Emphasizing Equity in Economic Impact Analysis

By: Elissa Hoagland Izmailyan


As established American cities emerged from mid-20th-Century disinvestment, cities turned to parks as a tool to attract new residents, businesses, and investment to the urban core. HR&A was at the forefront of this movement, before the return of the creative class was assured. Our faith in cities, demonstrated through early economic impact analyses, supported parks and other catalytic investments that have transformed the urban landscape. The economic value of parks is now widely accepted, not only in economic literature but among the leadership of so many cities seeking a “High Line” of their own.

equity in Economic Impact Analysis

The great economic success of urban parks has ushered in the need and opportunity to shape the next generation of park investment around a set of shared principles for equitable urban development. We must ensure these new public spaces are embraced by communities of all means and backgrounds. To do so, park organizations are looking beyond their project boundaries to influence park-oriented development, creating inclusive communities and protecting current residents. To support these efforts, HR&A is also looking beyond the economic value that parks create to evaluate their social and community value and how that value can be equitably shared.


We measure what we care about. As a result, yesterday’s economic impact analyses were often conducted in order to secure funding tied to specific project benefits (e.g., Tax Increment Financing districts tied to real estate value). As our values change, so too must our measurements; our new measurements must consider the success of parks as engines of inclusion in addition to economic vitality. This includes: the distribution of economic benefits amongst constituencies and communities in addition to the total dollar amount; neighborhood-scale impacts including resident composition, local business impacts, and quality of life; and community resilience in addition to well-established ecological benefits.


This revised economic and social “report card” underpins an equitable planning approach that extends beyond the immediate recreational or aesthetic mission of parks:


  • Project design and programming that reflect the interests, needs, and access of diverse constituencies as a means to creating an inclusive gathering space.
  • Neighborhood planning and policy that looks past the boundaries of the park itself to ensure that each project connects physically, programmatically, and aesthetically with its community. With a careful eye to existing neighborhood conditions and aspirations, we can use park design and the tools of planning, zoning, housing policy, neighborhood investment, and participatory development to ensure that the community benefits from park investment, has access to adequate and diverse housing, and is resilient to socioeconomic change.
  • Organizational implementation to ensure that the leadership and staff composition of parks organizations reflect their constituents, and that community relations are inclusive, transparent, and effective.
  • A new funding model that reflects these needs and opportunities. Equitable park investment is likely to require a more nuanced funding strategy than that of downtown gems over the past two decades. Opportunities for earned income and real estate value capture may be more modest by design for next generation park investments, even as an increased focus on neighborhood investment increases costs. Direct participation in neighborhood development can open up new revenue sources, as can collaboration with community development organizations and funders.

Elissa Hoagland Izmailyan is the Managing Principal of HR&A’s Dallas office and can be reached via email.


About Our Parks & Open Space Practice

Over the past two decades, HR&A has served as the leading economic expert in a movement to bring funding to urban parks based on their economic and social value. We have provided strategic advisory services for over 115 parks and public spaces, including many of the most celebrated park investments of this century (the High Line Transformation, Waterfront Toronto, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Anacostia Waterfront, Programming the Lawn on D). By collaborating with community, civic, and public leaders, as well as with many of the top landscape architects in the country, HR&A has helped clients to not only define a truly holistic vision for investment, but also to integrate that vision into both park design and neighborhood development policy. Our approach helps communities create value by making strategic connections among parks, other civic assets, and privately owned real estate. Our work products quantify the value of those connections using robust, data-driven analysis, and demonstrate how that new value can be used to fund open space revitalization, programming, and maintenance.