Neighborhood Indicators: A Review of the Literature and an Assessment of Conceptual and Methodological Issues

Report by David S. Sawicki, Patrice Flynn

Urban Institute   (NNIP Coordinator)

Historically there have been very few attempts to build neighborhood-level indicators as a means of measuring neighborhood problems and designing policies to address them. However, recent developments in desktop geographic information systems, combined with the devolution of social programs to the local level, have created the technology and the need for such indicators. In the history of indicator use, five lessons for neighborhood indicators stand out. First, it is imperative that the numbers have a specific policy purpose. Second, geographic indicators play a special role, more important than that of subject area indicators, because policy is administered through geographic units and because neighborhoods and cities themselves affect the quality of people's lives. Third, one must from the outset distinguish clearly between indicators that measure neighborhood well-being and indicators that measure the well-being of neighborhood residents. Fourth, to be most useful, indicators must be unbundled, that is, not tied to an overall index. Finally, the movement to use geographic indicators, especially on the neighborhood scale, is in its infancy. Neighborhood-level indicators are just beginning to be used to make and evaluate policy, and to search for the causes of change in neighborhoods and in the lives of their residents.