Introduction from
The Community Indicators Handbook

by Tyler Norris, Alan AtKisson et al
© Copyright 1997 by Redefining Progress - 144 pages
To order the entire Handbook contact, (510) 444-3041

All across the world, in communities large and small, citizens are coming together to create new visions of their future, Some are talking about "healthy cities." Others are promoting the idea of "sustainable communities." Most are concerned with maintaining or improving the "quality of life" in their city, town, or neighborhood.

Whatever their language, these communities want to ensure that the next generation inherits a healthy, vital place to live. They don't want to just "let things slide." They want to set goals and priorities. They want to take actions that will build a vital community now and into the future. They want to measure their progress toward their visions of a better tomorrow, to ensure that their efforts result in positive changes.

"Community Indicators" are measuring systems, designed, developed, and researched by the community members themselves. They are like instrument panels that provide citizens with clear and honest information about past trends and current realities, and assist them in steering their communities on their desired course. They help civic leaders clarify key issues and challenges, or prioritize spending when budgets are tight. Indicators can point a community toward specific initiatives or policy changes that will have a real effect on quality of life. That impact is then reflected in the indicator designed to measure it, and the positive feedback inspires the community to continue striving for a better tomorrow.

Community indicators don't just monitor progress; they help make it happen.

Why are new indicators often at the heart of community revitalization efforts? Because many of the measures currently used to measure health and well-being are inadequate, or even faulty. For example, if a city measures success solely in traditional terms like job growth, housing starts and new road construction, it may interpret growth in these numbers as a rosy picture of a vital place to live - but end up with sprawl, air pollution, and a dying downtown. In other words, you get what you measure.

At the turn of a new century, communities everywhere are learning that the old ways of tracking progress aren't good enough. They need measures that help them strike a balance between economic, environmental, and social concerns. Better yet, they need to find ways of integrating those concerns, so that they are no longer seen as competing interests. They also need to link their indicators to performance, so that citizens, community leaders, and political leaders can hold themselves accountable.

Finally, communities are also discovering that the process of developing indicators is just as important as the indicators themselves. By convening citizens to consider how to measure their overall well-being, the community as a whole is spurred to create new visions of the future, develop new working relationships across old boundaries, and define its assets, problems, and opportunities in new ways.

The term "community indicators," as used throughout this Handbook, refers to measurements of local trends that include all three dimensions of what it takes to build a healthy community: economic, environmental, and social. Community indicators attempt to present a more complete and accurate picture of life in an area that people call home. They help illuminate linkages among economic, environmental, and social issues, and they present this information in a clear and compelling format that anyone can understand.

There are many good examples of community indicators that have been developed in recent years, and we have drawn heavily on these model projects in preparing this Handbook. Think of this as a starter kit full of examples, suggestions and options for developing an effective report card of community well-being. But there is no single "best recipe" to follow. Good indicators are developed by a broad spectrum of community members, and selection of those indicators will depend primarily on the information, resources, and needs within your community.

The community indicators movement is still in its infancy. We have a lot to learn about how to choose good measures, how to present and assess them, and how to market them effectively so they get the attention they deserve. Every new project is a source of innovation and improvement. We encourage you to experiment, to try out new ideas, and to share your discoveries with others.


Indicators are small bits of information that reflect the status of larger systems. The gas gauge and speedometer in your car are classic examples, and so is your body temperature. When we can't see the condition of something directly and in its entirety -- whether it's a car, a person, an educational system, or a whole community -- we need indicators to make those conditions visible. Indicators can't tell us everything, but they can tell us enough to make good decisions possible.

In technical terms, indicators are presentations of data that show changes and trends over time. In community indicator work, they are most often illustrated as charts and graphs, because these images allow people to see the trend at a glance. But there are also many other ways to take data and turn it into a meaningful indicator using media, graphic design, or the arts.

For example, to show changes in water use in your community, you might gather the data from the water utility on total water use every year and present it as a graph. To get a sense of changes in individual water habits, you might divide the total each year by the population for that year, to get a "per capita" measure, and then graph the result. That would be a quick way to make the trend understandable to most people, and in fact, this is the format that most community indicator efforts choose.

But you might also take that information and turn it into a poster or a short video with an animated reservoir that is starting to go dry. You might start gathering daily water use data and putting it on the front page of the newspaper, with a graphic of a water droplet that registers daily increases or decreases (this technique helped avert a water shortage in Seattle). Or you might engage children or artists in creating even more creative interpretations of the data through pictures, storytelling, or even dance.

The core of an indicator is always data, and the data needs to be reliable and scientifically accurate; however, the presentation of the data is what turns the information into a meaningful indicator. And increasingly, communities are showing enormous creativity in translating their data into indicators: graphic images that have the power to communicate with people and stir them to action.

It all started in 1985...
Jacksonville and Duval County, FL
Life in Jacksonville: Quality Indicators for Progress Since: 1985
Purpose: Public Education, Policy Background, and Performance Evaluation
Coordinated by: Jacksonville Community Council, Inc.

In the early 1980's there was very little activity around comprehensive indicator sets at any level. Most of the local economic and social indicator projects first developed by planning departments in the 1970's had faded away, and the few that remained received little attention. The Jacksonville project is largely responsible for renewing interest in community indicators.

In 1985 a group of concerned citizens gathered about 100 volunteers, and with the initial support of the Chamber of Commerce, decided to develop indicators for measuring the effects of regional growth on quality of life in the community. Since that time, 75 indicators have been updated annually to monitor Jacksonville's progress on community improvement. It took a few years for the indicators to get noticed by the press and used by the community, but in 1991 JCCI teamed up with both the local Chamber of Commerce and the city of Jacksonville to initiate the Targets 2000 project, a strategic planning process involving another 140 volunteers in setting targets for the established indicators.

The success of this collaboration earned widespread attention for the Quality Indicators for Progress, and dozens of projects measuring local quality of life emerged in the early 1990s. Now JCCI is teaming with the local government to link the indicators with a performance-based budgeting effort for the city.


Communities are comprised of systems- social, natural, economic and political- and systems depend on good information to function properly. Without accurate feedback, decision makers cannot effectively manage the systems in their care.

Indicators are the mechanism for getting feedback about a system that might otherwise be too big and complex to understand. How well is our educational system faring? We can get a pretty good idea by studying the trends in graduation rates or SAT scores. Do people have adequate access to the health care systems? Increasing use of the emergency room for non-emergency purposes could be an indicator that they do not.

Quite simply, communities develop and use indicators because they need them. Indicators are a window into the complexities of modern life. They make it possible to make informed decisions and to be accountable for the results. They are powerful enough leverage points within systems that they can make change happen almost on their own, even without any recourse to new regulations, programs or policies.

For example, when a new U.S. law went into effect that required every large plant emitting toxic air pollutants to list those pollutants publicly so that surrounding communities would be made aware, an indicator was inadvertently created (the Toxic Release Inventory). Local newspapers began publishing lists of the "top ten polluters." Companies responded quickly to get off the list, and toxic emissions decreased rapidly even though there was no specific law against them. The presence of the information was sufficient to change behavior.

Similarly, when new Dutch houses were built with electric meters in the front hall where they were easily visible, instead of down in the cellar where they were normally placed, people began paying more attention to them. They were able to see the connection between their energy use and their energy bill. Household electricity use decreased by one-third, which helped local communities meet energy conservation goals. Again, simply making the information visible can strongly affect what people do.


The answer to this question depends very much on the purpose of the indicators, but the short answer is, "everyone."

Citizen groups are developing indicator reports to educate the public about important issues or values like sustainability and community health. Business associations are creating them to assess the economic vitality of their regions. Local governments are developing indicators to provide background for major policy decisions (such as new comprehensive plans) and to evaluate their overall performance (how well they are meeting their goals).

However, once an indicator set is developed, it gets used by many other people. Business groups use them to assess the market or the long-term prospects for the local workforce. Schools use them to educate students about local trends and issues. Advocacy groups refer to them to make their case to the media, the public, foundations, and political figures. The media use them to report on what's happening in the community. Politicians, of course, use them to point to their accomplishments or the failings of their opponents. And increasingly, philanthropic foundations (as well as corporate and government grant-makers) are using indicators to help them identify priorities for funding and for identifying "high-leverage" strategies, where a little money in one place will have a lot of positive spin-off or "ripple" effects.

Perhaps the most common use of indicators, however, is in concert with broad efforts at revitalizing a community and grafting visions of a better future. While indicators are often undertaken as a stand-alone initiative, there are scores of communities that are incorporating new measures of progress into a wider mobilization effort. Indicators help communities build participation, set priorities, develop action plans, and track progress toward the realization of a new vision.

Indicators for public health
Pasadena, CA
Quality of Life Index
Since: 1992
Purpose: Policy Background
Coordinated by: City of Pasadena, Public Health Department

Pasadena is a "California Healthy Cities Project," a program linked to the international "healthy cities" movement. It developed Quality of Life Indicators as a long-range planning, priority-setting and resource allocation tool. In 1992, 150 citizens and civic professionals, representing a cultural cross-section of the city's diverse neighborhoods, were called together by the Pasadena Public Health Department to help identify priority community health objectives.

The result of their work was the "Quality of Life Index for Pasadena," a tool for increasing awareness about the healthy cities concept and for informing the public about actions to improve quality of life in Pasadena. The Index is comprised of 53 indicators in 10 categories that affect community life, including Environment; Health; Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs; Education, Economy & Employment; Housing; Arts & Culture; Recreation & Open Spaces; Transportation; and Community Safety. The Index has assisted both the city and community agencies in establishing human services priorities, and it has guided policy development in tobacco control, alcohol availability and infant health.

The project recently developed a "Quality of Life Community Planning Matrix," and it now aims to design and implement a "Pasadena Healthy Cities Communication Strategic Plan" in order to communicate the findings and uses of the planning matrix to city staff and the community as a whole.


Community visioning processes help identify long-term goals for a region. They allow the community to look into the future, to think creatively about what it could become, and describe that ideal picture in ways that guide policy and goal-setting. Visions offer a framework for understanding community concerns, prioritizing issues, determining action steps, and identifying new measures of progress.

Indicator projects are often-though not always-linked to a community visioning project. When community residents and stakeholders come together to create a vision for their community's future and set goals for its attainment, indicators are a natural next step. Even when a formal visioning process isn't involved, indicator sets are always shaped by some pre-existing image of where the community has been, and where it wants to go. It's important to know what that vision is; the development of an indicator set is a good time to re-examine a community's vision, and make it fresh.

In this Handbook, however, we focus primarily on how to develop indicators. There are a number of other resource guides, and professional consultants, focused on community visioning; we've included a sampling of these in our "Organizations and Resources" section.

Most communities will benefit from some active visioning work before they begin selecting indicators. Here are a few simple guidelines to remember when doing community visioning:

  1. Start with a question that generates concrete images, such as, "You get magically transported to the year 2020. What do you see?"
  2. Set some general boundaries to help people focus their attention, e.g. a time frame, a specific geographic area. But be flexible enough to allow changes if the need arises to redefine the boundaries.
  3. Follow the rules for brainstorming. List everything that comes up and avoid prejudging ideas.
  4. Include a diversity of people who can provide a broad perspective.
  5. Engage people's different capacities. Encourage people to think broadly and prompt their creativity with provocative ideas.

A vision for the future
Honolulu, HI
Ke Ala Hoku
Since: 1996
Purpose: Public Education
Coordinated by: Hawaii Community Services Council

Ke Ala Hoku means the "pathway of the star." On a voyage to the future, who better to chart the course than those who will be living in it? The project began by asking 6000 young people-from elementary school to college undergraduates-to "describe the Hawaii you want to live in." The youth came up with some visions and indicators not found in a typical set of quality of life indicators. These voices were forged into a vision statement for Hawaii by the Youth Steering Committee.

With the assistance of a research team, the Office of State Planning took the lead in drafting a workbook on outcomes and indicators, based on the children's vision, that was distributed to over 300 citizens. The Youth Steering Committee incorporated these citizen responses into a values framework that defines a sustainable community. Critical indicators were selected and reviewed by 1600 individuals and a final report for 1996 focused on 58 critical indicators. The project is currently establishing targets for all indicators, identifying key policy strategies, and supporting citizen action.


There is a jargon to the world of indicators. The different terms are sometimes confusing-and not just to newcomers. It's helpful to start out with a few definitions.

The word "indicator" is a common one: people use it to refer to everything from the gas gauge on a car's dashboard to the presence of shadow under a person's eyes (which tells you he or she probably needs more sleep). Signs like these illustrate the derivation of the word, from indi-care, "to point out or declare." Most often, however, numbers are involved: the number of spotted owls is considered an indicator of health in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, while the price of 30 selected stocks (the Dow Jones Industrial Average) is an indicator of bullish or bearish attitudes in the New York Stock Exchange.

For our purposes, however, an indicator is simply the representation of a trend. It tracks measurable change in some social, economic, or environmental system over time. Generally an indicator focuses on a small, manageable, and telling piece of a system to give people a sense of the bigger picture. For example, the number of books being checked out of the library can tell you something about the cultural vitality of a community, while the number of new small businesses that survive their first year will tell you something about economic health overall.

Indicators are normally presented as a set of separate charts and graphs, but they can also be aggregated together. When several indicators are combined into one measure, using some common denominator, the result is called an "index."

"Data" are the raw material for indicators. To have a good indicator, you need good data: individual measurements, preferably collected consistently and periodically over a significant length of time. Data like this are called "time-series," and they are what make trend analysis possible.

If you don't already have time-series data for an indicator (or index), then you may be measuring something for the first time. If so, you're setting a "baseline" that can be used in future comparisons to determine the trend. Gathering up existing data from previous years is also setting a baseline.

This brings us to the word "benchmark." Technically, "benchmarking" involves thoroughly evaluating your indicator and its data for a given year to make sure it is as accurate as possible. For example, the Bureau of Economic Analysis used to thoroughly review the GDP every five years to establish "benchmark" years against which the data in following years would be compared. (Nowadays, they perform these calibrations annually, in a process called "chain-weighting.")

However, in other arenas, the words "benchmark" and "benchmarking" mean many different things, and the definitions have gotten clouded by several alternate -- but very common -- usages:

Corporations use the term to mean identifying the "best practices" in their field, and comparing themselves against those standards.

Some community or state-level indicator efforts refer to indicators themselves as "benchmarks."

Others use the word "benchmarks" to mean "targets" -- goals toward which they are striving. They use an indicator to help them track progress toward the attainment of these future "benchmarks."

Finally, many people use the word "benchmarking" to mean the entire process of developing indicator sets.

Obviously, it would be difficult at best to try to standardize everyone's language. Our recommendation is to start off, wherever possible, using technically accurate language. You can refer to the example below ("Anatomy of an Indicator") to help establish commonly accepted terms with the people in your community. But don't worry too much over jargon, many groups have strayed from the standard terminology and still produced very effective indicator reports.


Indicator - The presentation of a trend. Most frequently, community indicators are in the form of time-series data, presented as charts and graphs.

Index - The combination of more than one indicator into a single, aggregated measure of an overall trend. (Not to be confused with a set of indicators.)

Data - Individual measurements.

Baseline - An initial data point (or collection of data points) against which all future data points will be compared to determine a trend.

Benchmark - A specific measurement point against which other measurement points are calibrated for accuracy. (Not to be confused with "Indicator" or "Target.")

Milestone - An intermediate goal on the way to achieving a Target.

Target - An imagined future data point that serves as the goal for corrective action.


In community indicator work, "doing it right" means striking a balance between the participatory and the technical. It also means ending up with something you can really use, in all the ways described above-in schools, businesses, city council chambers, and living rooms.

That's why theprocess of indicator development is so important. Indicators require that people with many different backgrounds work together toward a common goal, one that they can all agree on, despite political or cultural differences. In fact, creatively drawing on their diversity-in professions, backgrounds, and life experiences- is what makes the effort successful.

The following section walks you through ten key steps in the development of a community indicators project. Our experience is that most groups go through some version of this process-and that all of them adapt it to fit their own needs. Experience also suggests that the actual process is much less linear (and more messy) than this step-by-step model suggests; in reality you may often find yourself jumping ahead or doubling back often. Stick with it, keep your end goal in mind, and you'll eventually reach your destination.

Utilizing your community's own resources
Boston, MA
Sustainable Boston
Since: 1995 Purpose: Public Education
Coordinated by: Sustainable Boston, City of Boston Environmental Services Cabinet

While consultants and experts in the indicators field can be very helpful in helping projects to get off the ground, a community's own resources can sometimes prove even more valuable. Sustainable Boston, a project sponsored by the City of Boston and involving over 1,000 citizens to date, will soon begin to develop sustainability indicators for the city. The indicators are part of a partnership project among seven constituencies- community, environment, education, media, business, philanthropy, and government-all seeking to create a common mission.

The project is also attempting to educate citizens about the meaning of sustainability and its relevance to life in the urban environment. Sustainable Boston has invited local activists and professionals to speak at monthly forums about how their work ties into the concept of sustainability, and how their economic, environmental and social choices affect their own communities. The project has found that citizens are more receptive to the new value of sustainability when it is placed in the context of their own city, by people who live there.