News: Measuring Ourselves

Sustainable Cincinnati offers a new way to gauge progress

Imagine a region where public policy decisions are based more on logic, statistics and the public good instead of fear, ignorance, re-election strategies or campaign contributors' interests.

That's the goal of Sustainable Cincinnati, a three-year civic project by 59 social, business and government organizations. The first step was to come up with 10 to 20 ways to measure the economic, social and environmental health of the eight-county region.

Among the participants are the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the Amos Project and the city of Erlanger, Ky.

Sustainable Cincinnati hopes to encourage leaders to adopt policies that provide a high quality of life for us and our grandchildren. Leaders in Seattle and Detroit and many other cities are using similar regional measurement projects.

Discussions began in October 1999 when the League of Women Voters gathered a small number of groups to consider the idea of sustainability. The first hurdle was agreeing what the term means.

"In the early stages, just the definition of sustainability took a hammering," says Sterling Uhler, former Fairfield mayor and former president of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments.

Some people thought sustainability meant never changing, Uhler says. It really means a community that meets its needs without sacrificing the ability of others, now and in the future, to meet their needs.

Uhler got involved because he had a sense that Fairfield wasn't going to prosper in the long term if the larger region didn't. In short, Fairfield could be the next "throwaway community" because it doesn't have the economic resources to go it alone.

More than three years later, the results of the countless hours of debate and discussion are in.

Last week participants released "Sustainable Cincinnati 2002," a 22-page report with 14 indicators or benchmarks that they hope public and private leaders use to guide their decision-making for years to come. Expect annual updates on the indicators.

"Our goal was to make it a short list, a meaningful list," Uhler says.

Four of the 14 indicators deal with the environment, but that is only the beginning. The project is also concerned about diversity, crime and the economy.

The report used five-year trends with bar graphs to show which direction the Tristate is headed. On many fronts, the numbers are mixed.

For example, the percentage of the Tristate workforce between 20 and 35 years old decreased by 2.7 percent to 35.5 percent between 1995 and 1999. It's not a staggering drop, but when combined with the city's un-hip national image and a larger overall decrease in population in the region's center, it should raise a red flag.

Other indicators are incomplete. Instead of the number of students who graduate from high school or are prepared for higher education, the report quotes a national report giving Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana "C" averages for preparing students for college.

Aided by consultants and experts, Sustainable Cincinnati held large group meetings and smaller weekly discussions on specific issues, according to participant Elizabeth Brown, an operations specialist for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A lot of people in the same fields met each other for the first time through the process. For example, the director of Hamilton County's Solid Waste Management District met some of his regional counterparts for the first time, Brown says.

"It was exciting to have people who don't usually talk to each other communicating," she says.

Sustainable Cincinnati leaders hoped to release the indicators in late 2001 but the work was more complicated than expected (see Sustainable Cincinnati, issue of Dec. 7-13, 2000). It often seemed the talks were never going to end, according to Brown.

The benefit was there was no pressure to shorten the discussions to meet a deadline, so participants with contrary points of view had the time and space to reach a consensus, she says.

Consensus on the questions
Cincinnati City Councilman David Pepper has high hopes for the 14 indicators and annual report cards.

"I'm excited to be part of the partnership," he says. "I think at this time in Cincinnati, this is more important than ever."

Pepper says Tristate leaders should think of the indicators as they try to choose investments that will make the biggest difference.

The 14 indicators fall into four general categories:

· "Economic Prosperity," measured by new business starts, percent of workforce between 20 and 35 years old, percent of students who finish high school and are ready for work or higher education and percent of the eligible workforce earning enough to be self-sufficient;

· "Healthy Ecosystems," measured by the percent of land in the region devoted to people habitat, car habitat, wildlife habitat and agriculture; pounds of waste per capita sent to landfills or other disposal; number of days air quality is unhealthy based on national standards; and percent of stream miles meeting state water quality standards;

· "Healthy People and Healthy Communities," measured by the Healthy People Index, the Social Capital Index, the violent crime rate and the number of people using public transportation; and

· "Justice for All," measured by the percent of population that feels treated with fairness and respect in public interactions and racial and income segregation measured by the Index of Dissimilarity.

The list of participating organizations looks as though it's skewed toward more liberal organizations, such as the Amos Project. But Uhler says business groups and people with more conservative views had their say as well.

"This was the consensus of a lot of people," he says.

One surprise is that none of the indicators measure the region's overall rate of taxation compared to other regions. That's because property taxes, for example, aren't the primary focus of homebuyers, Brown says. The quality of the schools rates much higher, she says.

Few may have heard of Sustainable Cincinnati yet, but its leaders are convinced they have come up with a powerful mechanism to guide decision-making. The next step is to assemble an advisory panel to work with the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission on the report cards.

The big unanswered question is whether enough important people believe in the project to make it sustainable.

"I just hope that folks would respond when the report cards come out," Uhler says.



To read "Sustainable Cincinnati 2002" visit www.hamilton-co.org/hcrpc/sustainable.

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