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Social Indicators of Rural Community Sustainability: An Example from the Woady Yaloak Catchment1

Sharon Pepperdine

Department of Geography & Environmental Studies, The University of Melbourne, Parkville Victoria Australia 3010, Email:


An understanding of social issues is imperative for effective planning and policy development. Furthermore, integrating human needs in planning, along with environmental and economic considerations, is fundamental to foster sustainable development. In particular, social sustainability, or well-being, of communities is integral to any assessment of sustainability since it reflects, and impacts upon, ecological and economic sustainability. A systematic approach to the consideration of social issues in planning is vital to both inform the social context for decision-making and provide feedback on policy outcomes. Stakeholder input is necessary to gain insight into the needs and concerns held for the relevant social system. It can assist in decision-making by ensuring the inclusion of locally significant issues.

Issues fundamental to the social sustainability of rural communities have been identified through a case study of communities in rural Victoria. Factors considered essential for viable rural communities were established through, inter alia, stakeholder participation. A suite of social indicators were constructed, and subsequently validated, to reflect the key factors identified. This provides a comprehensive tool which can not only offer a framework to integrate social values to monitor trends in the social dimensions of sustainability more broadly, but also can be used as a locally meaningful guide to assist community planning in a rural context.


There has been much discussion about sustainability, but how do we know whether we are shifting towards a more sustainable system? Monitoring can play an important role in providing feedback to aid decision-making and inform planning. A monitoring system can facilitate the settings of priorities and assist in evaluating performance (Clarke & Wilson 1994). Since the notion of sustainability embraces ecological, economic and social issues and the complex interdependence between these dimensions, a broad approach needs to adopted at the planning and management level to shed light on this multi-dimensional picture. However, a systematic approach for considering the social dimensions of sustainability is not well developed in Australia or internationally (Pepperdine & Ewing in press).

Integrating human needs in planning, along with environmental and economic considerations, is fundamental to foster sustainable development. In particular, social sustainability, or well-being, of communities is integral to any assessment of sustainability since it reflects, and impacts upon, ecological and economic sustainability. A systematic approach to the consideration of social issues in planning is vital to both inform the social context for decision-making and provide feedback on policy outcomes.

An understanding of the local system could better inform planning and decision-making of social sustainability at the community level. Social indicators that are locally meaningful need to be determined for local-scale decision-making (Parker 1995). Different levels of resolution are appropriate depending on the context they are needed (Smith 1973). National social indicator data which are based on aggregated data, for example, is inappropriate for local planning as they can mask significant issues at the local level (Clarke & Wilson 1994). Even where census data is amalgamated to smaller levels, such as the Collectors’ District, it remains problematic. This is particularly pertinent for rural and sparsely populated regions in Australia. Census data provides the main source of social data to inform much planning, however, it is inadequate as it tells us little of the local systems as census data is amalgamated in broad categories. For example, census data provides no distinction between town and farming populations, nor does it provide any detail as to the relationship between population, employment or income levels with the agricultural sector (Pepperdine 1998). In an attempt to provide information of the social sustainability at the community level, a system to represent local issues which are locally relevant while also broadly applicable is required.

One possible approach involves the construction of a local information system that incorporates ‘subjective’ social indicators to measure the ‘reality’ in which people live (Clarke & Wilson 1994). Subjective indicators, including those which reflect personal attitudes, beliefs and feelings, are necessary to counter the emphasis on ‘objective’ measures. The sole reliance on objective indicators to provide insight into the social system is inadequate. Objective and subjective indicators of quality of life, for example, have been found to reflect different factors (Kuz 1978). The disparities between these two approaches indicate that they can not be used interchangeably or as surrogates. Hence, a system of subjective social indicators is necessary; this can be used in conjunction with objective measures to provide a broader picture.

Stakeholder involvement is an essential ingredient in the development of such a system for it permits insight into the needs and concerns held for the relevant social system (Pepperdine & Ewing in press). This allows the identification of locally relevant and meaningful indicators and, subsequently, the development of a locally specific information management strategy. This can better assist decision-making by providing a framework to enable “individuals and decision makers to recognise the outcomes of their decisions in terms of their stated sustainability goals” (Parker 1995: 50). A local information system offers a framework to both monitor the environment (social, economic and ecological) and provide feedback in relation to sustainability.

The process of stakeholder consultation and participation offers additional benefits. It is a valuable way to promote local community adoption, empower the community and facilitate education to motivate change and commitment (Parker 1995). Based on their experience with the Lancashire County Council sustainability indicators project, Macnaghten et al. (1995) argue that public involvement in the process is vital for the results to be accepted by the public. The identification of stakeholder values can assist in decision-making by promoting locally significant issues while also encouraging local commitment and credibility.

This paper focuses on the development of social indicators of community sustainability through stakeholder participation. It draws on the findings of a project based in rural Victoria, Australia. It will present both the process used to construct a suite of social indicators to measure rural community sustainability and a tool to measure these. Key indicators of social well-being which were elicited from local stakeholders will be discussed. It offers a framework to incorporate social values to assist the delivery of information for decision-making.

Social Sustainability in the Agricultural Sector

Sustainability is one of the main issues facing rural communities today. The future of Australian rural communities is intimately entwined with ecological, economic and social issues; of these, issues regarding environmental degradation have received the greatest recognition so far. However, increasingly the importance of social well-being to the broader picture of agricultural sustainability is being recognised (for example: Troughton 1995; Bryant 1992; Vanclay & Lawrence 1995; Lawrence 1995). The relationship between sustainable communities and sustainable agricultural sector has been made explicit by Pomeroy, who argues that a “sustainable agriculture depends on the social ‘health’ or well-being of those involved in the industry, as well as on the economic and environmental well-being of the agricultural sector” (1997:97). Social issues need to be investigated and incorporated in systems to represent agriculture in order to understand and address constraints to sustainable agriculture (Bryant 1992; Pomeroy 1997).

Measures of community sustainability have been constructed specifically for a rural context in North America (Dykeman 1990), Scotland (Fife Regional Council 1995; Copus & Crabtree 1996), New Zealand (Pomeroy 1997), and are currently being developed in Australia (Pepperdine 1998; MacGregor & Fenton 1999; Lockie et al. 1999). Typically, these studies have employed participatory strategies to help identify aspects important for local sustainability. They tend to determine issues integral to the sustainability of the system and propose indicators with which to measure them. The outcomes can provide a framework to establish a local information system and the means to monitor it.

Five main domains of interest emerge across these studies: (i) biophysical; (ii) economic; (iii) demographic; (iv) social; and, (v) political dimensions. However the emphasis varies between studies. Social and political issues, for example, were found to be the key factors for the sustainability of small rural communities (Everitt & Annis 1992). A range of social and political issues can be compiled from these studies and include: involvement in decision-making; leadership; access to, and availability of, key goods and services including infrastructure, education and information; demographic issues; health and safety; and community support in terms of participation in civic life, community pride and spirit, community cohesion, neighbourliness and cooperation.

While studies like these provide a useful framework for developing a tool to measure social sustainability, they are not without limitations. They suggest a comprehensive list of indicators, but these are typically locally specific. Added to this is the difficulty that they tend to be restricted to the system for which they were designed. Some studies restrict their focus to a particular aspect of the system, for instance socio-economic issues (eg. Copus & Crabtree 1996) and ‘capacity for change’ (eg. Lockie et al. 1999), rather than encompassing a range of social issues which affect the community. As indicators may be limited to their original context, they need to be developed from the local system. This will promote the identification of indicators germane to the system of interest. Whilst indicators relevant to a particular setting are needed and whilst this has been done for a variety of systems, few have written of the process – that is, how the issues were identified and how the indicators were developed (Pepperdine & Ewing in press).

The Woady Yaloak Case Study

This project is concerned with developing a system for social reporting. While its focus is on catchment management in particular, it has wider application to inform planning and policy development from the local to national level. A catchment-based case study was selected, given that the catchment has assumed importance as a planning unit and the lack of available social data for the catchment scale (Pepperdine 1998). The communities in the Woady Yaloak catchment are the focus of this case study. This is a largely agricultural river catchment in south central Victoria (refer to Figure 1).

Figure 1: Map of the Woady Yaloak River Catchment

The Woady Yaloak catchment region is largely rural with settlement in the area accelerated by the discovery of gold in the late 1830s. The Woady Yaloak catchment covers 120000 hectares, 80 percent of which is privately owned and is home to 150 large farmers and 70 small landholders (Knight & Nicholson 2000). Five main townships are located in the catchment, however there is no main service centre. The population of the towns and their districts range from a few hundred to less than 1000, to give a total population of just over 4000.

There are four main land use types present in the catchment. They consist of the urbanised sections of greater Ballarat; small hobby farms; forested areas; and large-scale farming (refer to Figure 1). The boundary between the forested section and the lower section of the catchment represents a division between user groups. The upper section exhibits close associations with Ballarat, consisting largely of commuters who work and get essential and social services from outside the catchment. Larger land holdings are found below the forests with the main emphasis placed on farming. This section is characterised by a ‘ruralness’, in contrast to the urban focus apparent in the upper catchment. Agricultural land use consists predominantly of dryland farming with sheep and cattle grazing along with some broad acre cropping. The area contributes significantly to Australia’s agricultural output with farmers in the catchment producing more than $21 million worth of produce in 1989/90 (Nicholson 1993). Even so, local townships are showing signs of stress indicating a relative decline in prosperity; typically they are stagnant at best or declining in their population levels and the opportunities available for the community in terms of employment, and the provision of goods and services.

The range of public and private goods and services available in the Woady Yaloak catchment is poor. Services in the larger towns, while still fairly minimal, generally include a basic general store, post office facilities, community hall, pub and church. Local Government services include community, maternal and child health centres, however there are no doctors or pharmacies based in the catchment. Local government amalgamations saw the relocation of the head office to outside the catchment and the closure or downsizing of the local offices thus adding to the tyranny of distance and isolation. A kindergarten and three primary schools operate but there is no secondary school. The only bank in the area close recently, despite local opposition and represents yet another challenge to local sense of identity. Other community services in the catchment, for example churches and sports clubs, are suffering declining numbers or closing down. Ballarat is the nearest service centre being 60 kilometres from the furthest point in the catchment and provides a significant source of recreation, goods and services, employment, education and health facilities.

While the recent experience has been largely dictated by a climate of rural restructuring and cut backs, there are some success stories. Residents in Rokewood, for example, rallied the local government to establish a health centre to counter the bank closure. This goes some way to not only provide a service and employment, but also engenders a community focus and sense of pride. Similarly, numerous local community groups, such as service clubs and environmental groups, are active in pockets dotted throughout the region. The activeness and of some of the communities in the catchment highlight their resiliant nature.

Indicator Development

Key social issues and values integral to community well-being in terms of its functioning and viability were elicited from local stakeholders in the Woady Yaloak catchment. This exercise drew on face-to-face interviews with 25 local stakeholders which was followed up with a questionnaire to validate the main issues raised in the interviews. The questionnaire was mailed to 185 stakeholders in the catchment, and gained a 42 percent response. These data were analysed using a systematic process employing inductive techniques to interpret the key themes raised. While the interrelated nature of these issues made interpreting the results a complex task, 18 themes vital to the social well-being of the catchment communities emerged. These are listed in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Main themes identified as important for the social well-being
of the Woady Yaloak catchment

The issues identified in this study were then used to guide the development of indicators to measure rural social sustainability. These were combined with social variables that emerged in the literature to form the basis to develop indicators. A series of statements were constructed to reflect the themes. However, maintenance of services and facilities and government commitment were excluded from this analysis as they were not amenable to this format (they were still included in the research but in a different section that will not be discussed here). In all there were 55 statements; these were represented in a written questionnaire. The questionnaire was applied to the Woady Yaloak catchment. It served the dual purpose to validate the indicators and to develop a benchmark measure of the social condition of the communities in the Woady Yaloak catchment.

The questionnaire was widely distributed to 1000 residents and landholders (including absentee owners) throughout the catchment. A population sample was selected through a stratified random sampling method based on the geographic spread across the catchment. Of the questionnaires that reached the target population, 45 percent were retuned.

The questionnaire data were analysed using principle component analysis (PCA). The purpose of this was twofold. It reduced the number of variables while also acted to validate the constructed statements. All statements except one were found to be relevant when using a cut-off value of 0.32. Thus 54 of the statements were related to the issue of rural social sustainability. The redundant statement was excluded from further analysis. The remaining variables were reduced into factors. They were categorised and formed 15 discrete factors which are represented by the corresponding statements, or indices. The factors and variables they represent are listed in Table 1. This process acted to endorse the majority of statements as indices while also reduced a large number of variables to more manageable factors which reflect rural social sustainability.

Table 1: Factors of Rural Social Sustainability

Indicators of Rural Social Sustainability

The 15 factors produced provide key indicators of rural social sustainability. The indicators developed and endorsed through this study cover the social issues which underlie “the ways in which people live, work, play, relate to one another, organize to meet their friends, and generally cope as members of society” (Burdge & Vanclay 1995:32). They provide a tool to gain a subjective insight into rural community sustainability by measuring the reality in which people live. These subjective social indicators can be used along side ‘objective’ measures, such as census data, to give a broader picture of trends in sustainability.

The indicators which emerged from this study provide a system which can be useful to develop and monitor a local information system to guide planning. Specifically, this systematic approach can be applied to assist the inclusion of social issues, which underpin the community and broader sustainability, in planning and decision-making.

The indicators can be used to gain an insight into the key issues facing the social well-being of rural communities. When combined, they explain 62 percent of the total variance thereby providing significant insight into the communities in the Woady Yaloak (refer to Table 2). The high response rate obtained from this study further reinforces the importance these issues play in rural communities, in addition to the concern and commitment towards the interest of the community held by the population.

Table 2: Total variance explained

An understanding of the priority of the issues provides valuable insight to assist in goal setting for planning as the significance of each indicator may vary spatially and temporally. The significance of each factor can also be determined by applying these indicators. The relative importance was broken down for the Woady Yaloak situation. Cohesion (Factor 1) was found to be the single most important factor in measuring rural social sustainability as it explains the most variance. Cohesion, and to a lesser extent community mindedness, prosperity, neighbourliness, accepting and opportunities to participate, are the key priorities for social sustainability in the Woady Yaloak catchment. This not only challenges the traditional emphasis on economics as the underlying element of rural social sustainability (represented in Factors 3, 7 and 11) but also provides criteria of the local priorities for social sustainability to guide planning.

Even though the issues identified show similarities with other studies into the characteristics of successful communities (for example see: Dykeman 1990; Pomeroy 1997) this was a useful exercise. Firstly, it suggested the generic nature of these issues to rural societies. Secondly, the contribution of local community stakeholders permitted insight into the importance of the issues for this context; this can be helpful to set local priorities for planning. Finally, local involvement in the process facilitates credibility, ownership and meaningful indicators.


Any measurement of sustainability needs to include considerations of social issues. The significance of social sustainability as a component of the sustainability equation has been recognised in the agricultural sector in particular. An understanding of social sustainability can assist planning and policy development as the human and physical environment is interconnected.

A comprehensive suite of indicators to measure rural social sustainability has been developed. They were based on social aspects identified as vital for community well-being through a process of local stakeholder in a case study of rural communities in the Woady Yaloak river catchment, Australia. It consists of a series of subjective social indicators which reflect a range of issues that are locally meaningful. These key issues need to be addressed to provide insight into the social system, and when used in conjunction with ‘objective’ social indicators and biophysical and economic measures, can represent the broader sustainability picture.

The 15 indicators presented provide a tool to facilitate the integration of the ‘people issues’ into planning and policy decision-making. It can aid in assessing state of the environment by providing a framework for the systematic collection of data in a format that will allow the evaluation of social trends. This may be used for comparison over time and between areas to better inform decision-making at the community, catchment, regional and national levels.


The support from the Woady Yaloak catchment stakeholders, Dr Sarah Ewing, and the Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation (LWRRDC), through Project UME29, is gratefully acknowledged.


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1 This paper was presented at the First National Conference on the Future of Australia’s Country Towns, 28–30 June 2000, Bendigo, Australia.

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