There are a number of characteristics of a good indicator:
Address carrying capacity - An indicator of sustainability
needs to address the carrying capacity: whether the community is
using resources at a rate faster than they are being renewed or
restored. Is the community using up its capital or is it living off
the interest and reinvesting or enhancing its community capital? In
many cases this means not measuring things in terms of monetary value.
It is not the total dollar value of housing stock in a community that
is important to sustainability, it is whether or not there are enough
houses that people can afford.
Relevant to community - What is sustainable in Seattle is not
what is sustainable in Tucson, Miami, or Berea, Kentucky. Sustainable
solutions in metropolitan areas will be different from sustainable
solutions in rural areas. Communities should select indicators that
are relevant to their situations.
Understandable to the community - How many people have ever seen a
part per billion? We need to develop indicators that speak to people,
so that they understand what they personally are doing that is causing
problems and what steps, however small, they might be able to take to
help solve the problem. How about pounds of pollution per mile or
gallon? Tons of pollution per year? This will also help the general
public understand why some laws go into effect and help prevent
backlash against regulations that work.
Useable by the community - If indicators are not used by
the community, they will not have any effect on what people do.
Indicators need to help people see how they can change their behavior
to have a positive effect on community sustainability.
Long term view - Sustainability is a long term goal. We need
long term indicators. This means 25 or 50 years in the future, not 5 or 10
Show linkages - Traditional indicators tend to be narrowly
focused on one aspect of a community. When you focus on increasing
the number of jobs without looking at the details--the types of jobs, whether the
jobs are long term, and whether they have health benefits--you may just
be setting the community up for more problems down the road.
The town of North Conway, New Hampshire, saw incredible job growth
during the 1980s. Unfortunately, the jobs were all retail sales jobs:
seasonal work dependent on the tourist trade, with low wages and no
benefits. When a downturn hit the economy of Massachusetts, New Hampshire's
tourist industry took the hardest hit, and North Conway's jobs were
affected. Then, when Massachusetts' economy bounced back, job growth
returned, but all of a sudden there was an incredible traffic problem
in town. The indicator of jobs wasn't linked to the social or
environmental aspects of the community.
More information on the characteristics of good indicators can be
found on the
Effective Indicators page
of Maureen Hart's Indicators of Sustainability web site.