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Re-thinking sustainability indicators: local perspectives of urban sustainability

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Measuring sustainability is not only a contentious issue, but one which has captured the attention of both academics and politicians since the late 1980s. A plethora of methods and approaches have been developed over the last decades or so, from rapid measurements as inputs to specific projects, to longer-term processes of research, monitoring and wider learning. Indicators have been, however, the most influential measuring tool of all and despite the fact that the tensions between expert-led and citizen-led models in their development have fuelled much debate in the literature. It has been suggested that integrating the two approaches would tap into various levels of ‘knowledge’ of sustainability and thus, be a better way of assessing sustainability. However, little is known of whether these ‘integrated’ sets of sustainability indicators work in practice, or indeed reflect the local perspectives, values and understandings of sustainability which they aim to represent. This paper aims to fill this gap. First, an ‘integrative’ set of indicators is designed and second, this is discussed with over 60 ‘sustainability experts’ and 130 residents living in three urban areas in the UK. It is found that the set of indicators is generally a good reflection of urban sustainability in these areas, however, people tend to assign different degrees of ‘importance’ to individual indicators, something which is little accounted for when measuring urban sustainability. The paper concludes that sustainability indicators are not isolated pieces of information, but manifestations of local underlying processes and interconnections that can be mapped and which have the potential to expand our understanding of local sustainability.
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Keywords: indicators; measurement; sustainability; sustainable communities; urban sustainability

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, Wates House, 22 Gordon Street, London WC1Q 0BP, UK

Publication date: June 1, 2013

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