Sustainability Metrics for Municipalities

City Partners with University to Develop Indicators

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Posted: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 4:19 pm

DUBUQUE, Iowa - A unique partnership between a Big Ten university and this Midwestern town of 58,000 has developed a set of sustainability metrics that might be a good place to start for any community.

Acknowledging that each city has its own set of unique circumstances, Cori Burbach, sustainable community coordinator for the city of Dubuque, said a group of graduate students from the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning has put a lot of research into measuring sustainability, and the lessons learned could apply almost anywhere.

“I’ve seen a lot of interest from other communities that I’ve worked with,” Burbach said. “Communities want to be able to track their own progress, but most importantly, they want to be able to compare themselves with other communities. You see that, especially in terms of economic development. So the more we can collaborate and use the same indicators, the easier that process is,” she said.

The city administration and its seven-member team of student researches held an open house Tuesday night to introduce a draft of its findings and seek citizen input. Among the team’s 59 draft sustainability metrics are measurements of access to open space, household energy use, and net job growth, to name a few. (Update: the final draft of the report included 60 indicators.) The sustainability metrics build on the framework of Dubuque’s 11 sustainability principles and allow the city to assess its progress toward becoming a more sustainable community, the students said.

The public’s input will contribute to the final set of metrics, expected to be presented to the Dubuque City Council in May. The data will then be gathered regularly, compiled into an annual report and distributed in ways the public can easily access and understand, Burbach said.

“The biggest challenge for me is that there’s a very short public attention span, and so many of these indicators are either based on national data or they are pretty complex sets of data. So, I think the real value of them isn’t just looking at a bar chart, it’s analyzing why this trend is happening. So, it’s my job to take all this data and talk to the public about why it’s happening and what we can do to move the indicators in a positive direction.”

Gathering the metrics will take a team of partners throughout many sectors of the community, Burbach said.

“A lot of the data comes from our economic development partners, or it comes from the school district. So, we’ll be working with them to collect the data and make the report manageable for the public,” she said.

The students began the project in August 2011 by studying more than 1,200 sustainability indicators developed by other communities and organizations around the world. Narrowing the focus down to 60 was one of the most difficult parts of the project, the students said, but the selected indicators had to be meaningful, measurable, comparable to other cities, and most importantly, advance the sustainability goals of Dubuque. The team centered its framework on multiple stages of elimination and refinement that utilized feedback from team members, faculty advisors, and public engagement in Dubuque.

To determine if the metrics could be gathered successfully and compared to data from similar communities, the team studied demographic and geographic data to identify four Midwestern communities that were most comparable to Dubuque: St. Cloud, Minn., Ames, Iowa, Oshkosh, Wis., and Decatur, Ill.

“Our exercise in comparing them to other cities made us think about whether this was really a good indicator for all cities or were we a little subjective in making it for Dubuque,” said a student named Lindsay. “Frankly, we kind of restructured some of the wording or the kind of question it was if we found that it couldn’t be compared.”

Some of the metrics the students hoped to include just couldn’t be measured.

“Invasive species was an indicator under native plants and animals that we really wanted to measure,” said student Medora Kealy. “But it was difficult to get good data on the acres of invasive species in the city because that data really wasn’t available.” Instead, the group focused on measuring the urban tree canopy, the abundance and diversity of birds and butterfly species, and the acres of restored prairie and wetlands. These indicators, which can be measured, could help Dubuque get an indirect sense of whether invasive species might be impacting native plants and wildlife, she said.

Besides defining the metrics, the students worked with the city and its partners to create a model for collecting data, measuring progress, and reporting that progress to the community, said Charles Connerly, director and professor of Urban and Regional Planning.

“This project wasn’t just about getting real-world experience for the students,” Connerly said. “It’s important that we develop a process that can continue to provide value year after year and be replicated throughout Iowa and the region.” He said Dubuque’s size and its regional connection to both urban and rural areas of Iowa made it a good fit for the university’s research.

The sustainability indicators project was one of five launched by the University of Iowa and the City of Dubuque in August. Each research project includes five to seven graduate students advised by a small group of community leaders to study an aspect of sustainability. These projects, which continue through May, include renewable energy asset mapping, a study of poverty in Dubuque, an analysis of local foods served by local institutions, and a study of data gathered during a 2011 “green and healthy homes” pilot. The university and city have already committed to developing four or five new projects – involving different graduate students – during the 2012-2013 school year.

Click here for more information on the initiative.

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