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The benefits of parks seem obvious – bringing social, cultural and environmental impact while at the same time working to minimize pollution and crowding. But is it also possible to demonstrate how an investment in public parks can provide an economic return?
That was the question posed to Arizona State University researchers by the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department.
"In an era of stiff competition for public funding, philanthropic support and private-sector investment, it is critical for parks and conservation organizations to go beyond touting the quality of life and health benefits afforded by a parks system. Understanding the economic benefits and impacts of parks and open space are critical in telling a well-rounded story,” said R.J. Cardin, director of Maricopa County Parks and Recreation.
Deepak Chhabra, a professor in the School of Community Resources and Development, led the study with help from graduate research assistant Eric Steffey and doctoral student Shengnan Zhao. Based on survey data from park visitors to eight iconic parks – six in Maricopa County and two that span into Pinal and Yavapai counties – the team ran impact studies for each park, as well as an aggregate study on the Phoenix metropolitan area.
“For an economic impact study, you must first define a visitor, second determine the total number of visitors to an attraction, and third to see where they are spending money,” said Chhabra.
Spending was broken into categories, such as camping and lodging fees, eating and drinking, and shopping.
The team also looked at types of spending:
• direct spending, where a visitor shops and provides a direct benefit to a vendor
• indirect spending, when a vendor purchases from another vendor
• induced, where employment is generated
“Although the positive benefits these open spaces provide to us are profound, many are intangible and difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. However, in working to inform policy and planning, numbers matter,” said Stacie Beute of the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance.
The results were good.
“We were able to show how much is generated after costs for every dollar invested by Maricopa County parks,” said Chhabra. “Overall, we found that for every dollar invested, approximately $1.40 was generated after costs.”
Chhabra noted that although individual park returns varied, it is difficult to determine why. The size of the park and amenities offered all differ and could factor in. Yet, it provides feedback to the parks on how they might improve results.
“The county is very good at researching data and impact,” said Carlton Yoshioka in the School of Community Resources and Development. “We frequently work together on customer research studies, and they use the information to guide better decisions.”
One area that Chhabra noted that could help boost results: linkages.
“For example, if a park has a restaurant and sources food locally rather than leaking resources out, it creates a strong linkage,” she explained. “The more connections they have – joining resources – the better impact for the park.”
“The work of ASU has helped us demonstrate the range and extent of benefits offered by the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation properties," Cardin said.
Beute also praised the research.
“Time and time again, the people of Arizona proclaim our open spaces, trails and the natural environment as our state's greatest assets. Yet, in the face of rapid development and urbanization, these spaces are under threat,” Beute said. “In asking ourselves what we want for the future of Maricopa County, there is much to weigh. This is exactly the kind of use-inspired research we need to make the case for continued and increased support for conservation of open spaces in Arizona.”