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.