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Progress Report, March 2000

What Is Sustainability?

Throughout the world, the issues of environmental protection and economic development appear at odds. For decades, experts have believed that the two were mutually exclusive and to gain in one meant a loss in the other (Daly 1987). Great strides have been taken in the last several decades in addressing environmental problems while bringing new economic growth to depressed areas. The concept of sustainable development seeks to reconcile these seemingly opposite forces and to bring about a healthy future (Pearce, et al. 1989). But the task is not easy, and sustainability means different things to different people. Other's definitions are crucial to Devens' understanding of what sustainability means. The Devens Reuse Plan defined sustainability by development which "[achieves] a balance of economic, social, and environmental needs, while maintaining and enhancing the natural resource base" (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin 1994, 4).

Measuring Sustainability: Using Indicators

Stemming from a decades old effort to use metrics to measure social phenomenon, hundreds of sustainability indicator projects have sprung up all over the world. These projects seek to move beyond a simple definition of sustainability, but to understand what it really means and how to measure it. There are several methods available to develop sustainability indicators and a thorough literature review was conducted to study them all. A method was developed which is largely based upon Gordon Mitchell's (1996) work in the United Kingdom. In a broad sense, the community begins with the concept "sustainability", identifies its component parts (issues), selects indicators to accurately reflect the presence or absence of that dimension, and then evaluates the final indicator set. The specific steps of the method is as follows:
Step 1 - Principles and Definitions
Step 2 - Selection of Issues
Step 3 - Construction of Indicators
Step 4 - Evaluation


The first step in the indicator development process involves the identification of the definition and principles of sustainability. The community embarking on this project must identify which definition they are employing, and which specific principles they are basing their project on. This step should be done through an extensive public participation process, however, in cases where that has been done already, a review of prior planning documents should elucidate clear principles and definitions for the community.


After a consensus is reached on the principles and definitions of sustainability, the next step is the selection of issues, or components of sustainability for the community. There are a number of core issues which "are applicable to any community" like energy consumption and water quality (Mitchell 1996, 6/12). But the issues for a community's indicator project must also include important local concerns. This step of the process can best be done through a review of the literature to determine the global issues and matching that against local concerns raised through public participation or prior planning activities. It is helpful at this stage to pose the relevant issues as questions (ie. rather than stating that the economy is an issue, it is more useful to ask "is the economy healthy?")


After the relevant issues have been identified and put into the form of a question, Step 3 simply provides a scientific way to answer those questions. Indicators may already exist in the literature which can be borrowed or adapted for the purpose of answering an issue-question. For example, to answer the question "is the economy healthy?" an indicator which could be utilized is unemployment rate. According to Mitchell, et al., in the cases where indicators are not readily available, new indicators may need to be constructed, "this construction should be done in consultation with those having relevant subject-knowledge" (Mitchell, et al. 1995, 114).


A critical analysis of evaluation criteria established by previously discussed literature reveals great consistency among the many approaches. The following nine criteria were all used by three of the leaders in sustainability indicator development, Atkisson, et al.(1997), Maclaren (1996), and Mitchell, at al. (1995):

  • Relevance
  • Validity
  • Consistency and Reliability
  • Measurability
  • Clarity
  • Comprehensiveness
  • Cost Effectiveness
  • Attractiveness to the Media
  • Comparability

    During this final step, each indicator is tested against the nine criteria. There is no requirement that each indicator perfectly meets each criterion, this final step is only intended to guide the indicator development process. "Deficiencies in meeting indicator criteria should be recorded and noted alongside the final sustainability indicator, and should be subject to periodic review" (Mitchell, et al. 1995, 120).

    Applying the Method to Devens

    The last portion of this report brings sustainability indicator development into practice at Devens. The aforementioned method will be put to the test and a set of indicator of sustainability will be developed for Devens. Using the modified Mitchell four-step process, sustainability will be defined, issues will be identified, indicators will be constructed, and the set will then be evaluated.


    Principles and definitions of sustainability at Devens come from a broad array of sources. Most of the documented principles and definitions come from the early 1990s when base closure was imminent. This step derives from four sources: the report issued by The Fort Devens Redevelopment Board, The BSA Fort Devens Charrette, The Devens Reuse Plan, and the Devens By-Laws. In all, they paint a clear picture of sustainability at Devens and forms a solid base for the subsequent steps in the method.

    The Fort Devens Redevelopment Board

    In 1991, there was discussion about possibly closing Fort Devens. In response, then Governor Weld created the Fort Devens Redevelopment Board and asked them to survey residents about their feelings on base reuse. The Fort Devens Redevelopment Board reported that over 90% of respondents considered environmental protection and conservation to be high priorities. Following this the Boston Society of Architects initiated a charrette to help shape a vision for the reuse.

    BSA Fort Devens Charrette

    The 1993 Fort Devens Charrette was the first planning effort to examine reuse of Devens. The primary goal of the Charrette was to ensure that the long term viability of environmental and economics resources are maintained. The charrette organizers laid out guidelines for the reuse plans and required "sustainability as the base of all proposals, encouraging long-term over short-term design and planning" (Fort Devens Charrette Steering Committee 1993, 3). The charrette broke into four groups to develop plans for reuse. While the outcomes of each group differed, they had much in common. The major ideas that arose from all the groups were:

    1. Preserve and protect the region's natural resources and systems;
    2. Maintain the integrity of the land as a single planning unit;
    3. Increase the regional economic base by employing the principles of industrial ecology;
    4. Use the existing built environment;
    5. Use the land resourcefully and implement sustainable agricultural;
    6. Encourage mixed use and diversity;
    7. Think holistically.

    Devens Reuse Plan

    Shortly after the completion of the Fort Devens Charrette, Massachusetts Land Bank (Mass Development) and the Joint Boards of Selectmen (JBOS) began to refine the goals and objectives of the base reuse and used the results of the charrette as a starting point. Public workshops were held and the goals of sustainability continued to be emphasized by local participants. The first goal of the Reuse Plan is that "development must be sustainable" (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin 1994, 4). The Devens Reuse Plan define sustainability by development which "[achieves] a balance of economic, social, and environmental needs, while maintaining and enhancing the natural resource base" (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin 1994, 4).

    Other goals of the reuse plan were a diversity of uses, articulation of the interdependence of economic development and environmental protection, and a balance of local, regional, and state interests. This broad, holistic perspective closely matches previously discussed definitions of sustainability. The Reuse Plan also provides objectives for the reuse: economic development objectives, cultural and social objectives, and environmental objectives.

    Devens By-Laws

    That same year, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin wrote the Devens By-Laws and built upon the sustainability goals and objectives set forth in the Reuse Plan. The principles of sustainability are woven into the By-Laws through: zoning, density, dimensional requirements, floodplain, water resource, historic district, signage, and wetland protection provisions.

    Bringing It All Together

    The result of all this early planning was a vision for what sustainability means to Devens, its residents, its users, and the involved public bodies. Sustainability is the thoughtful and careful redevelopment of the base for the purposes of promoting economic development, social welfare, environmental protection, and natural resources. These principles and definition of sustainability will be used in the next step as issues are selected.


    A comprehensive review of other indicator projects found that many communities arrived at a similar definition as Devens. The issues mentioned in Step 1 included: promoting economic development, social welfare, environmental protection, and natural resources. These can serve as the basis for selection of issues, but a detailed comparison of these issues with issues selected for other indicator projects will lend greater credibility to the issue set.

    Other sustainability indicator projects identified dozens of issues (in some projects, issues were referred to as categories or groups). Five prominent indicator projects were examined to begin to compile an issue list for the Devens project. Three community-level projects were studied, Yampa Valley (CO), Cambridge (MA), and Maureen Hart's research, one state-wide project in New Jersey, and an international project, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. For each indicator project, the issues of sustainability were identified and compared against the others. The matrix in Appendix 1 shows how across the different projects, many issues overlapped. In every project sustainability included the issues of economy, environment, and social life. The projects varied in how much detail they broke their issues into, but even within the detail, there were many matches.

    The result of this analysis is a comprehensive collection of the range of issues which have been employed as others have attempted to define sustainability. Rather than adding to the confusion by proposing a new definition, this thesis will proceed by amalgamating the previous work into usable issues and then matching them, as appropriate, with the Devens definition, as identified in Step 1.

    The last column in Appendix 1 shows the seven issues where these indicator projects had much overlap: economy, social, governance, public health, transportation, natural resources, and environmental quality. There is overlap between issues identified in the Step 1 and this analysis, but governance, public health, and transportation were not identified in early planning efforts as facets of sustainability. However, they were referenced in the Reuse Plan and the literature recognizes them strongly as an issue of sustainability. Hence, all seven issues will be included in the indicator project.

    The make Step 3 easier, the issues will be better articulated. Rather than presenting issues by a simple name, ie. Economy, they will be presented as a question, ie. is the economy healthy? For some issues, more than one question arose. Figure 1 shows that for each issue, questions are listed. In Step 3, these questions will be answered through the construction of indicators, indicating a yes or no response. All questions are posed in such a way that a yes answer indicates the presence of sustainability for that issue.

    Click here to view Figure 1: Sustainability Indicators Table - Issues and Questions


    With issue questions in hand, Hart and Kline's list of indicators were closely examined and those indicators which went towards answering the question posed were selected. Only indicators which were pertinent for Devens were used. Therefore, many indicators which rely on large residential population were discarded. In addition, only indicators for which data is readily available were chosen. See Appendix 2 for a list of issue questions and indicators.


    Public input was sought at the March 1, 2000 public meeting on the following three criteria:: Relevance, Validity, and Clarity. Appendix 3 summarizes the feedback received at the public meeting. In addition, this report is being circulated to local residents to garner further public input on the indicator set. The public is being asked to complete the "Indicator Evaluation Form" (Appendix 4) and return it to DEC. After all public input has been received, DEC staff and commissioners will evaluate the indicators using the other group of criterion: Consistency and Reliability, Measurability, Comprehensiveness, Cost Effectiveness, Attractiveness to the Media, and Comparability. A follow-up public meeting will be scheduled to review a final set of indicators and formally adopt them as part of the periodic Devens review process.


    This report summarizes an effort on the part of the Devens Enterprise Commission to prepare indicators of sustainability. A thorough review of the available literature, the formulation of a method, and the testing of that method for Devens have been the early accomplishments of the project. However, more work is still needed. These indicators must be better evaluated in a public forum, some new indicators may need to be added, and some of those presented here may need to be removed. Once a final list is compiled, data must be compiled and threshold levels for each indicator must be identified. The final result of this project should be an assessment of whether Devens, five years after base reuse began, is achieving the goals of sustainability. The indicators will point out the strengths and weaknesses of meeting that goal.



    Atkisson, Alan, et al. 1997. Community indicators handbook. Seattle: Redefining Progress.

    Daly, H. 1987. The economic growth debate: What some economists have learned but many have not. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management 14, 4:323-336

    Fort Devens Charette Steering Committee. 1993. The Fort Devens charrette: A Massachusetts case study. Fort Devens, MA.

    Hart, Maureen. 1999. Guide to sustainable community indicators. North Andover, MA: Hart Environmental Data.

    Kline, Elizabeth. 1993. Defining a sustainable community. Medford, MA: The Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.

    ______. 1995. Sustainable community indicators. Medford, MA: The Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.

    ______. 1995. Sustainable community indicators: Examples from Cambridge, MA. Medford, MA: The Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.

    Maclaren, V. 1996. Urban sustainability reporting. Journal of the American Planning Association 62, 2:184-203.

    Mitchell, G., A.D. May and A.T. McDonald. 1995. PICABUE: A methodological framework for the development of indicators of sustainable development. International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology 2, 2:104-123.

    Mitchell, G. 1996. Problems and fundamentals of sustainable development indicators. Sustainable Development 4, 1:1.

    New Jersey Future. 1999. Living with the future in mind: Goals and indicators for New Jersey's quality of life. New Jersey Future. 1999 Sustainable State Project Report.

    Pearce, David, Anil Markandya, and Edward B. Barbier. 1989. Blueprint for a green economy. London : Earthscan.

    Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. 1994. Devens by-laws. The Joint Boards of Selectmen of: Town of Ayer, Town of Harvard, Town of Lancaster, Town of Shirley. The Massachusetts Government Land Bank.

    ______. 1994. Devens reuse plan. The Boards of Selectmen of: Town of Ayer, Town of Harvard, Town of Lancaster, Town of Shirley. The Massachusetts Government Land Bank.

    World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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