Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Indicators for Community Action: Built Environment and Public Health

I read an interesting article that I thought needed to be passed along. Indicators for Community Action: Built Environment and Public Health was published in 2006 in the Journal of Rural and Community Development (authors Andrew Curran, Jill Grant, and Mary Ellen Wood.)

The project examined how community indicators could measure the social and physical environments in a community which are preconditions for successful public health outcomes. These indicators could then serve as a basis for public policy and community action. The intriguing aspects are (1) expanding health indicators to include other indicator domains, and (2) looking for a set of community-based indicators to allow province-level discussion of health impacts of public policy.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the report:

In 2003, the Atlantic Health Promotion Research Centre at Dalhousie University coordinated a large-scale interdisciplinary research project with a focus on illness and injury prevention. The research seeks to identify the root causes that undermine or enable health (Shookner 2005). “What do we know about the factors in social and physical environments (i.e. workplace, school, community) that contribute to the health status of Atlantic Canadians? What environmental assessment tools must be designed and/or activated? Who should be receiving and acting on these data?” (Lyons 2003: 12a).

One component of the research explores the role of the built environment in enabling community health. An interest in developing indicators that could help community members identify whether their spaces could facilitate health promotion led researchers from the School of Planning to focus on active recreation and transportation. A system of built environment indicators that clearly illustrates the scale and the nature of the challenge of facilitating active recreation and transportation would help local administrations identify their needs, guide possible interventions, and evaluate achievements. Researchers interested in studying built environment and health relationships have tended to rely on subjectively collected assessments of built form for small study areas. Objectively measured, province-wide urban form indicators would greatly facilitate research and action.

Pay special attention to the conclusion of the article:

This project contributes to the literature by identifying the process necessary to apply generic sustainability indicators to specific community purposes. Researchers evaluated a range of indicators developed over the last decade to identify a set of measures that could help Nova Scotia communities to assess whether their built environment conditions contribute to opportunities for community health. By applying models and evaluative frameworks from various sources the project advances the discussion about how indicators can be used in community practice.

Nova Scotia Community Counts provides a prototype for jurisdictions attempting to develop databases that communities can use to monitor and improve quality of life. This research study takes a step towards providing tools to help communities reflect on how the built environment can enhance community health. As Nova Scotians use Community Counts researchers will continue to identify gaps in the information available: research can bridge those needs in ways that enhance the potential for community action. A well-designed community can increase opportunities for residents to participate in activities that contribute to their own health and well-being.

What are the next steps for Community Counts to bring these indicators forward? With four built environment indicators of active recreation and fifteen of active transportation, Community Counts staff members have a set of potential indicators that they can use to expand the database in ways that can provide useful information for communities. Before adding the measures to the system, statisticians will go through a process of evaluating, coordinating and systematizing the data.

Good indicators can help convey complex built environment and land use information in an attractive way to engage the wider public in promoting healthy living and quality of life. Providing people with access to relevant information about the built form of their communities can be an empowering process that equips residents to participate in the political process so that they may better advocate their positions to decision-makers. Over the long term, such advocacy has the potential to significantly improve the quality of the built environment, and the health and welfare of community residents.

Please continue to pass along useful research in the field of community indicators!


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