Communities Choose Their Own "Leading Indicators" of Progress

By Mark Bushnell
American News Service

LEBANON, N.H. -- They read like headlines in a secret code. "Dow drops 10 points." "Durable goods orders up 3 percent." "Index of Leading Economic Indicators drops .1 percent."

The figures may hold some meaning for economists, but they leave many people wondering, "What does this mean for me, my family, my friends, my neighbors?"

From the Northwest, to the Midwest, to the Southeast, people are devising new indicators to gauge more accurately the health of our economy, our culture, our environment.

About 150 people -- from baseball-cap-wearing teenage boys to gray-haired grandmothers -- spent a recent Saturday in a hotel conference room here doing just that. The day was devoted to thinking about the future. Entitled "Valley VitalSigns," the project is designed to create a list of quantifiable indicators to help the roughly 90,000 people of the upper Connecticut River valley understand how the region evolves.

Known locally as the Upper Valley, the area consists of 37 communities in Vermont and New Hampshire. Once almost entirely rural, many Upper Valley hamlets now serve as bedroom communities for larger towns nearby.

With an eye towards charting the area's well-being -- including such intangible community characteristics as trust, commitment, and beauty --participants came up with an array of possible indicators, or VitalSigns, ranging from the practical to the fanciful. They included:

  • The number of working farms;
  • The percentage of businesses that are locally owned;
  • The quality of the water;
  • The percentage of people who volunteer;
  • The number of local children who grow up and settle here;
  • The distance from the center of each community to an unobstructed field of stars.

Information can lead to action, said VitalSigns Co-Chair Betty Porter of Norwich, Vt. "We, individually, have a gut feeling that things aren't going well, but we don't have information to support that feeling," Porter said. "If enough people care about the number of good-paying jobs or locally owned businesses, or clean air, they can mobilize now that they have the hard information."

Organizers hope organizations and local governments will use the VitalSigns to monitor regional trends and look for ramifications affecting them. Or they hope local leaders might create their own indicators to monitor other important local issues.

Valley VitalSigns is a project of the "The Upper Valley: 2001 & Beyond, an initiative started in 1993 by the area's League of Women Voters. League members were looking to follow up on a series of group discussions 15 years ago which led to concrete results, including a local transit system.

They decided to use indicators after being inspired by a newspaper editorial about a similar project in Seattle. There, the leading indicators now include the number of "good" air days each year (73 in 1980; 315 in 1994) and the number of hours the average worker must put in each month just to cover the bare essentials for a family of four (80 and holding steady).

After the brainstorming session produced a number of proposed indicators, participants at the New Hampshire gathering divided into 14 working groups to continue discussing the VitalSigns and add more to the list. The groups covered such topics as personal and public safety, agricultural and forestry, human services, transportation, citizen participation, and arts and culture.

As participants talked among themselves, observers from California, New York, Maine, and Massachusetts -- as well as several from the eastern European republic of Slovakia -- studied the process with the thought of trying similar programs in their own communities.

At day's end, some groups had gotten further than others. The health care group, for example, had successfully narrowed its list to five indicators. The environmental quality group's work was slower.

This didn't surprise Geoff Dates, a participant and a scientist with a national environmental organization. Especially concerning the environment, he said, it's difficult "to strike a balance between what will capture people's hearts and what is scientifically accurate. My main concern with these projects is oversimplification."

The list of proposed indicators will be circulated around the community -- to business groups, to volunteer boards, to teachers -- for suggestions. After the remaining indicators go through a technical review to assure data is available to chart them, they will be published in the fall.

Then VitalSigns staff and volunteers will recruit organizations willing to adopt each indicator. Business groups, for instance, might record the number of locally owned businesses, while an environmental organization would chart air quality.

"Getting people to agree on ways to measure progress is a good way to find our common ground," said Alan AtKisson, a founder of Sustainable Seattle and consultant to the Upper Valley project.

Projects like Valley VitalSigns and Sustainable Seattle are part of an international movement that encourages sustainaibility -- long-term planning that takes into account the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of actions.

Such countries as Holland, Germany, New Zealand and Australia use them to help guide national policy, AtKisson said.

And here in this country some cities and states are beginning to put the new indicators to use.

An indicators project in Jacksonville, Fla., the first in the country, charted the high school's graduation rate. When townspeople discovered it was sinking, they attacked the problem and have raised the graduation rate by 10 percent in the last decade.

In Minnesota, a state planning office uses almost 80 indicators -- termed Minnesota Milestones -- to "grade" the state's progress and recommend changes in resource allocation and policies.

"I don't know what happened in the 20th century that made the U.S. stop thinking about the future," AtKisson told the New Hampshire gathering. "We have to overcome this legacy that is summed up on the bumper sticker on large RVs --`I'm spending my children's inheritance.' As if that were something to be proud of."

Though Americans have gotten away from the idea of sustainability, of worrying about future generations, AtKisson said the movement is making strides.

"I like to compare it to democracy. When people first started out talking about it, they thought it was a principle you could never enact," he explains. "We are much lower on the learning curve (with sustainability), but we are learning fast. The point here is to make sure the world we hand on is at least as good as the world we came into."

Posted July 31, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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