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This article provides a brief introduction to the role of indicators in measuring and assessing the sustainability of different approaches to management of the coastal and marine environments.


Indicators are crucial instruments for understanding of, communicating on, and evaluating of environmental processes and policies. They consist of data or parameters easy to understand, which are able to represent a more complex reality. If available for different years, the data can be aggregated to time series, creating indicators able to show trends.

Indicators may consist either of single data which can be assumed to be a "key data", representing the state or a trend of environmental, economic or social conditions. For instance in the field of pollution, the state of organisms particularly sensible to environmental changes can be used for indicating environmental changes. Within the set of indicators for the implementation of integrated coastal zone management, the surface of protected areas is used as an indicator for the state of protection of natural diversity. Indicators may also consist of more complex, constructed data as for instance the ratio between the population living in a coastal area and the value of residential properties, which may be used as an indicator for the demand for property on the coast.

Measuring 'sustainability'

Indicators are considered of crucial importance for the measurement of "sustainability" in local contexts as well as for national and international policies, as they allow to communicate, discuss and take decisions on complex facts and trends, using relatively few data. Considerable work has been done for the development of sets of sustainability indicators for instance by OECD and by the European Expert working group on indicators and data for ICZM.

Informing the decision making

Indicators are used to inform decision making, as they facilitate communication about complex systems or realities, using easy to access and easy to understand data which is able to represent the more complex reality standing behind, to measure progress towards sustainability and assist monitoring of development and policy impacts on different territorial scales. This capacity of indicators to translate realities, physical and social science knowledge into manageable units of information makes them powerful tools for the measurement of sustainability, where data from different policy areas has to be confronted and where communication to stakeholders from different scientific backgrounds is of fundamental importance. This is particularly important in the coastal zone where the issues and ecosystems are complex and integrating policy formulation, decision making and management are especially difficult. Sustainability Indicators generally should be simple (limited in number and method of calculation) and directionally clear, indicating items and trends that are obviously relevant in terms of sustainable policies [1].

The role and importance of indicators in policy processes goes beyond the preparation of scientific data for information and monitoring, as the choice of what is measured is based on values, and the choice of indicators represents an implicit expression of preferences (UNCSD, 2001) and leads to a specific definition of what sustainability means or should mean in the specific situation, concretizing (and moulding) policy decisions [2]. Neither quantitative nor qualitative indicators can easily be synthesised into single indices of sustainability, as the relevance of the each single indicator with respect to the others is determined by values which may differ from one social group to another or from actors form one policy field to the other. So, when attempting to generate simple ad aggregated values, a problem arises which is led to preferences, as the importance of each indicator with respect to the remaining ones must be established, translating into weights the specific and eventually very personal idea of what a sustainable situation would be.

In addition, establishing a weighting system at an international level that can be applied to every country complicates the process further, due to the fact that every country has different priorities and faces a different set of problems [3]. For these reasons most authors underline the importance of public participation in the formulation of sets or frameworks of indicators [4] and recommend the definition of weights at local level.

An advantage of the framework approach to indicators which rennounces on the definition of weights, is that each of the many aspects of sustainable development can be specifically reported on in its own terms, and trends for the separate aspects can be identified.


  1. Valentin, A. and J. H. Spangenberg (2000). "A guide to community sustainability indicators." Environmental Impact Assessment Review 20: -*Elsevier*
  2. Valentin, A. and J. H. Spangenberg (2000). "A guide to community sustainability indicators." Environmental Impact Assessment Review 20: -*Elsevier*
  3. UNCSD, U. N. C. o. S. D. (2001). "Indicators of Sustainable Development. Framework and Methodologies, "Commission on Sustainable Development" ninth Session, 16 - 27 April 2001 Background Paper No. 3. New York, UN
  4. See for instance Valentin, cit. with reference to Agenda 21 processes

The main author of this article is van Buuren, Jannette
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: van Buuren, Jannette (2019): Indicators. Available from [accessed on 22-11-2019]