State Agency Adding Human Well-Being To Puget Sound Health Indicators

Jul 28, 2015

Humans should be part of any consideration of how well Puget Sound’s ecological recovery is going. How we’re thriving and benefiting are critical parts of the equation, according to new research conducted for the state agency in charge of the cleanup.

The agency, called Puget Sound Partnership, is adding indicators of human well-being and quality of life to the “vital signs” it tracks. They’ll be included on the colorful pinwheel “dashboard” that anyone can see online.

Kelly Biedenweg is the lead social scientist charged with developing the new indicators. She says they were actually part of the agency’s mandate from the beginning. Washington’s Puget Sound Partnership was formed in 2007 under then-Governor Christine Gregoire to ensure protection of the waterway. 

A pod of orcas in the Puget Sound.
Credit AP Images

The health indicators for the Puget Sound include tangible measures such as air quality, availability of clean drinking water or availability of local food. But many are quite subjective. Take “sense of place,” for example.  

That’s “the extent to which people feel attached and have an identity with being in the Puget Sound region,” Biedenweg says.

Another measure she’s concluded is worth tracking is one listed as “Cultural wellbeing.”

She describes that as “whether people feel like they have the opportunity to access the cultural resources that are important to them.”

She says if people don’t have access, or if the services they feel they’re getting (such as stress reduction or venues for outdoor recreation) aren’t measured, they’re less interested in taking care of their environment.

  And if those interactions aren’t studied and understood, she says cleanup activities could actually create undesired tradeoffs and consequences.

For example, if a human need such as outdoor recreation isn’t tracked— and only a straightforward indicator, such as surviving orca population numbers is— people might go recreate anyway “and result in that human need getting exacerbated and causing actually more damage to the orcas,” she said.

The Partnership included these human wellbeing indicators in its mandate when it formed because there are examples all over the world of areas where the human element wasn’t taken into account, says Katharine Wellman, a natural resources economist who serves as member of the Partnership’s science panel and has been one of the leading advocates for adding them.

She says many other cleanup efforts have failed because they left how people interact with the environment out of the equation.  

“People are always viewed as a stressor or a negative on the environment, but never do we look in non-linear fashion at how people actually can not only benefit the environment, but people also benefit from the environment. And so in learning about those benefits, behaviors change,” Wellman said.   

She says those changes can be as simple as taking cars to certified car washes that divert the runoff or doing regular inspections that keep septic tanks from leaking.

The Partnership’s board will vote at its meeting on Wednesday on which of nine human indicators Biedenweg's team is putting forward to include on its dashboard. Biedenweg is advocating for all nine but says the board has options to leave some out or even adopt none of them.

The front runners were narrowed from an initial study of 26 indicators and then narrowed based on input from residents and stakeholders. The research took three years. Much of the follow-up measurement will be carried out with additional surveys, kind of like a local census.

Biedenweg, who teaches a course on ecosystem services at UW Tacoma, says the methodology is completely new -- because her field, social ecology, is so new. And it’s becoming a model for other areas. Already she’s been contacted by authorities in charge of cleaning up New Hampshire’s Great Bay estuary.