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Are we making Genuine Progress?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/03/13 @ 9:00am  |  Posted in Transform

A group interested in how regions measure progress gathered at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to share lessons from their efforts. Participants included the Fund for Our Economic Future “What Matters to Metros,” Sustainable Cleveland 2019, VibrantNEO, and the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), a “dashboard” project with roots in Northeast Ohio that is gaining traction in a handful of states.

Progress or products?<br />US GDP with 26 Genuine Progress Indicator impacts subtracted shows progress peaked around 1980Making it count<br />Genuine Progress Indicator is a more holistic view of our progress

“There are questions about how you grow, and if you are going to have a better quality of life in the long run,” explained David Beach, director of GreenCityBlueLake and co-host of the event with the Fund.

“Growth is costly,” he said. “Like shale gas growth in North Dakota which has led to an increase in crime. We need indicators that have a more balanced view of success.”

Beach prefers alternatives to regional dashboards focused narrowly on economic performance. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, progress is tracked by looking at the health of spawning salmon. Beach calls these “keystone” indicators, and wondered what our region’s would be?

Oberlin College Environmental Studies professor Rumi Shammin and Ken Bagstad, a native Clevelander and scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, revisited their 2005 Greater Cleveland and Akron Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). The GPI subtracts the cost of air and water pollution, crime, commute times and 22 other impacts from a region’s bottom line.

They found that Geauga County had a 20% increase in GPI from 1990 to 2005, while parts of Lake and Lorain counties experienced negative growth.

When GPI is applied to U.S. Gross Domestic Product from 1950 to 2000, Shammin and Bagstad said, progress in broad, quality of life terms peaked around 1980.

“In other dashboards, jobs improve quality of life,” Shammin said. “GPI looks more directly at well being in factors of built, human, social and natural capital.”

“It’s all calculated in terms of dollars,” he added. “If you lose a forest that would be reduced from GDP. But, if it was converted to farmland that would be a positive.”

More than one of the thirty participants was surprised that forest loss to farmland could be calculated as a positive.

“I find it interesting that we have a higher GPI in outlying areas,” commented Cleveland Sustainability Chief Jenita McGowan. “Subtracting for sprawl-based things is not enough to lower GPI?”

McGowan’s office launched a dashboard of sustainability indicators in 2012 as part of the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative. Twenty six areas from renewable energy installations to community gardens will be counted, McGowan said, and their stories shared on the SC2019 site.

The negatives from suburban sprawl would be seen mostly in urban areas, commented Amanda Woodrum, a researcher with Policy Matters Ohio. “It shows why a regional approach is important.”

Mark Sniderman, executive vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said the GPI may seem alternative, but “over the sweep of time, income growth is still the biggest factor. This is about how you grow. It provides a framework for different growth strategies.”

He added that very few categories changed by much in Ohio between 1990 and 2005, the period Shammin and Bagstad studied. Non-renewable resource depletion was the biggest change.

Bagstad stressed that the GPI is a non-partisan effort to promote good government. He has met with state leaders in Maryland and Vermont who’ve formally adopted it as a measure of progress. Oregon and Hawaii are also using the GPI in an informal capacity.

In Maryland, where it has the support of the governor, “it has filtered in to state agencies; how they look at urban sprawl, at water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, and the long-term environmental impacts of policy,” Bagstad said.

Grace Gallucci, executive director of NOACA, said the GPI could add “tremendous value” to the regional transportation planning agency as it works on its strategic plan.

“My objective would be to use this information to inform decision making for my board,” she said, “so when we allocate funds, we understand the costs and benefits.”

Emily Garr Pacetti is leading the Fund’s What Matters to Metros initiative which grew from their Dashboard of Economic Indicators. The GPI informed the Fund’s dashboard, she said, which is measuring economic progress in three-year increments.

“I don’t see any reasons why land use and health couldn’t be part of that measurement,” Pacetti said.

Hunter Morrison, director of NEOSCC, echoed that call. The regional sustainability initiative is building a dashboard of indicators, led by staff planner, Joe MacDonald. NEOSCC could measure the region’s progress by focusing on a few key indicators, he said. The Fund’s Manager of Emerging Initiatives and its representative on the NEOSCC board, Bethia Burke, commented that any of the indicators that NEOSCC paid Boston firm Sasaki to model in a scenario plan—such as Vehicle Miles Traveled, bike commuters or percentage of new housing in urban areas—could be Northeast Ohio’s keystone indicator.

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