Development of a realistic set of composite urban environmental indicators


1. General context (international, national, etc.)

Recent experience shows that today’s environmental indicators must be augmented. While they may appear to be pertinent on the federal or European scale, they are much less so on the local urban level. We have been working for too long under the illusion that the same tools could be used for decision-making and assessment on such different levels of power. To facilitate multidisciplinary assessment of sustainable development it has thus proven necessary to promote the construction of composite indicators for the local (urban) level.

2. Project description and aims

The project’s aim is to develop a realistic set of composite urban indicators from an environmental standpoint. In the first phase the project focused on integrating the problems of ‘cities’ and ‘the environment’. This urban environment base was then used to develop composite indicators that try to get as close as possible to sustainable development principles by factoring in a range of social and economic problems.

This set is seen as a tool to facilitate local decision-making and assessment of the progress made towards sustainable urban development. These indicators describe the positive and negative trends in resource management, pollution control, and quality and pleasantness of the urban environment. As such, they are tools for perceiving the environmental, social, and economic evolution of a town in its context and thus guiding planning and management policies making up existing or future town projects, on the one hand, and transferring ‘good practices’ between relatively similar towns on the other hand.

The project includes setting up a network of Belgian municipalities to validate the scientists’ proposed indicators and setting up partnerships and exchanging experiences between town managers.

(Expected) results/outputs

Forty indicator descriptions have been produced. Some of them are being tested for the City of Brussels proper and Schaerbeek (April 2000).

3. (Potential) users

All town managers, i.e., elected officials (mayors, aldermen), administrations, etc.


Inventory of existing indicators.
An inventory of the main environmental indicators of sustainable urban development was taken to maintain or establish links between existing (sectoral) indicators and new (composite) indicators. This work revealed that entire swaths of urban life were not covered by the existing indicators.

Identification of urban environmental problems through interviews of experts.
From the very outset the approach taken was that of consulting a host of urban environment experts and specialists in waste, air, water, the soil, and nature, to reveal the environmentally critical developments that have occurred in towns and the actual issues with which the managers are grappling, including the priorities and new initiatives that are required for more sustainable city management.
Integrated reflection about these problems’ interactions with the town’s overall functioning

An urban function matrix was designed to analyse systematically and comprehensively the urban dimension’s impact on environmental topics (air, water, waste, etc.). This is not a town model, for the links are not unequivocal and the relations are complex. Still, it does serve as a tool to structure integrated thought about the city. Each of the issues revealed by the urban experts was analysed using this matrix, which is a sort of checklist to place the issues within the overall context of urban dynamics and thus back up integrated consideration of urban development. This structure makes it easier to visualise rapidly the various environmental effects that an action can have, be they antagonistic, combined, or what have you (e.g., air/noise, noise/nature, etc.).

Besides the foregoing, this table proved to be a true hotbed of ideas. It also proved to be particularly useful for specifying the indicators’ limits and conditions of use during the drafting of their descriptions in the later stages of the project.

Refinement and use of the DPSIR (Driving forces - pressures - State - Impact - Responses) model.
The DPSIR (Driving forces - Pressures - State - Impact - Responses) model was chosen to organise and process the huge amount of information gathered in the preceding steps and to compare the various approaches used. This model hinges on the five elements mentioned above, which are all connected by cause-and-effect relationships, as follows: A driving force (a human activity or development) exerts pressure on the environment, which pressure is characterised quantitatively and qualitatively. This pressure leads to a change in the general state of the environment, which can have an impact on man, the environment, the economy, etc. This impact triggers a response from society, in the form of instruments that act upon the preceding elements (D, P, S, and I).

Drafting of descriptive sheets
The sustainable urban development indicators created by the research team using the methods described above were specified by means of methodology sheets. The purpose of these sheets is to propose an exhaustive, unequivocal definition of each indicator and give a systematic presentation of the various types of information. This is a key element of the proposals, for without a precise definition of the reality that an indicator is expected to cover it is not possible to evaluate its relevancy, while without an unequivocal definition each town could come up with different interpretations and calculations.

Validation of the indicators by the town managers.
A network composed of representatives of the Belgian Institute for Management of the Environment, OSTC, and six Belgian towns has been set up. The towns’ participation in this network is voluntary. They are under no obligation to take part in the project, but no financial contribution in exchange for participation is required, either. As a result, the partners are motivated, but difficulties linked to the overload of work without commensurate additional means have cropped up. The methodology was thus developed to allow for this restriction and to try to optimise the municipal representatives’ participation.

The researchers’ proposed indicators were validated in several steps so as to allow time for group discussions, gut reactions, thought and deliberation, and attaching figures to the proposals. The researchers pulled all of these remarks and criticisms together to refine and specify the indicators’ definitions and parameters, restate them more precisely, and discard any indicators that the majority of the managers consider useless or irrelevant. This group work is fundamental to the process of creating sustainable development indicators to assist decision-making.

The entire assessment process has taken on board both qualitative and quantitative remarks and is trying to make use of each party’s contribution so as to anchor these indicators in true town management concerns.



Name Role Amount
Science for Sustainable Development unknown


Name Role Start End
Onclinckx, Françoise member


Name Role Start End
Brussels Environment member


Reference Role
Uitwerking van een realistisch set van samengestelde milieu-indicatoren: eindrapport Berrewaerts, M-C - Decoux, D. - Tallier, P-A ... et al Brussel: DWTC, 2002 (SP1067 author
Elaboration d'un set réaliste d'indicateurs environnementaux urbains composites: rapport final Berrewaerts, M-C - Decoux, D. - Tallier, P-A ... et al Bruxelles: SSTC, 2002 (SP1066 author

created:2011-12-14 14:18:59 UTC, source:web

© 2012 by the Belgian Biodiversity Platform