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Definition of Community Development
Can Be Broad

Our wide definition of community development includes intentional collective actions to improve social, economic, physical, and environmental well-being, while preserving valuable aspects of the culture of the particular geographic area.  The U.S., Europe, and Canada especially emphasize the durability and adaptability of the housing stock as a major topic of community development, but we think that is too limiting.

diagram of the many aspects of community development

In some parts of the world, war, disease, famine, extreme poverty, and climate change may threaten human life and social organization at such a basic level that community development must focus primarily on helping people overcome those threats to stability.

The subjects are so interwoven that our graphic above shows overlapping sub-sets of the community development idea.  We second-guess our own diagram often, because we see a different way that the threads of community improvement are interrelated each time we focus on a real-life example.

You are welcome to criticize and wonder too, using your own community as a reference point.

The topics in this section, complementing our definition of community development, are shown in the links below.  This article resumes after that, giving you some more concrete ways to think about the definition.

Community Development as an International Development Framework

International community development conversations often focus on another meaning, which emphasizes eradication of extreme poverty and then building the physical and economic infrastructure and organizing a society that can communicate, sell, and buy globally. We hope that the notion of developing capacity of the entire population to participate meaningfully in community decision-making is included.

In the global context, the definition of community development tends to be entangled with trying to imitate Western-style development.

However, retracing the mistakes of the "developed" world is not necessarily the best way to move forward. World-wide, humanity can avoid past errors that now threaten environmental sustainability, economic stability, and development of a middle class because of a concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. A more productive approach arises from appreciating local experience, history, and creativity, while learning from the best practices of others.

A More Detailed Definition of Community Development for More Wealthy Regions

In the U.S., a federal program has influenced the definition of community development too much. Since 1964, the term community development has become almost synonymous with the Community Development Block Grant.

Since that program requires that the benefits flow primarily to people of low and moderate income, an undeserved narrowness has been attached to the phrase community development.

It is usually a good program and one I have managed, but community improvement is necessary and gratifying across the entire economic spectrum. Other nations may have similar difficulties with the local population identifying the term too much with a specific program or set of initiatives.

By way of example, we propose that the definition of community development in a developed country includes anything that:

  • Increases the appeal of a neighborhood to housing buyers or renters
  • Rapidly recycles obsolete housing or commercial buildings by renovating to meet current trends or redeveloping the land area devoted to housing into a new productive use
  • Corrects unwise development patterns, whether those may be a tendency to sprawl in an economically and socially inefficient manner, develop suburbs with a bland sameness lacking in community focal points, or dilute beautiful rural areas with scattered suburban style development
  • Allows community residents to make a better living, over a longer period of time, with ample choices available for part-time workers and for those who want to voluntarily change careers or find themselves displaced by local or global economic trends
  • Uses land wisely, as the scarce and valuable resource that it is
  • Provides the everyday goods and services that people need within a short distance of all residences, and allows shopping for less routine purchases within a reasonable distance
  • Cultivates a safe environment
  • Makes the community accessible to all, whether they can participate in the dominant transportation mode in their society or not
  • Gives young and old alike ample opportunity for recreation, physical exercise, and exposure to nature
  • Works with nature to locate key human activities away from environmentally sensitive land, and flood, fire, volcano, seismic, climate change, and extreme weather hazards
  • Increases the capacity of the community to discuss problems and issues openly and resolve them within a reasonable period of time in a democratic fashion
  • Enhances the visual and sensory appeal of the community (which should be limitless)
  • Expresses the fact that we value people more than cars, palaces, or other symbols of power and control
  • Pushes us in the direction of an efficient, high quality, transparent government that arranges for the necessary public services and keeps our infrastructure updated
  • Supports individuals as they organize neighbors into a cohesive whole able to take action collectively when leaders and impersonal forces try to impose policies that produce negative impacts on the local level
  • Avoids senseless use of finite natural resources and pollution of our land, water, and air
  • Organizes a metropolitan or micropolitan area for quick diagnosis of challenges to its competitive edge and fast response to threats from the environment
  • Addresses the issue of the importance the community wishes to place on its historic and cultural heritage

It's a challenging definition of community development already, but your community may see that you also need to focus on promoting creativity, leadership, social equity, racial equity specifically, more emotional ownership of neighborhood outcomes, or increased coordination and networking among organizations and sectors that affect how well your community is positioned for the future. So you can see that community development applies to people of all income levels, including low, moderate, and lavish.

More about Community Development Theory

To be a good community volunteer or community development practitioner, it is vital to understand community development principles, as explained in an illustrated essay based on three in-depth example communities.  A geographic community does not have to be perfect in every respect, but it does need to achieve critical mass in becoming an attractive community and in meeting the needs of its residents. Thinking about the principles that apply to your own community can help you identify and develop the policies and leadership that you need.

When we think more profoundly, based on examples we see around us, we can reclaim the complexity and richness of the phrase community development. Increasing the number of people who understand cause and effect in community work can expand your impact exponentially.

Lastly, a visitor to the site asked about the purpose of community development.  It's an important thought, and our best try at answering the "why" question is on the page in the link.

  1. Community Development
  2.  ›
  3. Overview

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