UA Professor Co-Creates Tool to Measure Economic Development Success

Gary Pivo, a UA professor of planning, has helped create an online tool to measure the economic, environmental and social success of economic development projects.
Sept. 21, 2012
Gary Pivo, professor of planning
Gary Pivo, professor of planning

A University of Arizona professor has co-created an online tool designed to evaluate the merits of economic development projects and help developers understand the social, economic and environmental impact of their plans.

Traditionally, the success of an economic development project has been measured first and foremost by the number of jobs it creates or how much capital investment it attracts, said Gary Pivo, professor of planning in the UA’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture

The Triple Bottom Line Tool looks at a variety of other factors, in addition to capital investment and job creation, to indicate how successful a project might be.

“It broadens the conversation about how to define good economic development,” Pivo said.

Users of the tool enter details about a particular project online and receive feedback based on about 50 different measures. They are then given a score indicating how well a project supports three key goals: economic vitality, community well-being and natural resource stewardship, which together represent the “triple bottom line.”

“Some of the measures relate to the quality of jobs these projects will create and their contribution to regional economic resilience, some of them relate to whether they use natural capital efficiently and maintain ecosystem health, and some of them relate to how well they preserve culture, promote health and cultivate well-functioning communities," Pivo said. "There are different measures designed to assess the triple bottom line performance of a project.”

The online tool, which is in beta release, is intended for use by project designers and developers, as well as state, local and federal agencies considering projects submitted to them for funding, Pivo said. It might also be used by members of the general public interested in learning about the impact of projects planned in their communities.

Anyone can sign up for free online to use the tool. As users enter information about a project, they are provided with relevant data, pulled from a variety of federal databases, to aid in project assessment. For example, when a project’s geographic location is entered, users might be notified whether it’s in a critical habitat for endangered species or whether it’s in a flood hazard zone, Pivo said.

“It’s a way of helping to bring a lot of the information resources of the federal government into one place to make them easier to access,” Pivo said.

Pivo worked on the tool with a team led by Portland State University that also included representatives from the Reinvestment Fund and PolicyMap. The team worked in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, along with an advisory board of policymakers, practitioners, academics and industry leaders, including the National Association of Development Organizations, the International Economic Development Council and the Ford Foundation.

The goal was to develop a faster and easier way for those involved with economic development projects to assess the merits of a project and to encourage them to think beyond traditional parameters of success, Pivo said.

“This gives people a tool they can use to design their economic development projects at the front-end, when they’re thinking about elements that would make those projects as good as possible for the natural environment, as well as for social goals like worker safety, living wages and other concerns,” Pivo said.

“If projects are evaluated on a broader set of criteria like this, they will be shaped in a way that makes the best use of our investment dollars, in a way that achieves not just one dimension of success but three dimensions of success.”