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Revisiting the Local Impact of Community Indicators Projects: Sustainable Seattle as Prophet in Its Own Land

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Sustainable Seattle’s Indicators of Sustainable Community project was the first of its kind and remains one of the best known attempts by a community group to measure a wide range of what it values most about local quality of life and sustainability. The great irony in the organization’s notoriety, however, is that S2’s reputation grows with distance from its home in Seattle. National and international recognition has come to S2 much more easily than uptake and implementation of the project, its method, or its recommendations at home in Seattle and King County. This article, based on case study research, provides a closer examination of this received wisdom about the limited local impact of Sustainable Seattle by foregrounding the local legacy of this first generation indicators project in the form of nine different indicator projects that have succeeded the S2 project. All of these projects bear some connection to S2 and can be shown to constitute second, third and fourth generation indicator projects in terms of organizational structure, indicator framework, and approach to mobilizing awareness and policy and behavioural change. This article also offers lessons from indicator projects in the Seattle area about the appeal of an indicators-based approach generally, and the various Seattle models in particular, from the perspective of different key policy actor groups. In sum, the research presented in this article contributes to filling the gap in the community indicators literature with regard to the policy impacts of community indicator projects in their localities and directions for increasing the effectiveness of projects from the perspectives of different indicator organizations and policy actor groups.

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  1. This survey was led by Sustainable Seattle co-founder Alan AtKisson after he left Seattle to work for Redefining Progress, along with other Redefining Progress staff. In 2003, this global directory of indicator initiatives reached a total of 589 initiatives and in 2006, 684 initiatives were listed (

  2. Seventy-one interviews were conducted. These included, in overlapping categories, interviews with 14 former members of Sustainable Seattle, including all but one of the organization’s founding members, nine members of the Sustainable Seattle board, four elected leaders, 29 city and county government employees, one state government employee, 26 people involved in nonprofit organizations (including research and education), six politically-active unaffiliated citizens, one newspaper reporter and nine people employed in for-profit sustainability-oriented businesses. Gender and racial balance among those interviewed was also a goal of this research methodology. Interviewees included 33 women and 11 people of color.

  3. Ron Sims, King County Executive, interview 15 May 2002.

  4. Cynthia Moffitt, King County Policy Analyst, interview 19 March 2002.

  5. See footnote no. 4.

  6. Sandy Ciske, King County Division of Epidemiology, Planning and Evaluation Program Analyst, interview 10 January 2002.

  7. See footnote no. 3.

  8. Nea Carroll, S2 Co-founder and consultant to Communities Count, interview 18 April 2002.

  9. Lee Hatcher, S2 former Director and consultant to Communities Count, interview 20 June 2002.

  10. David Keyes, City of Seattle DoIT Indicators Project Director, interview 25 July 2002.

  11. The Doomsday Clock was developed by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 and regularly calculates and reports symbolically the global level nuclear danger

  12. Alan Durning, Executive Director Northwest Environment Watch, interview 11 July 2003.

  13. Clark Williams-Derry, Research Director Northwest Environment Watch, interview 25 March 2003.

  14. See footnote no. 12.

  15. See footnote no. 13.

  16. Lynn Helbrecht, Department of Ecology, interviews 12 April 2002 and 19 June 2003.

  17. See footnote no. 13.

  18. Quotation excerpted from the organization’s website at: Examples of catalytic reforms include compact urban development, pay-by-the-mile auto insurance, and tax shifting.

  19. See footnote no. 3.

  20. See footnote no. 4.

  21. See footnote no. 6.

  22. See footnote no. 10.

  23. See footnote no. 12.

  24. Lish Whitson, Land Use Planner, Department of Design, Construction and Land Use, interview 25 June 2003.

  25. See footnote no. 4.

  26. See footnote no. 6.

  27. Steve Nicholas, S2 Co-founder and Director, OSE, interview 20 March 2002.

  28. Alan AtKisson, S2 Co-founder, interview 25 November 2003.

  29. See footnote no. 4.

  30. See footnote no. 4.

  31. See footnote no. 16.

  32. See footnote no. 16.

  33. See footnote no. 12.

  34. The Benchmarks program and the Growth Management Act as a whole have faced their greatest obstacle from a coalition of churches and schools led by he Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, arguing that size limits on new developments outside the urban growth boundary is religious discrimination (Dudley 2000). King County weathered this obstacle by putting a restatement of its commitment to religious freedom on the November 2001 ballot, which passed easily, along with a development moratorium pending further study (Pryne 2001).

  35. See footnote no. 12.

  36. The international Global Cities Dialogue is “a worldwide network of cities . . . interested in creating an information society free of digital divide and based on sustainable development.” The Global Cities Dialogue is attempting to begin an international conversation about the possibility of developing information technology indicators for cities worldwide. Information can be found on the organization’s website:

  37. See footnote no. 10.

  38. See footnote no. 4.


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I would like to acknowledge the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the research that led to this article and the comments provided by the journal’s reviewers.

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Correspondence to Meg Holden.

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Holden, M. Revisiting the Local Impact of Community Indicators Projects: Sustainable Seattle as Prophet in Its Own Land. Applied Research Quality Life 1, 253–277 (2006).

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