June 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Community Surveys: Measuring Citizens' Attitudes Toward Sustainability

Land Grant universities, through Extension, can help local governments gather information on public opinions, attitudes, and behavior about environmental, economic, and social sustainability in their communities. This paper provides suggestions and examples about questions that can be asked of citizens to measure support for sustainability. It examines issues and local government involvement in environmental, economic, and social sustainability.

Stanley M. Guy
Community Development Educator
Internet address: stang@ext.usu.edu

David L. Rogers
Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology
Internet address: daver@ext.usu.edu

Utah State University Extension
Utah State University
Logan, Utah

Sustainability is a term increasingly used in Cooperative Extension work. The longest tradition of sustainability is in natural resources and, more recently, in community analysis. An older but well accepted definition of sustainability is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (United Nations World Commission on the Environment and Development 1987, as cited in Hart, 1995, p. 4.)

Among the range of problems Extension faculty face today is providing educational programs that help customers develop natural and human resources in a manner that ensures succeeding generations will have a satisfying quality of life. Sustainability literature most often focuses on the integration of three major systems: environmental, economic, and social, and addresses quality of life issues. Most efforts to measure sustainability use secondary data found in local and state government agencies, academic institutions, large government databases, and reports in local libraries (Hart, 1995), but relatively few assess individual attitudes and behaviors associated with sustainability. (Harker & Natter, 1995; Jones, 1990).

This paper describes how community surveys can be used to assess individual and public support for sustainability. Segedy and Lyon (1997) maintain that true community sustainability seeks policies and actions that create long-term solutions to local and regional issues. A community survey can be used to help officials identify issues and public opinion on approaches and programs that offer acceptable long-term solutions to community problems. Surveys provide a systematic method of gathering information on public opinion, attitudes, and behaviors representing the entire community. (Butler & Robert, 1993)

This paper presents suggestions and examples of questions citizens can be asked to measure their support for and their perceptions of local sustainability. Surveys can be used to assist communities in gathering information about residents' opinions, attitudes, and preferences. They provide an opportunity for Extension faculty and residents to become involved in co-learning activities from which a client-based program can be developed (Rogers, Bostwich, Nickel, & Webb, 1997).

Environmental Sustainability

Chiras and Herman (1997) propose that environmental sustainability has four dimensions: ecosystems, resources (both non-renewable and renewable), carrying capacities, and stewardship.

The appropriate balance of resource use and renewal within ecosystems is a key aspect. Some resources are renewable while others are not. There are limits to the use of resources, such as the amount of water that can be withdrawn from local rivers and aquifers or the amount of pollution that can be absorbed by the local air shed. Maintaining a balance between utilizing and replenishing natural resources ensures a sustainable environment.

Another aspect of environmental sustainability that brings several elements together is the proposition that human populations are sustainable when they operate within the carrying capacity of their ecosystems. At the community level, for example, natural resource development is sustainable when it takes into account the amount of water and land available and its capacity to absorb the waste generated by increasing populations.

Cities and counties must be able to identify the carrying capacity of their ecosystems in planning resource investments. For example, some county or city landfills are at full capacity and officials must develop creative methods to extend the life of these landfills or create new means of disposing of solid waste. How can relevant resident attitudes and opinions be secured to guide officials in their planning for solid waste disposal? A behavioral measure can be used to indicate support for recycling and prolonging the life of existing landfills. A county wide survey conducted by the Utah County Solid Waste Advisory Committee measured residents' recycling behavior by asking:

    "During the past six months have you recycled any of the following?"
    a. aluminum (cans, tin foil, aluminum products) 1
    b. newspapers 1
    c. glass 1
    d. used motor oil 1
    e. plastic (grocery bags, bottles) 1
    f. I do not recycle 1

Information from this behavioral question identifies both a willingness to recycle (commitment to prolonging the life of the landfill) and materials around which recycling businesses could be organized. Additional questions in the survey focused on residents' knowledge of the types of recycling centers available in the area. The information gathered was used to plan recycling efforts and reduce the amount of waste going into the landfill.

Other environmental dimensions of sustainability may also be explored in community surveys. Identifying environmental conditions with questions about municipal or government services can stimulate citizen discussion about the relationship between the environment and community carrying capacity. Elected officials can explore constituents' feelings about community service capacity with a question such as:

"What do you think will be the two most important issues facing (community name)
during the next five years?" (CIRCLE TWO)
a. adequate drinking water 1
b. roads 2
c. sewer and waste treatment 3
d. need for economic development and job
e. solid waste disposal 5
f. inadequate housing 6
g. Other (_____________________________) 7

If citizens feel adequate drinking water is the "most important" issue then elected officials and planners can develop plans to create and safeguard an adequate supply of drinking water. Identifying areas in which the carrying capacity is being reduced or maintained will provide policy makers information about whether or not their decisions are increasing or decreasing sustainability. Furthermore, conducting a community survey can help public officials know where their citizens stand on environmental sustainability issues and what educational efforts, if any, are needed.

Economic Sustainability

Elected officials often make policy decisions that affect an area's economic sustainability. Zoning, licensing, taxing, and regulations of various types (business licenses, etc.) all impact business owners, homeowners, and residents' economic well being. To be sustainable, economic development efforts in local communities must focus on human needs and seek ways to meet them, inexpensively and equitably, while protecting the environment. Both short and long term interests can be achieved by using needs-based approaches (Segedy & Lyon, 1997). Resident surveys provide an important tool for needs-based planning.

Issues such as personal income, where residents shop, taxation policy, and government services are all part of needs based planning strategies that will maintain or enhance economic sustainability. An example of a survey question that provides data on income leakage is:

"In which of the following locations do you buy the majority of the following goods and services?"

a. Gasoline 6 5 4 3 2 1
b. Groceries6 5 4 3 2 1
c. Hardware/building supplies 6 5 4 3 2 1
d. Meals (dining out) 6 5 4 3 2 1
e. Prescriptions 6 5 4 3 2 1
f. Doctors 6 5 4 3 2 1
g. Hospital 6 5 4 3 2 1
h. Dental 6 5 4 3 2 1
...(additional services listed) 6 5 4 3 2 1

Answers to this question identify where citizens buy their goods and services and whether they shop locally or elsewhere. Information about purchasing decisions will aid public officials and private sector investors in determining the amount of income leakage that occurs. It is also useful for raising issues such as why do residents buy goods and services outside their community? Are these choices being made because of product availability, service, price or selection or some combination? What can be done to reduce income leakages (increase sustainability) where it occurs?

Strategies that encourage people to buy locally are an important component of economic sustainability and greater self reliance. Retaining local dollars within a community by reducing "leakage" and increasing the consumption of local goods and services is one way of creating a sustainable community.

The need for local purchasing of commodities also applies to business firms and public agencies. Communities in which many production and value-added activities are conducted locally experience sustainability because it keeps more income and jobs within the immediate geographic area.

Social Sustainability

Social sustainability involves issues that affect residents' quality of life. It includes population density, adequate housing, education, archeological and historical sites, recreation, culture, public safety, welfare, and a myriad of other social conditions (Luther, 1997). Many of these conditions are areas of concern in municipalities because economic development cannot be sustained when a community's social environment fails to meet quality of life expectations (Bonnett, 1993).

Several studies have been conducted on quality of life issues (Krannich, Berry, & Greider, 1989; Molnar & Smith 1982; O'Connell, 1989; Wilson, L. A., 1983). These studies are especially helpful in addressing sustainability issues and questions. Social sustainability issues can be measured by using indicators of satisfaction with municipal services, citizens' willingness to pay taxes for services, or opinions and desires about local services. An abridged version of a question used most frequently by public officials in Utah State University community surveys deals with rating municipal services:

"How would you rate the following (community name) services?"
a. Fire protection 4 3 2 1 8
b. Law enforcement 4 3 2 1 8
c. Emergency medical services 4 3 2 1 8
d. Animal control services 4 3 2 1 8
e. Garbage collection 4 3 2 1 8
f. Snow removal 4 3 2 1 8

The perception that basic public services are being provided in a community helps maintain residents' confidence in the social fabric (infrastructure) of a community. Elected officials need benchmark surveys to identify where the community has been and where it needs to go with regards to basic services. Careful planning needs to be done by communities so that water, public safety, health, and recreation services are adequate and meet local needs. If resources are allocated in a manner that neglects local infrastructure needs, the quality of life in a community will decline.

Another facet of a community's social fabric that affects social sustainability is residents' feelings about their community - their commitment or attachment (Eliason, Rogers, & Geertsen, 1992). Zollinger (1994) found the stronger an individual's social bonds (residential stability, length of residence, age, and religion) are, the stronger their commitment to a community. This study suggested an individual's emotional attachment to the community as a whole arises out of their social attachments. Therefore, fostering social attachment is another method of contributing to the social sustainability of a community. An example of a question that deals with social attachment is:

"On average, how many hours do you ordinarily spend in a normal month attending or taking part in any kind of organized or planned group activity or event (not associated with your work or job) that involves other members of this community?"

a. More than 10 hours per month 1
b. 5-10 hours per month 2
c. 1-4 hours per month 3
d. Less than one hour per month4

Historical and cultural traditions are also linked to community sustainability. They often serve to bond residents together and provide the basis for accepting long term solutions over short term remedies which is critical to sustainability. Determining residents' attitudes about community festivals, events, or landmarks can help community leaders identify and prioritize their planning efforts. For instance, Garden City celebrates "Raspberry Days" because the community is known for its raspberry patches and related products. Elected officials wanted to know if preserving existing berry patches was important to residents. The following question was asked:

"How important is it to preserve the berry patches in Garden City?"

3 2 1 8

Seventy two percent of the residents felt it was "very important" to preserve berry patches and 15% felt it was "somewhat important." The importance given to preserving berry patches suggests that protecting these patches should be included in local land use plans and zoning ordinances as a method of enhancing local and cultural traditions.

Efforts to gather information about residents' opinions, behaviors, and attitudes are worth the time and energy of Extension, elected officials, and volunteers because they help identify activities and practices important in sustaining communities. Letters of appreciation and anecdotal information reported by elected officials who used the community survey process support this position. One mayor wrote, "This survey has been a valuable aid to our City Council and staff as we have tried to tailor City budgets to match citizen priorities for services, as expressed in the survey."

Similar sentiments were expressed by another mayor. He wrote, "The survey results added focus and structure to the public meetings and public hearings that were also part of the general plan process. After considerable work and with the help of the survey data Nephi City completed its updated general plan and the revised zoning ordinance that is its companion."

Resident participation in identifying, planning and designing services is important in advancing community sustainability. Organizing survey efforts around a community's environmental, economic, and social needs helps elected officials identify the interdependence in these areas. Community surveys are an effective way to help measure residents' attitudes, opinions, and values and support sustainable communities.


Bonnett, T. A. (1993). Strategies for rural competitiveness: policy options for state governments. Washington, DC: Council of Governors' Policy Advisors.

Butler, L. M., & Robert, E. H. (Reprinted 1993). Coping with change: Community needs assessment techniques in (s). WREP 44. Corvallis OR: Western Rural Development Center.

Chiras, D. D., & Herman, J. (1997). Sustainable community development: A systems approach. In I. Audirac (Ed.), Rural sustainable development in America. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Eliason, S. L., Rogers, D. L., & Geertsen, R. (1992). Community attachment revisited: A comparison of Utah and Iowa studies. A paper read at the annual meetings of the Rural Sociological Society, University Park, PA.

Harker, D. F., & Natter, E. U. (1995). Where we live: A citizen's guide to conducting a community environmental inventory. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Hart, M. (1995). Guide to sustainable community indicators. Ipswich, MA: Quebec-Labrador Foundation/Atlantic Center for the Environment.

Jones, B. (1990). Neighborhood planning: A guide for citizens and planners. Chicago: American Planning Association.

Krannich, R. S., Berry, E. H., & Greider, T. (1989). Fear of crime in rapidly changing rural communities: A longitudinal analysis. Rural Sociology, 54, 2, 195-212.

Luther, J. (1997). Still life on the Plains: Strategies for sustainable communities. In I. Audirac (Ed.), Rural sustainable development in America. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

O'Connell, G. B. (1989). Rate your city - here's how! Public Management, 71, 7-10.

Molnar, J. J., & Smith, J. P. (1982). Satisfaction with rural services: The policy preferences of leaders and community residents. Rural Sociology, 47, 496-511.

Rogers, D. L., Bostwich, L., Nickel, P., & Webb, L. (1997). Involving Extension in the development of engaged universities. Paper presented at the Galaxy Summit, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Segedy, J. A., & Lyon, T. S. (1997). Community-based workshops: Building a partnership for community vitality. In I. Audirac (Ed.), Rural sustainable development in America. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Wilson, L. A. (1983). Preference revelation and public policy: Making sense of citizen survey data. Public Administration Review, 43, 335-342.

Zollinger, B. (1994). Testing a linear development and a multilevel systemic perspective of community attachment: A study of four nonmetropolitan Intermountain West communities. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, Portland, Oregon.