What makes a good indicator?
What Makes a good indicator?

Talking Points
  • Addresses carrying capacity
  • Is relevant to the community
  • Is understandable to community
  • Is useable by the community
  • Takes a long term view of progress
  • Shows links between economy, environment and society

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 years.

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.
Top of the page Talking points Narrative Training home page
Previous Outline Next
Copyright © 1998 Maureen Hart. All rights reserved.