single index. The linking question is more important: realizing that we can't slash the budget without affecting all kinds of other things. It's going beyond a simplistic view of the economy toward subtleties in making decisions and policies and being able to see linkages.
The Action Versus Modelling Issue: Are Indicator Projects Limited to Indirect Change?
Social indicators were accused of an inability to produce either large prescriptive models or specific public policy results (MacRae 1985). Similarly, sustainability indicators must negotiate between developing models and comprehensive plans, and achieving incremental policy effects. The evidence so far suggests that smaller-scaled efforts directed toward areas of need are the most effective. The UN Center for Human Settlements (Habitat 1998) recommends measurable targets and regular monitoring of economic benefits and costs of indicator-guided policy change toward sustainability. Small changes will cause fewer ripples throughout the system and raise less unrest. These incremental changes can be highlighted to show politicians, business people, and others that progress being made makes good economic sense and that action at the local level should be sustained through long-term commitment. Unfortunately, incremental changes are difficult to implement in areas like ecosystem services, where the underlying syste ms are locked together and seemingly small changes in one place have large impacts on the overall system.
Because they involve such novel ideas for governance, sustainability indicator projects are less able to help resolve immediate problems than they are able to develop long-term solutions. This has been a stumbling block for indicator projects in areas with local problems in need of immediate attention. Some projects are developing ways to work around this issue and better address local-scale and immediate problems at the same time as they conduct research for long-term change. In this vein, Sustainable Calgary has begun a Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM) project. Following the CBSM model, developed by McKenzie-Mohr and Smith (1999), a Sustainable Calgary project team works with a particular neighbourhood to select three to four indicators of particular importance and to work on improving these in the neighbourhood (Keogh 2001).
Similarly, Linda Smith (2001), executive director of the Olympia, Washington, Sustainable Community Roundtable, hopes that her organization can begin an "adopt-an-indicator" program, through which community groups take responsibility for and address a particular indicator of interest to them. They also publish pull-out focus reports to accompany each full indicator report and distribute regular newsletters that provide snapshots of current indicator data.
Quality of Life in Jacksonville is another project "shifting into marketing gear," as coordinator David Swain (2001) puts it. For Jacksonville, this means a new Creating a Community Agenda project to address the major areas the indicator project has identified as needing attention. Swain believes that Jacksonville has a particular advantage in the commitment of the community to participate and take responsibility for the process. In a stratified random sample of Jacksonville residents in 2001, 60 per cent said they have volunteered at some point in the past.
In Santa Monica, the responsibility assumed by city council for improving on progress report results, in relation to commonly agreed upon targets, compensates somewhat for the lack of responsibility felt by the community. City council understands sustainability and has been supportive of comprehensive long-term planning ideas since the 1970s. Dean Kubani (2001), who manages the indicators project for the city, recognizes encouraging citizen involvement and responsibility as the necessary next step in their already successful project. For Steve Litke (2001), new coordinator of the Fraser Basin Sustainability Indicators Project, planning for action to follow up on indicator results is also important. He notes that a popular comment from the public consultation process, completed by the Fraser Basin Council in spring 2001, was that plans needed to be made for action on indicator results. They are still deciding on the potential role that the quasi-governmental non-profit Fraser Basin Council might have in bringing people together and helping to develop action plans (Fraser Basin Council 2001).
Political inertia on certain aspects of social and environmental well-being, such as a transition to the production and use of renewable energy, are unavoidable. Still, crude estimates in critical areas can fill in the gaps that otherwise would prevent action. As a rough action rule:
...the most important decisions to get right are those where benefits greatly outweigh costs or vice versa, and in such cases, complete accuracy is unnecessary. For example, by constructing crude lower bound estimates for the [monetary] value of natural water purification services, municipalities worldwide are determining that preserving or restoring natural services is often preferable to constructing a water filtration plant. (Daily et al. 2000: 396, Chichilnisky 1998)
In this and many related areas of ecological importance, the relevance of policy to environmental consequences is given short shrift (Tarr 1996).
An orientation toward urban system model development makes indicator projects non-partisan and non-threatening in that their approach complements and finds better uses for existing information and information programs, finding issues to follow and address without placing blame. This is the approach taken, for example, in the Canada Well-Being Measurement Act, presented by both a Liberal and an Alliance party member. The idea is to gather a broad-based group of citizens who collectively develop a vision, then select indicators that define the scope of that vision and what changes they believe are required for progress toward that vision. The next step is to monitor these indicators by seeking out existing data and setting up programs to fill in data gaps.
This "bottom-up" approach has the advantage of having a support base wide enough to weather changes in the political climate and of explicitly addressing interconnections among issues and indicators. For example, part of the Sustainable Seattle model for indicator development involved drawing 'chains of causation' among their list of 99 indicators (later narrowed to 40 indicators). Through this process, participants found the best indicators to be related to the longest chains of issues. The key example is the number of wild salmon returning to spawn, which is connected to stream pollution, especially from motor vehicles, more cars on the road, streets seen as unsafe for walking and cycling, juvenile crime, back to child poverty (Hardi & Zdan 1998). Connections like this build understanding of the need for interest groups to collaborate for policy change. Actually effecting policy change, on the other hand, remains distant on the horizon, because statistical indicator reports often lack textual interpretation to refer them to policy action and, because they are non-partisan, often lack committed political advocates (Innes 1989).
"Bottom-up" projects also tend to rely on individual, voluntary motivation and charisma. In some places, like Jacksonville, Seattle, and Calgary, this has worked well. Volunteer energy and enthusiasm tends to be high in places where people live "by choice," perhaps making sacrifices in standard of living or job opportunities in favour of a higher quality of life. Members of the Kaslo, British Columbia, Community Resilience Project, for example, identify themselves as "highly attached to the lifestyle advantages the community offers" (Lewis 2000:
1). Their project is able to rely on individual and organizational volunteers as well as increasing support from local elected leaders. Compiling and analysing data from published reports, interviews with individuals representing different organizations, perspectives, and length of time in the community, and open meetings, they have constructed a Kaslo Portrait of Resilience. They found a development/anti-development divide to exist in ideas about Kaslo's future, and that interaction and coordination between people with these different goals is lacking. A lack of shared common goals is identified as the main block to community resilience in Kaslo. The intended purpose of the project's work is to provide the basis for additional community discussion and decision-making (Centre for Community Enterprise 2000).
Ammons et al. (2001) found participant initiative to be critical to the early success of the three local government benchmarking projects they studied. For non-government initiatives, likely to be even more reliant on volunteer work, this finding could only be magnified. Additionally, they concluded that projects must be designed very carefully, making clear to participants the long-term hard work required before any benefits will be apparent. To do this, indicator project members should study the process and results of other successful projects, should continually reassess the cost-effectiveness of their efforts, and should concurrently identify and analyses best practices for the alleviation of poor indicator trends.
Indicator projects begun in government offices rather than a broad-based community coalition are limited, generally, to producing "non-threatening" results (2). In the case of the City of Santa Monica's indicator project, policy makers are the primary actors and intended audience, concerned less with an encompassing vision than with measuring indicators that fit specific policy needs. This type of process has more immediate access to policy action, but less consideration of linkages among policy issues. Because it lacks a community base, the top-down process is more vulnerable to political swings that can destroy projects. Also, the notion of policy change, upon which these projects are based, maybe overly simplistic (Jacob 1996).
Adding new dimensions and depth to indicators to better reflect human and environmental complexity is not enough to make decisions more responsive to the requirements of a sustainable society. Without redesigned laws, policies, and decision-making structures, mountains of rich and nuanced information may actually detract from human and environmental justice efforts. For example, the United States Census, by assigning people to a single simplistic racial category, has been used since the Civil Rights movement to inform and enforce antiracist legislation. The 2000 Census allowed people to identify multiple races, as is done in the Canadian Census. On the surface, this seems a move to reduce racial discrimination, but in practice this new way of collecting racial data casts doubt on the continued utility of existing anti-racist legislation in the United States, because the data to prove discrimination by skin colour no longer exist (Prewitt 2001).
From Indicators to Implementation: A Social Environmental Learning Perspective
Political and institutional focus in evaluating policy effects can be traced back to social learning theory, a branch of policy analysis focussed on politics and institutions that developed in the I 960s (Dunn 1971, Friedmann 1973). Social learning theory advocates collaborative planning models and citizen engagement (Lee 1993), and is the basis of much the contemporary program evaluation literature (Weiss 1998). Planning and policy-making are viewed as experimental, evolutionary, and adaptive, attempting to attract the involvement of all people in order to ensure society's survival and optimal development. With the addition of widespread environmental degradation to the slate of intractable policy problems, social learning theory has extended into social environmental learning. Finger and Kilcoyne (1995:239) propose social environmental learning to mean "learning our way out" of the vicious circle of ecological degradation and social erosion, requiring three types of change: in involvement, in cohesion, and in awareness. This approach tends to fit with conclusions met by sustainability indicators research to date. For example, Jacob's (1996: 92) research brought her to this conclusion:
the most useful role of urban sustainability indicators... may be their potential to enhance civic processes which value diversity, participation and community-building among the various groups and sectors within a community. The more collaborative problem-solving that occurs, the greater the chances for sustainability.
Effects of sustainability indicator projects on social environmental learning could be determined through trends in the directions explored in this article: the ability of indicator organizations to take on neighbourhood-oriented action projects as well as long-term collaborative planning, to forge new types of government-citizen relationships, and to recognize linkages among issues and indicators. Other examples of measures of effectiveness could include the incorporation of project information into public school curricula, the formation of national or smaller-level working groups, feedback through the policy-making process, the spread of reporting and information dissemination, and community capacity-building (Persson 2001).
Effective sustainability indicator projects, by these criteria, guide the development of good citizenship habits, sense of place, and good standards of access to and use of information in policy. They also have the potential to spur municipalities to new commitments of collaboration and participation, recognizing the linked nature of local economic, social, and environmental issues.
Conclusion: Considerations for the Sustainability Indicator Movement
Using the framework presented here, sustainability indicator projects can be seen as useful if any of a number of elements exist. If the project represents a sophistication of our notion of development toward a better recognition of linkages and bringing the ethereal concept of sustainability to a pragmatic level at which it can be debated between citizens and government, potentially changing both the language and the legitimate topics of policy debate, then it has met success. If the project is actively addressing valuation problems and constructing local solutions, such that indicators give a realistic, inclusive, and transparent picture of urban conditions, then the project shows some success. Finally, if the project is tackling pressing urban issues in ways that engage more people, putting value on participant initiative and stirring up a wide support base, the project has found success. In these dimensions of social environmental learning, sustainability indicator projects have a great deal of potential to advance the cities that they work for toward local sustainability.
Seen as the latest surge in a long trend toward measurement for economic and social policy, the sustainability indicator movement demands evaluation and caution. In the history of nation-building, James Scott (1998) reveals that measurement by authorities has been primarily a means of centralized control over territories and people, a means of abstracting diverse conditions through administrative routines and painting this as a sufficient synthesis of knowledge. The moral of Scott's book bears remembering: most attempts to measure and evaluate societies through history have been motivated by a desire to improve the overall human condition, and this desire in itself has led to plans that fail because they are overly-prescriptive.
Present-day indicator projects seem to have several things working in their favour to buck this tendency. Many are led by non-governmental bodies or broad coalitions of government and non-government groups, possibly avoiding hidden purposes of taxation and control. All sustainability indicator studies attempt to broaden the range of variables and values considered well beyond the limits of strict utilitarianism. Most temper the over-esteemed knowledge of the present generation with concern for the desires and improved understanding anticipated from future generations. Despite the advances of sustainability indicators over their social and economic predecessors, the question remains whether indicator measurement of any description may lead to more than a quest for constancy, order, and administrative efficiency and the concurrent delegitimization of the variable, specific, nonstandardized logic of ecosystems and human communities. The most reliable guides for proceeding are to forge new coalitions and advance experimentally through incremental steps, counting as much on the appearance of new situations, new facts, and new ideas as on those currently at hand.
I would like to acknowledge the help of Bob Beauregard, Anna Bounds, and the Canadian Journal of Urban Research's anonymous reviewers. My research is supported by a SSHRC dissertation fellowship.
1. Analogous to these valuation attempts in the realm of social issues are methods of measuring and accounting for the benefits of social capital (Putnam 2000).
2. A national example of this in the United States is the Commerce Department's 1994 effort, Integrated Economic and Satellite Accounts (IESA), to adjust GDP for depletion of oil and other non-renewable resources. Soon after the data for this program were published, Congress effectively shut it down. Congressman Alan Mollohan of West Virginia said at the time that he feared the numbers would lead people to conclude that the coal industry does not contribute to the country. Currently, no funding exists for the IESA (Baker 1999).
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