UW News

July 29, 2015

Healthier Puget Sound depends on healthy people, report finds

UW News

A thriving Puget Sound depends on healthy habitat that can support the animals and plants that live here. Shellfish free of toxins, salmon dashing up streams and forests full of diversity all are important benchmarks for the full restoration of Puget Sound.

But what about the people who live here? Should our well-being and the aspects we care most about in the natural world bear any weight on the plans — and money — being poured into cleaning up the Sound?

They should, according to the state agency tasked with organizing the recovery of Puget Sound.

The Puget Sound Partnership today adopted new targets that seek to quantify aspects of the natural environment that boost our collective happiness and wellness. These people-focused benchmarks will help inform restoration plans and assess future progress in cleaning up Puget Sound.

“With the understanding of how humans benefit from the environment and what the environment needs to be sustainable, we can better understand the tradeoffs when talking about new strategies for restoration,” said Kelly Biedenweg, lead social scientist with the Puget Sound Institute at University of Washington Tacoma. “It’s really highlighting the whole system as opposed to working in a silo.”

Biedenweg led a three-year effort to systematically survey and measure people’s well-being as it relates to Puget Sound. Her final report, which includes a set of about 20 factors, is the blueprint for the partnership’s focus on tracking human well-being.

Each human indicator is intended to be measured and tracked, so it’s a specific statement that can be evaluated. Examples are:

  • Percent of swimming beaches meeting fecal bacteria standards
  • Availability of and access to locally harvestable food species (shellfish, fish, hunting, gathering)
  • Number of jobs in natural resource industries
  • Percent of residents who feel a strong sense of stewardship for their watershed
  • Average frequency of residents experiencing reduced stress, calm or relaxation from being in the Puget Sound natural environment
The partnership's original vital signs wheel.

The partnership’s original vital signs wheel. (click image to enlarge)Puget Sound Partnership

Proposed changes to the vital signs diagram.

Proposed changes to the vital signs diagram. (click image to enlarge)Puget Sound Partnership

Puget Sound Partnership’s leadership council approved adding the human indicators to its “vital signs” list, which means they will be considered along with biological and ecological aspects when making decisions about restoration projects. The partnership uses these vital signs to track how overall recovery of the Sound is going.

Since it was formed in 2007, the partnership’s goals for restoring Puget Sound have included incorporating human factors into recovery plans. But without a scientifically based way to measure these factors, recovery projects have focused more on biological aspects, said Scott Redman, science and evaluation program director with the partnership.

“By adopting these vital signs, we can turn our attention to a better balance again,” Redman said. “It’s just very inherent in our responsibility for the future that we think about the future of the human benefits, services and well-being in the ecosystem.”

Each people-focused indicator made the final list after an exhaustive scientific process that included hundreds of interviews and multiple workshops with residents all over the region.

“I think I listened to a lot of different perspectives to get these indicators,” Biedenweg said.

It’s not an easy thing to quantify how people feel about the natural environment. Though some researchers found the task daunting, Biedenweg was determined to prove that while personal feelings and opinions will vary, it’s possible to scientifically whittle everything down to a concrete, measurable list of which factors are most important.

A framework showing different types of human well-being factors.

A framework showing different types of human well-being factors.University of Washington

“Ecological variability is everywhere in the natural world, so why should we take social variability as a reason to do nothing?” she said.

The UW team focused its data collection on three areas in Puget Sound — the Hood Canal watershed, the Puyallup watershed and Whatcom County. They exhaustively read existing literature and interviewed a broad swath of the people in each geographic region.

Despite talking to people with a range of opinions and backgrounds, after about 25 interviews in each location, Biedenweg started to hear repeats. That meant people could agree on certain goals, such as being able to harvest shellfish with generations of family members or swim at clean beaches.

“I was blown away by how supportive people were of this process,” Biedenweg said.

Though the UW team didn’t formally interview King County residents, they did analyze all of the social indicators already identified by other agencies and worked those into the final, Puget Sound-wide recommendations to the partnership.

Both partnership staff and Biedenweg attribute the success of creating these new well-being indicators to integrating both policy and science perspectives into the process early on.

Funding for this research came from Biedenweg’s National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellowship, the Puget Sound Institute, The Russell Family Foundation, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Local Integrating Organization grant and the Puget Sound Partnership.


For more information, contact Biedenweg at kbied@uw.edu or 253-254-7030 ext. 8010.

More information from the Puget Sound Institute and the Puget Sound Partnership.