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"Gaining understanding can motivate and focus our efforts to stop this unthinkable deterioration of our communities."

Barbara Samorajczyk, vice president of Annapolis Neck Peninsula Federation and director of the Severn River Association

"There are limits to growth. Though it may be difficult to numerically define these limits, we know it would be physically impossible for this kind of growth to continue indefinitely".

Sustainable Seattle Indicators Report, 1995

"Everything is hitched to everything else in the universe."

John Muir

"As global citizens, we have a responsibility to minimize our damage to the rest of the planet."

EcoCity Cleveland -- May 1995

"Create a widely held ethic of stewardship that strongly encourages individuals, institutions, and corporations to take full responsibility for the economic, environmental and social consequences of their actions."

The President's Council on Sustainable Development


Welcome to the indicators portion of the Green Communities Assistance Kit. Hopefully by now you are giving some thought as to where you want your community to be in the near and distant future.

Indicator Frameworks
Domain Based Examples
  – Environmental
  – Economic
  – Social

Goal Based Examples
  – Sustainability
  – Economic Prosperity
  – Healthy Community
  – Social Well Being

How to Select Indicators
How to Use & Report Indicators
Indicators in Action (Real World Examples)
Other Indicator Web Sites
Data Sources
Web Sites


Indicators enable communities to measure progress towards or away from becoming a Green Community. What direction is your community moving? Is the economy improving, is biodiversity declining, is violent crime increasing, and is exposure to pollution decreasing? All these benchmarks can be measured with indicators.

It is important to connect people with the ecosystems that support them. As a society, we can either live with nature or make nature live with us. For generations we have consumed more than our share of the natural resources. In the process we have cut down much of our virgin forests and filled or drained significant acreage of wetlands. It is time for communities to utilize the knowledge, technology and resources available to live sustainably. Until we are aware of and understand how our actions force nature to adapt, we will not change our actions and habits. Indicators are needed to show trends and to measure progress towards goals.

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Indicator Frameworks

Communities need some order to the chaotic possibilities of indicators. Several frameworks are being used by communities to help develop sustainable indicators: domain-based, goal-based, sectoral, issue, causal, and combination (see Maclaren reference below). Frameworks not only sort indicators but they also help balance the many issues facing communities. Gaps and duplications in collection efforts can be identified. A summary of domain-based and goal-based indicators with examples of each are presented below.

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Domain-Based Framework

Domain-based frameworks organize indicators into the three key dimensions of sustainability: environmental, economic and social. A domain-based framework allows for and accentuates the linkages among the three dimensions.

Environmental Indicators

Environmental indicators look at the effects of human activities on the environment as well as the implications of those actions on human health, quality of life and the integrity of ecosystems. Environmental indicators are usually scientifically-based information that describes environmental conditions and trends. Reliable information about the current state of the environment and the factors that stress it, is essential for making appropriate future commitments of time, energy, and resources to meet environmental challenges.

Indicator Purpose Linkages
Vehicle Miles Traveled To encourage efficient development patterns
  • Commuting time affects our quality of life
  • Air and water quality
  • Natural nonrenewable resource consumption
  • Social stress, declining sense of community
  • Transportation cost for road construction and maintenance
  • Loss of open space and wildlife habitat.
Percentage of land preserved as open space To encourage and monitor efficient development patterns
  • Air quality
  • Mental health
  • Drainage control and improved water quality

Soil Erosion

  • bed load
  • suspended solids
  • turbidity
To track impact of our development patterns on the natural environment
  • Degradation of water quality and aquatic habitat
  • Aesthetic quality and recreational capacity of our waters.
  • Fertility and productivity of the land
  • Altered drainage patterns
Impervious Surface To monitor stormwater impact on natural environment
  • Biodiversity in wetlands
  • Economic loss due to flooding and fisheries decline.
  • Vehicle miles traveled
  • Energy use due to "urban heat island" effect
  • Air quality
Farm Acreage To preserve productive agriculture land use
  • Diminished economic and cultural diversity of the region
  • Impervious surface
  • Energy use
  • Vehicle miles traveled
Residential Water Consumption Efficient use of freshwater supplies
  • Economic capacity to grow food, produce power, support industry.
  • Increased demand for water has negative impacts on aquatic systems.
  • Financial burden (infostructure) to supply new water supplies and/or additional treatments.
Tons of solid waste generated and solid waste recycled per capita To minimize the amount of solid waste that goes to landfills or is incinerated.
  • Population growth
  • Soil and groundwater contamination
  • Nonrenewable resource consumption
Days in the past year with Air Quality Index (AQI) in the good range Good air quality is fundamental to public health
  • Degradation of natural environment, forest health
  • Water and soil quality
  • Negative impact on aquatic ecosystems
  • Limited economic expansion, restriction of certain industrial activities.
  • Denied federal government funding
  • Reduced agriculture productivity
  • Impact on marine and freshwater fisheries
  • Impact on tourism
Electricity consumption generated from nonrenewable & renewable sources To promote the conservation of our natural resources
  • Air quality
  • Water Quality
  • Soil Quality
  • Global Warming
Percentage of area of assessed rivers and streams that do not meet state and federal water quality standards To restore degraded waterways
  • Degradation of aquatic habitat
  • Aesthetic quality and recreational capacity of our waters.
  • Biodiversity in wetlands
  • Economic loss due to flooding and fisheries decline.
Number of Bald Eagle Nests and Young To measure conservation efforts to restore habitat and decrease pesticides.


Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) versus population was an indicator examined by the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) Land, Growth, Stewardship and Sustainable Use Indicators Workgroup (LGS&SU) to encourage efficient development patterns. The status of their findings were that the VMT in the Chesapeake bay watershed increased 80% between 1971 and 1994. Population during the same time increased only 26%. VMT are projected to increase an additional 33% and population is expected to increase 12% between 1995 to 2010 if current trends continue.

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Economic Indicators

How can a Green Community create a sustainable economy? Look at your current economic conditions and learn how they are linked to social and environmental issues. We have been programed to perceive development and growth as necessary for a prosperous community. We are learning that the outcome of improper development -- sprawl -- has caused a huge economic burden for our communities. We need to learn how to properly channel our resources so that we create a prosperous community without creating further problems in the future. Use economic indicators to provide information on current conditions, trends and movements towards targets.

Indicator Purpose Linkages
Ratio of Affordable Housing Cost To evaluate affordable housing in the community. Adequate affordable housing is necessary to foster economic sustainability. Linkages to social well-being, economic stability, health and welfare issues, poverty.
Percentage with economic access to Health Care How much of our financial resources go towards caring for or preventing illness.
  • Health and self sufficiency
  • Increased costs to community
  • Decline in education spending
  • Decline in environmental spending
Percentage of Families Living Below Poverty Line Equal distribution of wealth
  • Child poverty
  • Poor health
  • Juvenile crime
  • Low civic participation
Percentage of Total Employment by Industry Resilience of the job market. Diversified job market is less susceptible to changing market demands
  • Environmental protection
  • Poverty
  • Homelessness
  • Consumer spending
  • Crime rate

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Social Indicators

We need to be responsible for our own destiny. The demographics measured in our community starts to tell us how the population is distributed. But social indicators also measure our social well-being and quality-of-life. Does your community respect the rights and feeling of others, enjoy diversity in cultures, values, wants and opinions? The social structure of a community is linked to the ability of its residents to take a stewardship approach. Whether our concerns are racial tensions, the safety of our neighborhoods, reliable child care resource, good schools, social and recreational resources -- we need to empower strong public participation and control over decisions. Green communities offer equal opportunity, social harmony, and mutual respect for a diverse community.

Indicator Purpose Linkages
Voters Participating in Primary Elections Participate fully in decsions about the way their community is governed.
  • Poverty Levels
  • Crime
  • Political Awareness
  • Improved government
  • Environmental health
  • Enhance Economic health
Low Birth Weight Babies per 1000 Live Births Adequate nurturing of future generations
  • Literacy
  • Low income
  • Poor health
  • Inequity of ethnic groups
  • Economic imbalance
Suicide Rates per 1000 population To address the mental health of community and underlying social issues: age-, race-, and ethnic-inequity.
  • Economic imbalance
Demographics (population, race, age) Future sustainability must take in account the projected population. Ensure population does not grow beyond environmental resources.
  • Land use patterns
  • Biodiversity
  • Water and air quality
  • Housing affordability
Child Abuse Monitor quality-of-life in families.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Teen pregnancy
  • Crime
  • Unemployment

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Goal-Based Examples

Other communities establish sustainable goals and then select goal-based indicators that directly link to these targets. This approach helps people move towards a new way of thinking. "The strength of a goal-based framework is that it reduces the number of indicators that have to be considered to only those relating to specified sustainability goals." (see Maclaren reference below)

Sustainability Indicators

Sustainability Indicators represent areas of concern which, if improving over time will lead to a more green community. Although these indicators could be categorized under many different topics, these indicators often can be translated into specific targets or goals. Here are some ideas.....what other sustainability indicators could you use in your community?

Indicator Purpose Linkages
Percent of population w/in walking distance of public transportation To evaluate access to public transportation in an effort to reduce automobile use and dependency; This links to livability issue, land use, air pollution, etc.
Percent of native plant and animal species endangered vs. secure

To evaluate natural resource diversity in your community;

To help ascertain sustainability of natural resources and related functions.

Biodiversity provides links to natural resource protection, land use, recreational opportunities and economic benefits associated with open spaces, greenways and natural areas.
Percent and volume of waste converted back to beneficial uses To evaluate conservation and pollution prevention efforts of commercial and industrial sectors, as well as, households. This indicator links to economic savings for the purchase and production of new materials, reduces toxic emissions to air, water and land. Ensures sustainable use of limited resources.
Progress toward goal of 20% reduction in use of potable water To measure reduction in water use, conservation measures implemented. It focuses on solution not problem. This links to sustainable use of limited resources resulting in cost savings for homes, business and industry.
Vehicle Miles Traveled

To illustrate the effect of land use patterns on travel needs.

Vehicle shows that people are inconveniently located to meet daily needs of work, home, children and recreation.

This indicator strongly links to land use; Other links include air quality, consumption of non- renewable resources and costs(taxes) associated with highway construction and maintenance.

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Economic Prosperity

Not until communities can meet their vital needs of shelter, food, clothing, etc will they become aware of the social and environmental problems. When most of the community cannot afford their basic living expenses, they usually do not address the associated social and environmental decline. Economic prosperity stabilizes families and enhances revenues to pay for public services.

Indicator Purpose Linkages
% employment in locally- owned and operated businesses To evaluate investment that stays within the community. A healthy economy results from "plugging the leaks." Linkages to social well-being, civic participation, education.
Distribution of personal income

To evaluate the disparity between haves and have nots.

Communities are weakened by concentrations of poverty and unequal opportunity.

Low incomes can be linked with child poverty, poor health, education levels, levels of civic participation, and inequitable distribution of services and opportunities.
Percent of households paying 30% or less of income on rent To evaluate affordable housing in the community. Communities members have diverse needs; adequate affordable housing is necessary to foster economic sustainability. Linkages to social well-being, economic stability, health and welfare issues, poverty.
Number of enterprises adopting ISO 14000 standards To measure the progress of industry to incorporate standards to improve processes which lead to greater environmental protection. Linkages to resource conservation, health, education
Income disparity between urban centers and outlying areas (suburbs) Indicates urban decay and suburban sprawl Linkages to land use, resource consumption, education, poverty, crime and safety, environmental justice.

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Healthy Community

The health of our community is measured by the physical and mental health of the people who live there. A communities health is vital to a good quality of life. The health of a community can be linked to economic, social and environmental conditions. Emotional health is dependent on our recreation abilities, and our access to the natural environment and community activities.

Indicator Purpose Linkages
Percentage living below poverty line A healthy community has economic equity. There should not be a disparity between the "haves" and the "have nots".
  • crime
  • child abuse
  • welfare
Percentage who volunteer at least 50 hrs/year to civic, community or nonprofit activities. To seek to improve the Quality of Life in our communities.
  • Improved condition for poverty
  • economic renewal
Park & facility space (acres) per capita (1000 people) by district. Within a ¼ mile radius. To reflect desired land use patterns. To provide well integrated public open spaces in urban districts.
  • increase liveability in high density residential and commercial areas
  • urban biodiversity
  • urban wildlife habitat
  • mental health
  • tourism
  • economic renewal
  • social gathering
  • air quality
  • water quality by decreasing impervious surface
  • reduce temperature
  • community gardens for produce
Hospitalization for asthma per 10,000 residents


  • poverty
  • housing affordability
  • indoor and outdoor air quality
  • lack of health care
  • societal health costs
  • home cleanliness
Percent of community with available health insurance To reflect how much of our financial resources are being allocated toward caring for or preventing illness. To ensure that affordable health care is available to everyone.
  • serious problems result in delay in obtaining medical attention.
  • increase costs to personal, business and government
  • excessive costs leave less for spending on education and environment
Young female (10-17) pregnancy rate (birth rate/ 1000 female) To reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy
  • increase in prenatal and perinatal complications
  • impaired child development
  • cost to society increase welfare dependents

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Social Well Being

Our community must be a safe place to live. We must have easy and safe access to work, stores and play. Our neighborhoods need to be safe from crime. We want neighborhoods that are equitable and clean. Until we feel safe with our basic needs of shelter and food, we cannot look forward to improving our environmental and economic health.

Indicator Purpose Linkages
Percentage of ethnic groups graduating High school To produce a good citizen with the basic skills necessary to participate fully in the stewardship of our city and region.
  • parental involvement
  • economic vitality
  • social equity
  • public safety
Rate of reported violent crimes (against person) per 1000 people during calendar year. Compare difference of urban and rural communities To measure the public safety of our community. To make our communities a safe place to live. To live peaceably together
  • economic decline by discouraging economic investment
  • environmental justice
  • Child poverty
  • social diversity
  • Vehicle Miles Traveled
  • Health care cost
  • Increase tax burden
  • Distabilizes communities
Percent of population within walking distance of public transportation To increase the amount of pedestrian friendly streets. To limit the dependence on car to provide transportation to work and shopping.
  • improved health
  • promotes social interactions
  • recreational opportunity
  • expand mobility
  • air quality
  • economic renewal
Distribution of affordable housing throughout the community To provide affordable housing for everyone. To increase community stability and self sufficiency.
  • distribution of wealth
  • impact on biodiversity
  • child poverty
  • crime rates
  • reduced mental health
  • homelessness

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How to Select Indicators

The indicators you decide to collect will depend on the direction your community is currently heading and deciding on the direction you want to take.

1. Define your goals

The Visioning process in "Where do we want to be?" will reveal the goals or issues that are important to your community. "If we are to move towards sustainability in our region, we must decide what we value, find indicators to measure those values, and keep track of our progress." (EcoCity Cleveland)

2. Identify your target audience

The amount and complexity of the data will depend whether your audience is the public, policy makers or scientist.

3. Evaluate your indicators

Both multi-voting and selection grid techniques have been used by communities to narrow their list of potential indicators. In Chattanooga, TN, multi-voting -- by all stakeholders -- was used to determine what indicators were most important. Multi-voting is quite simple. After generating a list of possible indicators, each stakeholder has an allotted number of votes to select what indicator they feel is their priority. The indicators chosen by a community are the ones that received the most votes.

Selection grids establish objective scoring systems to evaluate potential indicators. Should your community decide to use a Selection Grid in narrowing the list of indicators needed, the following steps are recommended.

  1. Choose Criteria: The community must reach consensus on the meaning of the final criteria or the process is likely to fail.

    Listed below are some criteria that may be used for evaluating potential indicators.

    • Reflects stakeholder's concerns: is important or relevant to the lives of its audience
    • Measurable: accurately measures the issue or goal in a scientifically defensible way
    • Understandable: can be transformed into a format appropriate to its audience
    • Comparability/Meaningful: can be compared to existing and past measures to define trends
    • Data Availability: is relatively easy to gather and interpret; generally at modest cost
    • Targetable/Interpretable: measures movement towards or away from a specified target or goal (a.k.a. benchmark or threshold).
    • Geographic/Temporal Scale: measures an appropriate geographic area and/or an appropriate interval of time (e.g., one, two, five years)
    • Timely/Anticipatory: provides early warning of changes
    • Results-oriented: focuses on measuring achievements (e.g., percentage of adults who are literate) instead of efforts (e.g., money spent on a literacy education) or expenditures.
    • Long-range reliability: are reliable for up to two decades or more. (This is a typical time frame for strategic planning).
    • Flexibility: are flexible enough to incorporate new scientific information and changing public perceptions

  2. Determining how each criteria will be weighted. The selection grid should have a scoring system for ranking the indicators. The weighted voting can be a simple YES/NO to a numerical rating system. Many numerical systems are possible, such as (1-5), (1-10) or even (0.1, 0.2, 1, 5, 10). The larger number (or "YES") must always represent a desirable rating. In some cases this may mean "less", e.g.; cost.

  3. Scoring: Request every stakeholder to score each indicator against the criteria. Make a grid with the criteria across the top and the indicators on the left side. Every stakeholder completes the grid to evaluate how well the indicators satisfy each criterion.

  4. Total and Average the score. Each stakeholder should total their score for each indicator. The score from each indicator is then averaged.

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How To Use and Report Indicators

Collect data and results for each indicator. The results can reveal a trend (Where Are We Now?) or show if you are moving to a set target (Where do we want to be?). How results are reported can vary depending on audience.

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Indicators In Action

Sustainable communities are sprouting up all over the place. Learn what other communities are doing!

Sustainability Indicators in Action site.Exit EPA Click for Disclaimer

The US Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy compiled a list of local and international communities using sustainable indicators. This is an excellent collection of sustainable indicators in action.

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Other Web Sites On Indicators

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Data Sources

We tried to find appropriate sources, that will provide the data for the indicators selected by your community. Your objective is to identify reliable sources of information, such as official records (e.g., local, county, state, or federal government report) or commissioned research (i.e., from universities, or non-profit groups). Generally, official record and commissioned research are cheaper and easier to obtain and use than newly gathered or originally generated information. However, one should not disregard indicators that may not currently exist. Exit EPA Click for Disclaimer


1) "Monitoring Sustainability in Your Community", Ben Hren, Nick Bartolomeo, and Michael Singer, The Izaak Walton League of America, Gaithersburg, MD, 1995, 20 pages. Exit EPA Click for Disclaimer

This brief, easy-to-use handbook presents 12 indicators, compiled from efforts used across the nation, to assess a community's quality of life, consumption of natural resources, and the condition of local ecosystems. Each indicator is well described, including reasons for selection and how to obtain and use source data.

To order, call: (301) 548-0150; send an email message to: general@iwla.org; or write:

The Carrying Capacity Project
Izaak Walton League of America
707 Conservation Lane
Gaithersburg, MD 20878
Cost: $2.00 (includes postage)

2) "Guide to Sustainable Community Indicators, 2nd Edition ", Maureen Hart

This easy-to-use guidebook is an excellent guide for those interested in assessing the ecological/environmental and socio-economic quality of one's community. The guidebook describes the process of developing, evaluating, and using indicators at the community level in a step-by-step approach. Besides its clear, in-depth, and thorough presentation, this guidebook contains a superb set of sample indicators, evaluated by the author, as well as a list of other community sustainability projects, potential data sources, and references.

To order or for more information contact:

Sustainable Measures
P.O. Box 502
West Hartford, CT 06137

3) The North Central Regional Center for Rural Development along with the USEPA has created an annotated bibliography of social indicators of community based environmental protection-PDF. [153pp, 427k, about pdf] Exit EPA Click for Disclaimer

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