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The role of an indicator is to make complex systems understandable or perceptible. An effective indicator or set of indicators helps a community determine where it is, where it is going, and how far it is from chosen goals. Indicators of sustainability examine a community's long-term viability based on the degree to which its economic, environmental, and social systems are efficient and integrated.

To measure the degree of efficiency and integration, a set of numerous indicators is often required. These indicators can incorporate several broad categories such as Economy, Environment, Society/Culture, Government/Politics, Resource Consumption, Education, Health, Housing Quality of Life, Population, Public Safety, Recreation, and Transportation.

Examples of indicators currently in use from several of these categories include:


Income: Distribution of Jobs and Income

Business: Percentage of wages earned within a community also spent within the community

Training: Employer payroll dedicated to continuing training/education


Air: CO2 emissions from transportation sources

Drinking Water: Percentage reduction in drinking water supplies from 1990

Land Use: Percentage of development occurring annually within an urban area


Energy: Percentage energy used from renewable sources

Hazardous Materials: Consumption of pesticides

Water: Number of gallons of water saved through leak repair


Abuse: Child abuse/neglect/abandonment

Diversity: Racism perception

Volunteerism: Volunteer rate for sustainability activities

These sample indicators were drawn from a compilation by author Maureen Hart in her book Guide to Sustainable Community Indicators. Hart's Sustainable Measures web site is a wonderful source for insightful definitions, a searchable database of sample indicators, characteristics of effective indicators, data sources, and other valuable information.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development provides useful information on measurement and indicators for sustainable development, including a global directory Compendium of SD Indicator Initiatives and a downloadable PDF version of the report Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development, compiled by Donella Meadows for the Balaton Group. IISD also offers the Dashboard of Sustainability, a visual model of indicators that makes national progress toward, or away from, sustainability more apparent. For examples of the dashboard model as applied by various groups and countries, see The Dashboard Online Collection.

International Sustainability Indicators Network is a member-driven organization that provides people working on sustainability indicators with a method of communicating with and learning from each other. The Network also seeks to increase the use of sustainability indicators as a means of promoting movement toward sustainability at all scales, from local neighborhoods to the global economy.

More information on indicators, including a Community Indicators Listserv and publications on community indicator application in California, can be found in the Community Indicators section of the Redefining Progress website.

London Sustainability Exchange offers links to already developed sustainability indicator sets available online, as well as links to sustainability indicator toolkits available internationally.

The usefulness and accuracy of Indicators of Sustainability depends on their ability to create a "snapshot" of the community's economic, environmental, and social systems. Choosing the appropriate indicators and developing a program is a large-scale process requiring collaboration between many sectors including government agencies, the public, research institutions, civic and environmental groups, and business. The indicator programs profiled in the Indicators in Action section offer a wealth of information on the process of indicator program development, rationale for specific indicator selection, and the ongoing challenges communities face in indicator implementation.

Lowell Center for Sustainable Production offers training in indicators that relate specifically to sustainable production, as well as a hierarchy for classifying production indicators.

Articles and Publications

"If the GDP is Up, Why is America Down?" An article from the principals at Redefining Progress, a non-profit public policy organization whose aim is to stimulate broad public discourse on the type of future Americans desire, and how best to achieve it. The authors provide the following synopsis of the article: "Why we need new measures of progress, why we do not have them, and how they would change the social and political landscape."