Sustainability Indicator Research

In 1996 a group of Calgarians came together to discuss ways to improve the sustainability of our city. They were motivated in part by a dissatisfaction with the narrow set of economic indicators that drove public policy-making – economic growth rate, stock market indexes, inflation rates, currency valuations and so on. They decided that a first step in creating a more sustainable Calgary was to redefine how we measured progress. Inspired by the work of Sustainable Seattle Sustainable Calgary Society embarked on a project to identify, research and report on a set of community sustainability indicators. In 2005 Sustainable Calgary Society published its third State of Our City Report documenting the status of 36 social, ecological and economic indicators of the long-term health and vitality of our city.

The process of creating these indicators was as important as the indicators themselves. Since 1996 over 2000 Calgarians have been a part of the process to select, research and document these 36 indicators. Through this participatory process we have demonstrated that Calgarians are willing and able work together to produce a high-quality report on the long-term health and vitality of our city.

These 36 indicators included such measures as the number of hours an individual would have to work at minimum wage to meet his or her basic needs, housing affordability, air quality, water quality and consumption, energy consumption, use of and investment in public transit, membership in community associations, average class size and childhood asthma rates. We divided these indicators into six sectors – community, economy, education, natural environment, resource use and wellness.

Since we began tracking these indicators in 1996 we have seen some consistent trends. On balance our community and natural environment indicators have been improving. We have a more vibrant arts scene, good participation in our unique community associations, and crime rates have been decreasing. Air quality has increased, as has water quality. Our analysis of the education and wellness sectors is a little more tentative. While we still enjoy high quality health and education by world standards, there are troubling signs. Lifelong learning trends and grade three achievement scores are strong but class sizes are too high and we do not invest enough in tracking adult literacy rates to be confident in assessing performance. The vast majority of babies in Calgary are born with a healthy birth weight but as many as 37000 kids may be suffering from asthma.

The consistently most worrisome sectors have been economic and resource use indicators. In the midst of a booming economy and unprecedented resource revenues more and more Calgarians are falling through the cracks and the gap between the affluent and the marginalized is growing. At the same time Calgarians are among the most wasteful resources users on the planet. Energy use per capita continues to climb, as does our dependence on the automobile and urban sprawl. But reporting on the state of our city is just the first step. With the Citizens Agenda, Sustainable Calgary Society is taking the next step – from indicators to action. The Sustainable Calgary vision has always been that the State of Our City reports are meant to inform decision-making and action. Calgarians worked together to reflect upon and debate the 36 sustainability indicators and identify a set of priority policies and actions that we as citizens felt should be the priority for our city in the coming 5 years. These priorities will be documented in A Citizens Agenda for the Transformation to a Sustainable Calgary was published in the winter of 2006. The Citizens Agenda will be presented to key decision-makers and to the citizens of Calgary.

Download SC Indicator Project Outcomes