Indicators and Environmental Action Plans (or how I learned to stop worrying and loved to diet)


Sustainability is the way to go. Or so it seems. There seems to be a current trend in planning for sustainable development, reacting upon the awful impacts we have clearly done to the environment; not because we acknowledge that we have been a terrible species in this world, but because we are starting to feel the impacts ourselves. Although there are those who still believe this is not our fault, there seems to be more of us who want this to stop. While “deniers” are looking in detail at concepts and trying to prove who is responsible for this; “believers” – me included (bias alert) – have finally understood how to deal with this issue: let’s start to ignore deniers (maybe start making fun of them?) and start planning.

So we need to think about sustainability. The term per se is still not very clear for most of us, but the main idea is: let’s try to live in a way we can ensure that the environment tomorrow will be like today, or better still, cleaner and nicer. This is definitely a non-scientific approach, but I want to recognize the need to stop trying to define everything in precise and exact scientific ways in order to move forward. Let’s face it, most of the right decisions we take in life are not precisely calculated, we just use our common sense and act upon it.

On this note, I want to suggest a comparison: a diet. Imagine you have eaten everything you ever wanted, whenever you wanted it. But now, things are starting to hurt. So what do we do? We go to the doctor and say: this thing hurts and I want it to stop, what should I do? The doctor examines you and tells you that your cholesterol levels are super high, you are overweight, and you need to reduce these levels doing some sort of diet, exercise, and maybe even some pills.

Let’s put this in context to planning then. The first step towards sustainable planning, as Daniels and Daniels clearly depicts in their 8-step strategy to implement an Environmental Act, is to acknowledge the problem. Experts and scientists then evaluate the problem in the context needed and present numbers, indicators, and metrics to define this problem, just like the doctor did. These numbers come with a strategy. The idea is to reduce these numbers to specific targets so that our health is not in jeopardy.

It is vital then to understand the importance of these numbers. Indicators help us understand the gravity of the problem. Planners can use these numbers to evaluate how policies and strategies are being implemented and what results do they bring to society. This indicators show then, in a mathematical and scientific way, the progress of different strategies to improve the urban lifestyle. If they are taken carefully, then they are facts, and as such, they are powerful. However, it is important, to recognize that this numbers are the results of strategies, and not the other way around. Innes and Booher argue that “Indicators do not show the causes of a problem, only their existence… They are indicators, not answers.” So once we understand these problems, we define a strategy. In the case of our example, the numbers can determine the rigidness of the diet or exercise plan, in the case of cities, it helps build Action Plans.

Action Plans are planners approach to deal with sustainability and environmental issues. As Innes and Booher argue, “Cities are like living organisms functioning as complex adaptive systems”, so the strategies designed to deal with these issues involve a great number of metrics. As an example, the City of Oakland, through the 2012 Energy & Climate Action Plan, describes which sources are affecting the environment the most and what should the City do to reduce them at desired levels for the city, region and state level. In this case, Oakland plans for a 20% VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled) reduction, 32% decrease in electricity consumption, 14% reduction in gas consumption and 375,000 tons of waste diverted away from landfills by 2020. These system performance indicators are backed by 28 “Secondary Performance Metrics” that follow upon the strategies defined, so that through yearly evaluations, planners, authorities and citizens can see how well they are doing. Innes and Booher argue that there are three different indicators that planners and authorities should always consider when planning for sustainability: system performance indicators (measuring the overall health), policy and programs measures (measuring how policies are working) and rapid feedback indicators (for citizens and businesses support on day-to-day decisions).

However, cities follow different approaches to sustainability, some have a strong commitment to reduce our footprint on the environment, while others just play along (the typical “oh I can’t, I’m on a diet”, but the next day devours everything). Berke and Manta Conroy conducted a statistical analysis on different Action Plans concluding that “the explicit inclusion of the concept (sustainability) has no effect on how plans actually promote sustainability principles”. In other words, saying you are on a diet will not improve your health. This seems moronic, but it is true, and it is one of the most complicated issues in sustainable planning. Another way to trick planning efforts from success is by performing the wrong measurements. Brugmann argues that some cities choose the wrong indicators to measure sustainable planning, ending up in inconclusive strategies. Using Sustainable Seattle as an example, the author argues that using ill-defined indicators for sustainability could result in inconclusive results from sustainable strategies.

This brings us back to our diet. Following a diet is not easy, and there are often conflicts: can I eat burgers? How will I get my proteins then? I can’t afford fancy meals! In planning these are more common still. The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movement, the Tea Party, even Environmental Groups often stop sustainable policies from being implemented. The changes implicit in living in a sustainable way often presents conflicts with different groups, and conflicts where there is no real right answer. So how can planners promote sustainability effectively? Karen Frick studied the conflicts present between planners and different social groups when dealing with sustainable planning. Her conclusion is brilliant. There are often conflicts to this policy changes but there are also common grounds. Planners should avoid engaging in these conflicts and work on identifying common grounds between groups to promote sustainable policies. Leading the discussion into a negotiation. This is even applicable to our little comparison: we can eat burgers but we’ll run 15 minutes more every day!

The development of a sustainable action plan therefore relies heavily on metrics and measurements. Indicators are essential for the successful implementation of sustainable Action Plans. But let’s not forget, they are data, not statements. The data does not speak, we speak for the data. Hence it is important to recognize which specific measurements are useful for the city in context, to generate strategies that improve conditions to different community groups by identifying common grounds between them, and finally, develop an Action Plan that is tailor-made to the community and feasible for its implementation.


  • Daniels & Daniels. 2003. “Taking Stock of the Local Environment and Creating and Environmental Action Plan”
  • City of Oakland Energy & Climate Action Plan. 2012.
  • E. Innes, J. & Booher D.E. 2000. “Indicators for Sustainable Communities: A Strategy for Building on Complexity Theory and Distributed Intelligence”. Planning Theory & Practice. 1 (2), 173-186.
  • Berke, P.R. & Conroy, M. M.. 2000. “Are We Planning for Sustainable Development? An Evaluation of 30 Comprehensive Plans”. Journal of the American Planning Association, 66 (1), 21-33.
  • Brugmann, J. 1997. “Is there a Method in our Measurement? The Use of Indicators in Local Sustainable Development Planning”. Local Environment, 2 (1), 59-72.

8 thoughts on “Indicators and Environmental Action Plans (or how I learned to stop worrying and loved to diet)

  1. Wow! I really enjoyed your analogy: original and makes the concept much easier to understand. I actually think it gets right to the point you made saying “we need to stop trying to define everything in precise and exact scientific ways in order to move forward.” I feel that many times people get tied up in the technical meaning of the words and start arguing about the use of one term over the other and completely miss the main point and the original goal of their discussion. That happens also in planning and sometimes it is actually even used by politicians as a tactic to distract the “audience” from the main issue, which they don’t have an interest in solving.

  2. jennamhahn

    What if the wrong thing is being measured? Or captured incorrectly (think survey bias)? Impact investing is becoming hugely popular, and the world of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) experts seems to be creating jobs faster than academics can keep pace. I see the value in studying outcomes, as it helps us know where to best invest, and help measure if projects really have impact or not – but I continue asking – are we even asking the right questions? Creating an unbiased survey is impossible – it implicitly has the perspective of the creators and aims to answer some sort of hypothesis. However, I worry – what would happen without indicators? Is measuring something better than nothing? Often times the picture is so much more complex. I worry that the actions being measured by indicators of one place may be scaled to another, without proper contextualization. I also worry that many indicators function on different timeframes – some short and some long – how do we know if something has had an impact if it could potentially take years or even generations to see the payoffs? Does this mean we settle for more short term solutions?

  3. jessicalanguyen

    I really like your diet analogy, too, and I think it applies nicely to the idea of finding common ground in sustainability efforts when political or personal views on an issue differ. Going on a diet does not mean that you have to completely cut hamburgers out; it could simply mean eating hamburgers less frequently or without the bun. The same goes for sustainability. What one person envisions as higher density or compact development can differ from the next. Rather than imagining the extremes of proposed changes, opposing parties can look at intermediate changes and compromises that they are both willing to make.

  4. I also enjoyed your analogy to a diet. What an interesting way to view the situation. I think you could expand it even further to think about how metrics and indicators in one region or circumstance may be relevant and accurate measurements, but in another region it may not be applicable or helpful at all. This is similar to the idea that exercise and diet practices are not a one size fits all. Everyone’s body is different and so different approaches are appropriate for different people (and even for the same person who is in a different phase of their life or has different goals). The same can be said for metrics and indicators for sustainable development. It’s defined differently depending on the region and the characteristics of the ecology of the environment.

  5. Great analogy! (but I also agree with FROBERTSGREGORY’s comment that unfortunately many believe it is their right to destroy their body or the planet). Perhaps though we as planners do need to constantly check our jargon and I think if anyone browsing the internet came across our blog, yours would be the most relatable and easy to understand, so that is very powerful in itself.

  6. caitlintouchberry

    I appreciated this post from the John Oliver link to the diet analogy. The discussion around using quantitative indicators and qualitative information to assess progress towards sustainability, made me think of how the development sector measures impact of an intervention. Impact Evaluation ( is used to measure the size of the impact a program makes on its intended outcome. I think it could be very applicable to measuring sustainability.

  7. frobertsgregory

    I love your analogy between sustainability and diets. Right on! Unfortunately, some see it as their American right not to diet and destroy their body i.e. use up natural resources and prohibit others from living healthy, sustainable lifestyles. I also agree indicators have to be used appropriately and that planning and goal setting is pertinent for success- however, it is important not to spend so much time planning that no actions are taken. Sometimes it is OK to plan by trial and error. You can never be prepared enough for decisions that are super complex, but you shouldn’t use all one’s resources on planning. And although indicators and numbers can help some stay on track, they can also be misleading and addicting. Case in point: Body mass index is a biased indicator of health and can become a very harmful indicator for some who are labeled as obese when in fact they are not obese. Thus, we should use indicators with caution. We must stress to the public that they are imperfect measures that can always be improved upon.

  8. niavila

    I like your “doctor visit” analog. This post highlights the importance of indicators. The key to choosing the right indicators to measure progress is defining what sustainability is. Just like the choice of a cheeseburger for a meal, understanding its effect on daily quotas of protein, saturated fats and sugars will not only inform the choice but will measure the impact of eating the cheeseburger. Since sustainability is broadly defined, it is difficult to measure progress towards it.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s