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Community Planning

Abstract and Keywords

This entry discusses community planning in the context of community social work. Distinctions are made between community planning as a rational comprehensive process of the planning discipline, and the process of community planning in community social work. Community planning is defined as a process of participatory and inclusive organized social change, directed toward community empowerment, building community, and developing members’ capacities to take part in democratic decision making. A three-dimensional model of empowering community planning is presented and discussed. The model focuses on the tasks of community social work in the planning process, and the empowering outcomes they can enable.

Keywords: community planning, community work, community empowerment, participation

Introduction and Background: Community Planning in Community Social Work and in Planning

Ross (1955) dedicated a chapter to planning in his pioneering book on community organization. He stressed that planning is needed throughout the process of community organization—from stirring the consciousness of people in the community about a problem to the action they take to resolve the problem. Planning, according to Ross, 1955, is not the development of a plan, but the “action planning” by which the community attains a desired and feasible objective (Ross, 1955, p. 134). This process involves all the skills of community organizers.

Since the 1950s, community organization, community organizing, and community development have been used interchangeably to describe community social work. Community organization has usually been conceptualized as Ross did in 1955 (and again in Ross & Lappin, 1967), as the practice of community social work. Community organizing has been conceptualized as part of the social work profession (for example, Rubin & Rubin, 2008; Delgado, 2008; Kahn, 2010), as well as not exclusively of the social work profession (Smock, 2004, Minkler, 2012). Community development has been the name for community social work in the United Kingdom and Australia (e.g. Ledwith & Springett, 2010; Ife, 1995). Community development has also developed into a separate interdisciplinary professional field (for example, Johnson Butterfield & Chisanga, 2013; Cornwall, 2003; Chambers, 2005) with its own publications and conferences. As Johnson Butterfield & Chisanga (2013) observed, development studies evolved into a competitive interdisciplinary field, with similar practice and values, that offers its knowledge, research, and job opportunities to community social workers as well as to other practitioners.

In 1994 the first issue of the Journal of Community Practice appeared. In its introductory paper (Faulkner, Roberts-DeGennaro, & Weil, 1994) are the keywords “community organization” and “community development.” Since then, community practice has been the name used, especially in the United States, to describe community social work (Weil, 2013b, Chanan & Miller, 2013). The stated purpose of the more generic name has been to include in one professional discourse “Community Practice, social work and community development students, faculty and practitioners” (Weil, 2013b, p. xii). But variations are still evident. For example Larsen, Sewpaul, and Hole (2014) prefer community work as closer to community development and different from community organization, which is seen by them as more top-down. In Israel (Sadan, 2009) and Australia (Ife, 1995) “community work” is the name for community social work. This entry will use “community social work” and “community social workers” respectively.

Planning is a multidisciplinary and diverse profession. It is concerned with national security planning; economic (national, state, and local) planning; social (national, state, and local) planning; environmental (national, state, and local) planning; spatial planning, from community, through city planning and regional development planning (Friedmann, 1987). In community social work, planning is discussed under several names: social planning, community planning, and neighborhood planning. These sometimes appear as synonyms (Lauffer, 1978), but it is also common to differentiate between them. Social planning is used to describe macro and institutional change, social policies and programs, social problems, and administrative decisions (Kahn, 1969; Rothman & Zald, 1985; Sager, 2013). Neighborhood planning is an attempt to escape the vagueness of community to a concrete neighborhood (Rohe & Gates, 1985; Checkoway, 1986). Community planning means planning with the community.

The plurality of names has not contributed to the development of planning thought in community social work. Planning acquired a largely technical meaning. It was conceptualized as involving mainly data collection, program planning, and evaluation (Rothman, 1979). It has even been suggested that community planning is not as natural for community social workers as their other methods of intervention. It seems as though there is tension between the development and organization parts and the planning in community social work (Morris, 1979).

Rothman’s community practice model has been used widely since 1968 by community workers (Rothman, 1979, 1996, 2007). It serves as a basic text in social work education. “Social planning” is described in this model as a rational comprehensive method of planning, and has stayed unchanged throughout the years. Rothman (1996, 2007) consistently recommends to mix and phase his three models (the other two are community development and social action). However, while community development (locality development, is the term used (Rothman, 1996) and social action can be identified as community social work processes, even when they stay in their “pure,” unmixed and unphased form, the social planning model is a protocol of technical planning procedures, with no unique social work character (Rothman, 1996, 2007).

Meanwhile the same rational comprehensive model, which constitutes the base of community planning in community social work, has been critiqued heavily by both practitioners and theoreticians of the planning profession. For example, Sandercock (1998) asked why the rational comprehensive model of planning still wins adherents and creates new theories, even though it has been criticized and opposed since its beginnings. Her answer is: because “we continue to teach it in planning schools. By emphasizing rational/objective analysis through courses such as quantitative methods, modeling, use of computers and so on, we create expectations that favor such methods. And, of course, we operate in daily environments pervaded by rationality and its bureaucratic implications. A whole planning culture has been built around privileging the rational comprehensive model. It offers the illusion of certainty and objectivity” (Sandercock, 1998, p. 88).

The same “privileging” of the rational comprehensive planning model (Sandercock, 1998) is evident in the writing on planning in social work. Social planning (as defined by Kahn, 1969; Rothman, 2007; Sager, 2013 and others) applies rational problem-solving techniques and data-driven approaches to identify, develop, and deliver social services. This kind of social planning can be practiced by social workers when they function as policy analysts or social planners in national, state, or local agencies. But when community social workers involve community groups in processes of planned change, they need a logic model of planning as a basic platform, to which they have to add a community planning set of skills and processes. The gap between the logic model and the practice wisdom was observed by Cnaan and Rothman (1986) who asked 105 community social workers in Israel how they perceive and use the three models construct. They found that “practitioners did not, or were not, able to perform [social planning] roles to the extent they indicated it was appropriate to implement such roles” (Cnaan and Rothman, 1986, p. 49). “It seems as if the Israeli community organizers believe planning to be an important aspect of community organization, but are unable to give it operational enactment” (Cnaan and Rothman, 1986, p. 49). These researchers did not think the components of the social planning model itself were the reason for this situation.

Some writers in community social work express the need to adapt social planning to community practice by the qualifications they add to “social planning.” For example, “Social planning at the community level” (Lauffer, 1978) and “Social planning with communities” (Weil, 2005). Weil (2013b) acknowledged this issue when editing the second edition of the Handbook of Community Practice. She dedicated a chapter to “Larger-scale Social Planning” (Sager & Weil, 2013), and another to “Community-based Social Planning” (Weil, 2013).

The present author argues that the general conceptualization of all planning in social work as “social planning” contributed to a distancing of community social workers from the planning they could have been doing and developing. The planning method for community social work should be developed closer to the requirements of the actual practice situation in the field. The following history can further explain this argument: During the 1980s, Israel conducted a national project of neighborhood renewal (Alterman & Churchman, 1991). Most community social workers who practiced in the communities included in the project felt that they were unequipped and unqualified to plan and left the planning to planners. This situation had consequences: (1) The planning method in community work in Israel has not gained new knowledge, not through practice nor through research, even though hundreds of community workers were engaged in processes of planning for more than 20 years. (2) Community planning, since the Urban Renewal Project, became the domain of urban planners. Most of these professionals, who certainly had the technical skills, were not trained, nor interested to conduct processes of community development, community building, organizing and participation that were necessary components of the planning processes (Sadan, 1997). (3) A more positive consequence are recent initiatives of community social work to participate in planning. For example, the sustainable economic development program in the Negev periphery (Israel’s Environmental Organizations, 2011), an initiative which may be the result of years spent in collaboration with planners in the Urban Renewal Project. Recently there are more (although still just a few) community social workers who venture into planning projects of urban revival in Israel.

Numerous disciplines practice community planning. Among them: urban planning, urban geography, community psychology, environmental psychology, public health, and development. All use similar means and are influenced by the same social circumstances, a fact that should have contributed to the enrichment of the knowledge and the skills of this practice. But, since there has been almost no contact or interaction among the various disciplines, the practice knowledge of community planning has stayed mostly local and dispersed. Recently, there have been attempts to connect between knowledge about planning from several fields (see Gaventa & Barrett, 2012 on participatory democracy, and Minkler, 2012 on community health promotion). These may be precursors of more integrated knowledge on community planning.

In urban planning, community planning was a disputed issue even when it was widely in use. Needleman and Needleman (1974) named their book on community planning Guerillas in the Bureaucracy. They defined community planning as the source of problematic relations with the employing organizations, as practice of disputed activist methods, and as impossible to sustain because of its tendency to arouse conflicts and its intensity and consequent burnout. According to these authors, community planning is not a suitable task for planners, who need to present a finished plan to their employers in a given period of time, and their main effort is dedicated to achieving support for the plan and acquiescence in the planned community. There was wide consent around this appraisal and from then until the beginning of the 21st century there was very little interest in community planning in urban planning.

While community planning, under this name, was pushed to the margins of planning theories and practice, something that may be called a community practice orientation has been emerging in urban planning. The first and then isolated voice in this direction was Davidoff (1973) who argued that planning is not an objective technical task, but a political process in which there are competing views over what actions should be taken. He thought that planners should promote democratic pluralism by representing groups whose values and needs would otherwise not be considered in the planning process. According to Davidoff, planners should make planning more inclusive and pluralistic by helping diverse community groups to formulate their own plans and to participate as equals in the decision-making process about implementation.

For several years Davidoff’s was a lonely voice. But with time Friedmann’s writings on transactive planning (1973), radical planning (1987), and empowerment as alternative development (1992) were published, Forester’s writing’s on planning and power (1989) and on participatory planning (1999) as well as Sandercock’s planning for multicultural cities (1998, 2003).These thinkers transformed planning theory and practice. Alternatives to the rational comprehensive model of planning have become popular in planning theory—the participative, transactive, empowering, process-oriented ideas of planning have made the planning profession more diverse and more oriented toward communities and especially toward the less privileged among them. Planning has acknowledged its political function. Marris (1987), another pioneer of the critical discourse on rational comprehensive planning, claimed that planners are the only ones committed to a comprehensive plan, while the other participants in a change process regard it as only one of the options for political activity. People, he said (Marris, 1987) will make use of planning only if it helps them control uncertainty, if it brings hope to their lives.

Community, for some years almost extinct as a sociological concept (Sadan, 2009), came back into the social discourse in the 21st century, probably through the realization that globalization made the individual even more needy of the support and comfort of community than before (Bauman, 2001; Putnam, 2000). This new interest in community has not revived the focus on community in planning theory. Instead, as explained above, urban planning itself has changed, it has become more attuned to the dynamics and the politics of communities, less certain of its technical tools, and more reserved about its traditions of social reform and being the representatives of the public good.

It is always more difficult to understand current history, in which one is immersed. So instead of defining current times, here are a few examples that illustrate contemporary directions of planning theory and practice. Angotti (2008) studies the situation of planning in New York, and he writes about the tension between eliminating environmental injustice and preventing gentrification in communities where real estate is influenced by global powers. He presents the complexities of the planning process, its conflicts and contradictions. Sampson’s (2012) study of Chicago neighborhoods is informed by a wide-ranging research called “The Project on Human Development.” His study offers new insights on the intricate causality of the relations between individuals, the neighborhoods they live in, and the social structure. He proves (again) how crucial is the place people live in to all aspects of their life. Thwaites, Mathers, and Simkin (2013) developed new concepts to address the need to plan urban spaces with the active participation of nonprofessional people, in ways that develop the participants’ self-worth and self-esteem and make the urban environment more humane.

Thus, planning research and theory continues to be a source of knowledge and inspiration for community social work (Weil, 2013). It seems that community social work has indirectly inspired planning theory as well (Checkoway, 1986). These are two interdisciplinary professions that meet when serving the same community or initiative. Both professions can benefit from mutual learning, which as yet is not available in formal education, but can sometimes be experienced in workshops or in the field itself (Sadan & Churchman, 1997; Churchman & Sadan, 2007).

Community Planning for Community Social Work

Community planning in community social work is based on the knowledge and principles of community social work and implemented by community social work methods. Though it is informed by the literature and practice in planning, it uses the knowledge that fits community social work methods. It is in no way the planning of communities, as community planning is sometimes defined in urban planning (for example, see Kelly, 2010; Grant, 2006).

Thus, community planning is a participatory and inclusive practice. It is concomitantly involved with the community as a collective and its individual members. The process is directed toward building community and developing members’ capacities as partners and leaders in democratic processes of decision making (Sadan & Churchman, 1997).

Possible Outcomes of Community Planning

(1) Conscientization. Community planning can raise the critical consciousness of community members to their social conditions, and to the social causes of their situation (Freire, 1970); (2) Shared knowledge can be created and implemented. This knowledge results from a dialogue between local and professional knowledge, to improve the fit of the plan to the community’s expectations and way of life (Sandercock, 1998; Thwaites, Mathers, and Simkin, 2013); (3) Empowerment. Community members can gain better control over decisions impacting their lives, and over the environment they live in (Sadan, 1997). (4) Leadership and socially valued roles. People who share in a collective process, in which they are esteemed participants, can move from passive acquiescence, to active participation and involvement in the social world (Solomon, 1976).

Principles of Community Planning

The above mentioned outcomes have a better chance of realization if they are attained through community social work and its principles. Principles are the formulation of values into a professional commitment to act in a certain way. The following principles reflect the ethics of the process, and emphasize the core values of community social work.

  1. 1. Empowerment. This is the most important principle in community social work. It is a desired outcome of community efforts, and a practice that aims to enable a community to change from powerlessness to more perceived and actual control over their lives, over decision-making processes about their future, and over their environment (Sadan, 1997). This principle stems from an assumption that all men and women are born with the potential to make a difference in the world. The community social workers’ mission is to practice in ways that involve people in the planning process, giving them the opportunity to be active participants and to develop their capacities to change the world.

  2. 2. Participation. People need to act in the world for their own sake and for the sake of others. This action is the way of people to express their human agency, their citizenship, and their control over their environment.

  3. 3. Respect. Human dignity is the basis for social justice and equality. The commitment to human dignity is universal, but in the complicated circumstances of a community planning process, the details of this principle are crucial: refusal to label; acceptance of people’s interpretation of reality; and acknowledgment that there are no simple solutions to complicated problems. All these are examples of the practice of respect (Mullender & Ward, 1991).

  4. 4. Organizing. Organized efforts have an advantage over unorganized ones. Thus, community planning entails organizing people in the community around the planning effort. Organizing contributes to the capacity of community members to participate effectively. It builds a capacity in the community to deal better with future challenges (Mondros & Staples, 2013).

  5. 5. Sustainability. The concern for the world and the need to provide for future generations is an expression of civil duty and social responsibility. This concern extends the understanding that people, other living creatures, the natural environment and the built one are all part of one delicately balanced and mutually dependent system (Adams, 2001). Since the concern for the future has an influence on the decisions made in the present, it is the responsibility of community social workers to share the idea of distributional equity (that is, of sharing the capacity for well-being between present people and future people in an acceptable way) with the participants of the planning process (Anand & Sen, 2000).

The Practice of Community Planning in Community Social Work

The process of community planning in community social work is conceptualized in the model below (Table 1). The processes of community planning and community empowerment are presented in the left and right columns. The middle column is dedicated to the tasks that the community social worker has to fulfill in order to promote the community’s empowerment process. Thus, the middle column consists of community practices that enable a process of community empowerment in the framework of the community planning process. The community empowerment process in the right column can be conceptualized in two ways: It presents the stages of growing awareness, better capacity, and more control experienced by the community members who participate in the planning process. It also represents outcomes that community social workers have to look for at each stage, to monitor for an expected empowerment process.

The model of the empowering community process presents a hypothetical whole process, according to which the community social worker starts at the first stage of a planning process with a first stage in the lives of a certain powerless community and brings both processes to successful conclusion. Reality, as always, is much more complicated and interesting. For instance, community social workers often enter the community when the community empowerment process is in its fifth stage, where the community resists an existing external plan. In some cases the community social worker enters in the fourth stage, as part of the added resources the community achieved through negotiations for more representation in planning. In each stage s/he enters, the community social worker has to adapt to the phase the process is in. She has to help the local empowerment process when it has already started, or to initiate a community process, if the planning procedures have started without it, as they often do. The community social worker has to intervene in ways that will acknowledge patterns of organization and participation that have already been established, and to respect the norms and values of the community. Although, at the same time, the social worker may be creating a process of change, that will transform the patterns, norms, and values of the community.

The community is not a uniform entity. It consists of different groups that often have different interests and opinions and compete for representation in the planning process (Mizrahi, 2009; Wiesenfeld, 1996). Power, disagreement, and conflict are part of the fabric of a community, and the manifestations of these can be confusing, and even overwhelming, as can be the quiescence and apathy that may confront community social workers in some communities. The mistrust and suspicion of people who have been disillusioned by the promises and effects of the past are as challenging as overt resistance.

To sum up, this model, as all models, is a schematic outline, and should be used as a checklist of main processes, tasks, and signs rather than as a manual (Sadan, 1997).

Table 1. A Model of an Empowering Community Planning Process

Stages of the rational comprehensive community planning process

The community worker’s tasks

Stages of the community empowerment process


Problem identification and data gathering

Developing relationships of trust and dialogue

Discovering the common basis for collective action


Defining the target population

Creating a participatory infrastructure

Creating the “togetherness”


Defining the problems and designing the goals

Discussing the community worker’s roles



Preparing alternative plans

Organizing and developing organization



Choosing the preferred alternative

Developing strategy

Active opposition


Designing the plan Implementation

Creating the alternative plan Implementation

Presenting an alternative Implementation


Evaluating the plan’s impact on the severity of the problem

Evaluating the extent of empowerment enabled through the process

Evaluating achievements and discovering the limits of empowerment

Based on the model of empowerment in the context of community planning (Sadan, 1997)

The Stages of the Rational Comprehensive Community Planning Process

The rational comprehensive planning model has its roots in the University of Chicago planning program of the 1950s (Meyerson & Banfield, 1955; Perloff, 1957). As was previously explained, this model, though challenged and criticized, has endured due to its clear and logical decision rules and the way it enables planners to study alternatives and consequences (Sandercock, 1998). The rational community planning process is a basic logic model outlining planning endeavors, as well as problem solving procedures, and other decision-making techniques. The term “comprehensive” means it involves a thorough investigation and data collection and follows the whole planning process from the initial stages to the end.

Problem Identification and Data Gathering

This is the initial stage when the community social worker gets acquainted with the reason for planning and the site of planning. For example, the planning of housing solutions in the community. S/he identifies the conditions of housing and systematically collects data about the neighborhood and housing problems and conditions in it.

Defining the Target Population

At this stage the worker gets to know the various groups living and involved in the area of intervention. For example, s/he learns who suffers the most inadequate housing conditions. At this stage s/he has to decide how to categorize the various groups or populations. For example, will s/he identify them only by their living conditions, or add data about ages, family size, economic situation, seniority in the neighborhood, and so on. At this stage the various categories by which populations, their size and the extent of their problems that will be addressed, are decided.

Defining the Problems and Designing the Goals

At this stage the aims of planning and its objectives are presented. Defining the problems means outlining the areas that the planning process will address. It also defines the outcome expectations of the planning team. The aim of the planning can be, for example, solving the housing problem of young couples with children in the neighborhood.

Preparing Alternative Plans

The planning team (for this is rarely an individual task) generates a process through which a few ways or strategies to achieve the planning objectives are suggested. In order to be a real alternative, each way should deal differently with the target population and with the aims of the project. That is how different alternatives represent different solutions to the same problem. One alternative can offer public housing; Another can suggest assigning plots of land to local young couples; Yet another may advise to change the density of built areas and add more apartments to already existing buildings.

Choosing the Preferred Alternative

At this stage, the advantages and downsides of each alternative are considered, in order to arrive at the best alternative. In real life planners are not the ones making this decision. They can help decision makers by presenting their professional opinion and data as to the relative economic, social, environmental, consequences of each alternative. This way they do have influence on the decisions made. Thus, the professional criteria planners provide at this stage are very important. This is the stage where negotiations, conflicts, and struggles may occur.

Designing the Plan

When decisions have been made, and a preferred plan is chosen, the community social worker should be part of the planning team that brings the plan to its implementation. If, for example, the plan chosen is to allocate land for building new housing for young households, the community social worker should make sure that community participants take part in the search for the suitable place and style of the project, for the thinking about the social infrastructure needed for a new housing project and for the implementation of the project.


Though implementation is the purpose of the planning process, this model is focused on the planning alone and will skip the processes of implementation that obviously involve the social workers’ roles and skills.

Evaluating the Plan’s Impact on the Severity of the Problem

Evaluation is an important part of professional practice, and has become a professional practice itself (Grinnell, Unrau, & Gabor, 2013), although its full extent cannot be discussed here. The evaluation of the impact is proposed here, because it asks about the ultimate effects of a plan, and enough time has to pass for such outcomes to become evident (Wandersman, 2005). Impact can be evaluated, for example, by comparing indices of the well-being of the residents of the new housing project, the neighbors, the neighborhood’s quality of life, the sense of community, and so on—to the initial conditions, before the planning process in these areas took place. This stage is often not executed, usually because the planning process exhausted its resources, the planning team dispersed, or the plan went through extensive changes. It is a regrettable situation, since community social workers often undertake initiatives intended to correct the unintended harmful effects of past community plans (Couto, 1989).

The Community Social Worker’s Tasks and Community Empowerment

The community planning process is ideally conducted by a team of professionals from different disciplines, each of them called in for their specific skills and expertise. The community social worker’s activities in such a team are geared toward inclusive action (Ross, 1955), for example, making sure the community participates actively in the planning process. Each of the community worker’s tasks is named and presented in the model besides the stage of planning where it is of the greatest importance. However, these tasks are part of the practice of community social work. They are conducted throughout the process to assure that the community is represented effectively in the planning process, and that community participants are empowered through the process, that they gain more control over the decision-making process, and that they are able to share in the planning of their future and environment.

Developing Relationships of Trust and Dialogue

The first step in any process of community social work starts with getting acquainted with the people, services, and environment. The community social worker develops his knowledge through being in the community and talking to as many people as possible, in addition to collecting data and analyzing it. This stage is dedicated to mutual learning: while the community social worker is getting to know the community, community members and service providers get to know her. This process enables the development of mutual trust and dialogue with the community. The dialogue with community members helps the community social worker to interpret the collected data and add to it a qualitative appraisal. Local knowledge can be incorporated into the planning process to make the planning more place-specific and to filter out partial or prejudiced impressions of the community. The practitioner starts the praxis circle—learning through action and acting with the new insights of learning. The learning process is a sincere effort to understand the past, evaluate the present, and to build a collaboration to produce alternative futures. This takes time, and the time has to be devoted if one wants to achieve the goals of this stage. The community social worker’s commitment to the community empowerment process is the basis for the trust that is created between her and the local people, and generates the commitment of the people to participate in the planning process. Her consistent and continuous presence in the process proves this commitment.

Creating a Participatory Infrastructure

At this stage the community social worker develops the participatory structure that fits the process, the place, and the target population. This stage builds upon the trust established in the previous stage and reaches out to the community to take part in the planning initiative. In the “pure” rational comprehensive process of planning, there is only a formal commitment to the “target population.” The client is usually identified as the authorities who ordered the plan and pay for it, and their interests and good opinion are of high priority. Community social workers are accountable to their employers as well, but they are first and foremost committed to the welfare and well-being of the community. This constitutes a major difference and the basis of potential discontent among members of a multidisciplinary planning team (Needleman & Needleman, 1974). This potential for misunderstanding can be resolved by establishing a participatory structure as early as possible in the process. Thus, it can become an inseparable part of the planning activities and the decision mechanisms employed.

The community social worker develops an understanding with the planning team and with community members, according to which decision-making processes will be conducted in an egalitarian, open, and nonhierarchical style. This can take the form of a contract, or a verbal agreement, but it has to be done. If not, community participation itself may become a controversial issue in the planning process (Churchman, 1987).

The creating of a participatory structure includes technical arrangements, like allocating the setting and developing procedures. It is also a stage infused with power, politics, and contradictions (Ferullo, 2006; Gaventa & Barrett, 2012). Participation is not always a harmonious process and its goal is not to bring consensus and legitimate the planning decisions (Agnotti, 2008). It is also not synonymous with empowerment, as some may think. It can become a ritualistic and mechanic procedure, unless it is integrated into the life of the community (Sanchez, 2004). Christens and Speers (2011) found that the nature of the participatory system established has importance for the involvement of community members in it. Their research showed that relationships between individuals and group-level processes where people had an opportunity to act together in collaborative inquiry, contributed to sustained community participation. Their findings strengthen the body of research on the importance of empowering settings and the human and community development these settings enable (Maton, 2008). Participatory structures are not only social structures, they are also physical spaces that become places of gathering to deliberate and decide together. Social work has not always been aware of the importance of place in the life of the community (see Kemp, 2010, 2011, on the importance of a theory of place for social work practice). As Chambers (2005) recommended: Such places should be facilitated, not forced, they should have time and space to evolve; they should be based on trust and not on targets, the partners should be able to explore options and test new possibilities; the participatory process should not be rushed. “Speed is not the essence in developing community. Building local institutions is more important and it takes time” (Chambers, 2005, p. 144).

The Community Social Worker’s Roles

At this stage, mutual trust and dialogue have been developed, a sense of togetherness is created among the community participants and the participatory structure has been set up and used regularly. The community social worker can define his roles in the process, especially in his relationship with the community participants, but also to have a better understanding of his special role in the process by the other partners. This task is a fine-tuning and clarifying of the roles and it reflects the process the community members are going through, searching for their definitions of self-determination and commitment to the process.

At this stage, the community social worker has to help the community to redefine its situation, to search for their own voice. Two main roles are presented—the educator and the facilitator.

The Community Social Worker as Educator

This role stems from the constant need to strengthen the capacity and skills of community participants and to develop leadership so community activists will be able to take growing responsibilities in the planning process and beyond it. As Alinsky (1972) wisely observed, people may have grave problems and yet not be able to define or express them. Learning group processes are of great importance in the practice of empowerment. They have been also inspired by the critical pedagogy of Freire (1985), who conceptualized literacy as the ability to act in the world. The community social worker creates a learning process that enables community members to develop their knowledge and their confidence in their ability for self-advocacy. At the core of this learning process are individual processes experienced in a group. The process aims to develop a critical consciousness about the community’s collective problems and their origins (Freire’s “Conscientization” (1970)). Each person enters the group with different strengths and talents and the task of the community social worker is to develop a process. Through this process each one of the members, and the group as a whole, can voice their stories Their stories define and redefine their experience and by telling them they learn how to speak in public, to be representatives of their community in the planning process, and to become more confident of their self-worth. These dynamic group processes focus on individual development in the context of the community process (Ledwith & Springett, 2010). The therapeutic importance of stories and the need for attentive listening to people in the planning process is discussed in the planning literature as well (Holden, 2008; Sandercock, 2003, as examples).

The Community Social Worker as Facilitator

Friedmann (1987) named this role “radical planning.” Radicalism as an extreme position is relative. In community social work, it is not considered radical to be actively involved in enhancing the community’s control over the planning process. The goal of community social work is not to hold extreme positions; it is to establish the community as an equal partner in the planning effort. For this purpose the practitioner can hold a critical view of the existing situation, and if necessary can guide the community in building an oppositional planning strategy.

It is important to note that the facilitator does not seek conflict as a sole strategy, although s/he has to be comfortable with the use of it when necessary (Reisch, 2013). Most community planning processes are not conflictual throughout. It is rare to find a community planning process based on radical ideology (Reisch, 2013), or using a radical strategy (Heskin, 1991, and Schuman, 1987 discuss such radical cases). However, as mentioned before, power is part of the fabric of society: disagreements, conflicts, and struggles are part of the process (See Mizrahi’s “Principle 6: know the decision making structures of the target system. The formal (authority) and informal (influence)” (2009, p. 875). However, as Krumholz & Forester (1990) noted—when disagreements are successfully resolved, the process seems to be less radical than when they fail.

Organizing and Developing Organization

Organizing is a task that can be better accomplished when the community empowerment process reaches the stage of self-representation. At this stage the community is involved in the development of alternative plans and organizational development can upgrade their ability to negotiate for a better proposal. If until now the community members were functioning as part of the planning committees and procedures, and attending planning conferences and meetings, they now can reach a stage when they have their own leadership and need a space and a structure that will allow them to develop an independent agenda (Evans & Boyte, 1986). The critical task at this stage is to help the community develop its own organizational tools, that can serve its present planning effort as well as future community goals. The group’s advanced understanding of the causes of community problems is followed by the realization that community-based solutions may not be enough. As DeFilippis (2010) stresses, an effective organization is needed in order to address and confront issues beyond the local and to connect with wider social, economic, and political forces.

The community social worker helps to create an empowering organization that fits local ways of doing. The danger at this stage is the tendency of organizations to adapt to the norms and practices of the power structures around them. An organization can be empowered, but not empowering. It can be able to influence the planning process in which it takes part, but to stop enabling individual empowerment for its members (Peterson & Zimmerman, 2004). In order to stay true to their goals and to avoid such pitfalls, the process of organizing has to flow from the former stages—to go on developing conscientization and practicing respect for human development and local knowledge.

What should be the characteristics of an empowering community organization?

Maton and Salem (1995) studied empowering organizations and found that they have a strength-based culture of growth: Their role structure affords multiple opportunities for meaningful roles to members; their leadership is shared, inspiring, and organizationally talented; they have an encompassing peer-based support system. According to Ohmer (2008), empowering organizations widen the volume of community participation.

The community organization has to be committed to its objectives, which are targeted to the needs and aspirations of the community. It is immersed in the community, and regards its members and activists as its main resource. The community is the source of organizational inspiration and community members fill valuable roles in the organization. The empowering community organization takes an enthusiastic part in the life of the community and is identified with it.

The empowering characteristics can be better incorporated into the organizational structure at the height of a community empowerment process, rather than at its beginning. Organizational structures are themselves an insufficient guarantee that the organization will be empowering or that it will mobilize the community. There must be a sense of belonging, connectedness, and personal relationships in the community to support such a structure (Laverack, 2001).

Developing Strategy

At this stage the community is organized and able to represent itself in the planning process and outside it. Now the circumstances can be ripe to effectively resist a proposed plan, and/or to initiate a separate plan and negotiate for its acceptance. This stage in the community empowerment process might not occur as described here, or cannot occur at all. The preferred plan could have been decided on through a participatory consensual process, and agreed upon by all the partners in the planning process. Nevertheless, the community social worker is there to help the community develop a winning strategy in order to deal with an unwanted situation, solution, or policy. The tasks of the community social worker at this stage are many. There is the technical task of helping the community choose a plan. This task is really a capacity development process, since community participants have to learn how to study the various alternatives proposed, how to present their opinions based on evidence and data, and how to express their reservations in the planning forums and outside to the community. At the more dynamic and political level, the community social worker designs with the participants the strategies and tactics that can be used, if there is a need to struggle for their choice.

The knowledge base used here for developing a strategy is based on Lukes’s (2005) theory of the three dimensions of power. This theory is a useful tool in the process of empowerment. It explains how power works and how to oppose it successfully. The three dimensions of power will be briefly described for they provide the analysis of power on the basis of which effective strategies for each dimension can be developed. For example, action strategies are needed to deal with the overt—visible—dimension of power, where disagreements or conflicts are made public and played out in the meetings and planning forums. This is the most obvious dimension, though it can become brutal and frightening as conflict escalates. More sophisticated strategies are needed for the covert—hidden—dimension of power. In this dimension, mechanisms are used to minimize the ability of the people to resist, through the mobilization of bias and through information control that makes certain events disappear from the agenda. The latent—invisible—dimension, consists of the most deeply rooted mechanisms through which power is manifested. It works through socialization processes, it makes use of social myths, prejudices, social symbols, and language to embed in people’s minds beliefs and attitudes that will make them agree to actions and policies that are against their interests (See also Gaventa’s (1980) use of Lukes’s theory of power).

As Couto (1989) shows in the case study of the community empowerment process of the village of Aberfan, the ability to come up with the right strategy to oppose harmful plans can be crucial for the future of the community, and certainly for its process of empowerment. In Gaventa’s (1980) study of a community in an Appalachian valley, he showed that an oppressed community, even when faced with “glaring inequality” (Gaventa, 1980) reacts with passive aquiescence. These studies and others (Sadan, 1997) found that disempowering mechanisms work best in hidden and latent manners, through information control, mobilization of social bias, and socialization processes, to make sure that resistance to the proposed plan, or to the status-quo, will not arise. When these mechanisms are exposed and raised to consciousness, people can act successfully in the visible arenas of decision making (See Mizrahi, 2009). It is worth mentioning here again the iterative nature of each of the stages in this model: Involving the community in each step of the planning process and developing people’s conscientization—critical awareness to the social situation—and organizing precedes and makes possible the community’s ability to resist undesirable plans and to act strategically for its own interests.

The community social worker herself will probably be confronted with the mechanisms of power at this stage. Although the opposition to a plan is a legitimate expression of the preferences of any participant in a democratic process, and the community social worker is there to assist in this process, in reality she may be expected (or pressured) to stay out of the disagreement. She may be reminded of her professional neutrality, or her expected loyalty to her employers (mechanisms of the second and third dimension), she may even face less subtle threats (first dimension mechanisms) as means of assuring her obedience and inaction. This can be an especially confusing and stressful situation for community social workers who are employed by the authorities (Sadan, 1997). The situation may be less personally stressful when the community social worker is employed by a “support agency” (Sanchez, 2000), which offers help (such as consultation in community social work) in support of the community’s goals. Such agencies can be foundations, community organizing and advocacy nonprofits, or universities. In such cases the situation at this stage will resemble the advocacy planning situation envisioned by Davidoff (1973), where the community participants get to work with their own planner on their preferred plan, which will later be compared with the plan developed by the planning authorities. In both cases the stage may end with an agreement on a common plan, or with the community using their organization to come up with an alternative of their own.

Developing the Alternative Plan

At this stage the planning process has come to its peak, a plan has been decided on, and is designed in detail by the planning team. The tasks of the community social worker at this stage vary according to the developments of the prior stage. In the case of agreement on the preferred plan, he can design a participatory process, but usually it is not straightforward—the planners are busy at their office and will come up with a finished scheme to do a community presentation. That is why in the case of disagreements this stage presents an opportunity to develop a plan based on combined local and professional knowledge. This is a unique situation that can be looked upon favorably if the planning effort can move toward these ideas: The planners will get a product that meets their professional standards, which also suits the community where it will be implemented. The community gets a professional product suited to their needs, preferences, and ways of life.

Friedmann (1992) discussed some of the advantages of a local alternative plan. He found that a local plan is cheaper, because it is usually based on local resources and local knowledge. “Exported” plans, he maintains, are always more expensive, since they may not have access to or awareness of local resources, such as knowledge, labor, volunteers, and improvisation. Local plans produce more social capital—they generate more social interactions with planners and activists. A conventional plan generates less social capital, and thus may need more financial capital. The third advantage of local plans is their use of local technology. People are familiar with their ways of doing, and even when such a technology is developed farther, it is still based on traditional ways and may be more sensitive to local conditions. External plans tend to bring into the community more advanced technologies that are aimed to change what is there, and therefore demand adaptation of the community and its people to the plan. A fourth advantage is the tendency of a local plan to be more flexible, based on mutual learning between the planners and community participants. Conventional plans are usually directed externally by bureaucrats, and thus may be hard to change and technocratic, as well as inclined to top-down teaching. Fifth, the local plan can more easily monitor for unwanted side effects, and more quickly take control over their change. Conventional plans are not built to monitor and change undesired side effects, although they do produce them. The last advantage is the relative ease and speed with which a local plan can be implemented. The preparations for the implementations of a conventional external plan can take a long time, or it may not be implemented at all (Friedmann, 1992; Sadan, 1997).

The tasks of the community social worker at this stage are the basic tasks of her daily practice: to activate the process, to keep morale high among the participants, and to make sure the effort is both participatory and inclusive and that no community group is monopolizing the process or derailing it to fit their interests (Wilson, 2005). She may need to bring a consultant planner into the process, who will work solely with the community organization. This is especially important if at this stage conflict has bred mistrust and suspicion, and the planning team is considered to be biased (Peterman, 2004).

Evaluating the Empowerment Process

At this stage the planning process has come to its end, and the main tasks are the closing and ending of the process in a way that will leave meaningful learning products of what was accomplished and what has to be done in the future. The planning process ends with the assessment of the plan, and the evaluation of the effectiveness and efficiency of the planning. Did the planning produce a plan? Was this plan implemented? To what degree does this plan have a positive impact on the community? The complicated question of the plan’s influence on the well-being of the community can be asked at this point.

The community social worker has several tasks at this stage. Mainly, she has to be able to involve the community in a shared evaluation of the planning process and the plan, as well as to conduct a shared evaluation of the community empowerment process. Processes are known for being notoriously difficult to quantify or to assess. Communities and community organizations are known to avoid or skip evaluation, due to other more urgent issues on their agenda, or lack of knowledge (Sadan, 1997), so conducting this stage poses a professional challenge. Fetterman (1996) and Wandersman (2005) developed a process of empowerment evaluation with the purpose of facilitating a simple evaluation tool which can be used by community practitioners in the community, as well as by community members to design their own independent evaluations.

Both the community social worker and the community organization would be interested at this stage in the extent of empowerment enabled by the process and through it. Community members would probably want to reflect on their individual and collective achievements. The evaluation stage is also the occasion for community members to discover the limits of their empowerment—they should by now be able to understand not just their new found achievements, strengths, and capabilities, but also their limitations and boundaries—to reflect on what may be aspired to, by individuals, groups, and the collective, but cannot be achieved at this point (Couto, 1989). This is a crucial process for the future of a community organization, for it is an antidote to omnipotence and hubris that can be arise after a successful endeavor.

A successful process of evaluation depends on the community social worker’s ability to derive the important questions that have to be asked about the outcomes and the process, and her ability to connect these questions to an ongoing community praxis and reflection (Ledwith & Springett, 2010). Here are some examples of questions that can help both community practitioners and community members to assess the extent of empowerment enabled by a new plan:

Does the plan serve the people that were initially targeted? This question is important to assure that needy groups were not excluded from the process and its outcomes.

Did the planning process encourage community participation? And who were the participants? What was the level of participation, how many participated? What were the roles of the participants in the process? Did participants value their roles in the planning process? The question of fair representation is always complicated, but needs to be raised, in order to understand how democratic and egalitarian was the process (Laverack & Wallerstein, 2001).

Did the planning process encourage the building of community? How was this expressed in the structure and the activities of planning (Bernhardt, 1996)?

Did the planning process help in developing new community leaders? The revival of leadership and the strengthening of leaders is a crucial issue for community empowerment (Sanchez, 2004).

A set of questions can be formed to evaluate the tasks of the community social worker: To what extent did he develop dialogue and praxis learning in the community? To what extent did he enable a participatory process and the structure to make participation accessible to all community groups? To what extent did the community social worker define his roles with awareness of the needs of the community and its empowerment process? To what extent did he help to build an effective community organization for the planning process, and has this organization been sustainable? To what extent did he help to develop an effective strategy, so the community could confront power mechanisms in the planning process? To what extent was local knowledge used in the planning process and did the community social worker conduct a participatory evaluation of the community processes.

Some Closing Ideas

Community social workers have valuable knowledge for planning. They know how people live, what they value, how to work with small and large groups and how to raise collective consciousness; how to motivate people into action, and how to develop community. They know what empowering settings are and how to create and sustain them, how to develop organization, and how to involve people in decision making through a structured participatory process. Almost all their theoretical knowledge and practice wisdom is relevant for planning. Since much of the theoretical and practical knowledge in planning is relevant for community social work, these two professions should be more closely connected (Churchman, 2014). For instance, community social workers can act as consultants for a planning team; or they can use their skills as community educators to construct a process of learning through which planners will become more effective process developers than they usually are. Planners can conduct workshops where both the community and other professionals, including social workers working in the community agencies, study planning techniques as they participate in the planning process (Wates, 2014).

This can promote mutual understanding and future cooperation, and even the creation of a new interdisciplinary field (Korazim-Korosy et al., 2007).

The above recommendation must be followed by words of caution about expertise in community social work. As can be understood, community social work is not a technical skill. As Flyvbjerg (2001, in Holden, 2008) explained, true experts are those who move beyond competency to practice intuitive, unteachable behavior. Sometimes called tacit knowledge, this kind of knowledge in community social work must be antithetical to expertise. As Freire once described himself—a community social worker must be an expert in not being an expert (Horton & Freire, 1990).

The multidisciplinary nature of community planning makes it a challenging task for one discipline to encompass. The many “logics” or “rationalities” needed for the endeavor are constantly debated in the planning literature (Sandercock, 1998, Bernhardt, 1996, Baum, 2005, as a few examples). In community social work there has been a growing awareness through the years of the importance of forming coalitions, collaborations, and partnerships in which the different points of view can be represented and perhaps coexist (Mizrahi, Rosenthal, & Ivery, 2013). Any community change process, certainly one as complex as a community planning process, should be a joint project in which as many partners as possible should be engaged. Such strategies have better opportunities to mobilize necessary resources, including diverse knowledge and political clout for the collective effort.

Community empowerment was presented here as an important process and goal for the community. Community social workers practice daily to promote this process of community control over its future, well-being, and environment. The model of empowering community planning outlined some of the skills community social workers apply in the planning process in order to enable a community empowerment process. Through such a process the community can become a better place for the present members and for future generations. This is an immensely ambitious mission, with no guarantee of success, but nevertheless worth the effort. Couto (1989) found that attempting changes that do not succeed can promote community empowerment, as long as the failure contributes to a new awareness of the causes of the community’s conditions. For the community “a significant measure of the success or failure of empowerment is not just what is achieved [in the planning process] but what is attempted” (Couto, 1989, p. 247). These ideas gain even greater importance in the light of Sampson’s findings (2012) in Chicago. His research provides evidence of the enduring multigenerational effects that the social, economic, and physical conditions of communities have on the lives of individuals and families. This points to the crucial role that significant community empowerment can have in turning around the destiny of individuals and families.

Community members have been presented throughout the model as “community”—a united undistinguished entity. Conflicts were described as occurring only with outsiders. This is a simplification due to the limitations of the model and space, but nevertheless there is a need to discuss briefly issues of representation in the community. Wiesenfeld (1996) and Mizrahi (2009) warn against seeing the community as a predictable, compact, homogeneous group that feels, thinks, and behaves in similar ways stemming from its shared culture or conditions. Group processes in the community are dialectic and dynamic, and should be expected to express differences and contradictory interests. However, as Laverack and Wallerstein (2001) emphasized, community members can be heterogeneous and yet still be able to share needs and interests. Furthermore, community social workers need to make sure that the group of activists who participate in the process represents at least roughly the various groups of people living in the community. Through a process of empowering community planning those heterogeneous individuals and groups can create community.


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