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Community Development

Abstract and Keywords

Community development is a planned approach to improving the standard of living and well-being of disadvantaged populations in the United States and internationally. An overview of community development is provided. The objectives of community development include economic development and community empowerment, based on principles of community participation, self-help, integration, community organizing, and capacity building. Community building and asset-based approaches are recent trends and innovations. Community development is interdisciplinary, with models and methods derived from disciplines such as social work and urban planning. The entry examines linkages between community development and macro practice, including an increase in employment opportunities for social workers.

Keywords: capacity building, community, interdisciplinary, macro social work, community development, participatory approaches, assets, poverty reduction, international, urban planning

Concepts and Definitions

Community development is a planned approach to improving the standard of living and general well-being of people. Two notions formulate the concept of community development. The concept of development connotes positive change in living conditions through planned improvement. As a planned activity, development is a conscious and deliberate process of analyzing the situation, articulating goals and objectives, and implementing programs to achieve them. The concept of community connotes a collection of people who interact and share common characteristics such as interest, identification, culture, activities, or spatial location. There are two notions of community: geographical or spatial-based community and relational or interest-based community (Gusfield, 1975). Spatial-based community refers to people who reside in particular locations identified by marked physical boundaries, as is the case with a village, neighborhood, town, or city. Interest-based community refers to people who share a common identity through social values, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and so on. Interest-based and spatial-based communities coincide when different groups of people, such as low-income families, elderly people, women, or business people, reside in particular spatial locations.

Campfens (1997) identifies some mutually reinforcing core values and principles of community development: community participation, community integration, self-help development, and community capacity building. Community participation is the active involvement of residents in community development activities. Based on the concept of human rights, people have a right to participate in making decisions that impact their lives. Resident participation is also a means of creating community capacity to implement development programs. Community integration involves creating social inclusion by promoting harmonious social relationships among diverse groups of residents. Since a community consists of individuals and groups with competing interests and limited resources, efforts are needed to reduce conflicts, exploitation, and the marginalization of some groups by others. Self-help development refers to promoting community self-reliance. As much as possible, a community should rely on its human, material, and financial resources as the basis for improving living conditions. External resources available through partnerships with government, private institutions, and organizations are used to supplement the community's own resources. Community capacity building refers to the creation of conditions for the community to rely on the capacity and initiative of its residents in defining problems and planning and executing courses of action, so as to reduce dependence on external professional interventions. The objective is to develop community confidence, competence, and local leadership. Social empowerment is the process of helping socially excluded or oppressed individuals and groups to increase their personal, interpersonal, socioeconomic, and political strength. Community development practice often includes helping individuals and groups access social and economic resources.

The objectives of community development practice vary according to the needs of the local community and the interest of the organization or community group initiating the development activities. However, since community development is usually practiced in communities with high rates of poverty and vulnerable persons, efforts typically focus on economic development and community empowerment. Economic development is used to improve material well-being by creating economic opportunities through investment in education, business enterprises, and other employment and income-generating activities. The assumption is that the lack of employment opportunities is a major cause of poverty and vulnerability. Community empowerment includes community organizing and community building to create community-driven development, whereby residents can direct or control development as opposed to control by external institutions or experts. In this context, broad-based resident participation builds local leadership, provides essential skills and knowledge for undertaking development activities, and strengthens community institutions and organizations.

History of Community Development Policy

Community development is practiced by both public and private institutions and organizations. At the international level, community development is historically associated with the development activities of European colonial administrations and the activities of the United Nations Organization in Africa and other developing countries during the colonial and postcolonial periods, respectively. During the 1950s, the British colonial administration in Africa adopted community development as a strategy for mobilizing and raising the standard of living in rural areas. It included basic social and economic services, literacy programs, health centers, road infrastructure, and agricultural cooperatives (Midgley, 1994). Later, most independent African countries adopted community development as an approach to improving the standard of living in urban and rural communities. The principles of community participation and community self reliance are widely used strategies for providing basic community services, such as schools, health centers, roads, storm water drains, and solid waste disposal. In some cases, however, community participation and self reliance add an additional burden to women and other vulnerable groups by requiring them to participate in development efforts so as to gain food and other essential community services. Also, some governments in developing countries have been criticized for strategically using these principles to avoid the responsibility of providing services to low-income communities. This situation exacerbates poverty and perpetuates class inequalities and exploitation (Chisanga, 2003).

Community development in the United States has historical roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the settlement house movement. Early efforts organized residents and developed new programs and institutions such as playgrounds, day care, skills training, literacy, and improved housing for huge numbers of immigrants and other poor families. During the mid 20th century, community development emerged as a full-fledged interdisciplinary field of practice involving professions such as social work, urban planning, public administration, and public health. In the 1960s, community development and citizen and client participation was a response to poverty (and inequality) among America's minority ethnic groups through the federal War on Poverty, which institutionalized community development practice. Title II of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created Community Action Programs, was among its policy reforms. Based on a principle called “maximum feasible participation,” residents in low-income communities participated in the design and implementation of poverty eradication programs. Programs were administered by community-based nonprofit organizations or public organizations in localities with high concentrations of poverty, and the federal government provided much of the funding. Another important policy was the establishment of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1965, which promoted improved housing, educational services, and employment opportunities (Halpern, 1995). At this juncture in the history of community development policy, community organization was adopted as a method of practice by U.S. schools of social work, and there was a rapid expansion in the number of schools offering new macro social work concentrations. However, social work education focused mainly on the community organizing and social planning components of community development, leaving the niche of economic development to urban planning and public administration.

Two major policies in community development in the 1970s included the Housing Act of 1974 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. The Housing Act created Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which provided funds for community development and services. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 was designed to stop discrimination or redlining in the provision of housing and related community services by requiring banks to serve all neighborhoods in the area in which they are chartered (Naparstek & Dooley, 1997).

Community development practice in the United States was further institutionalized with the establishment of community development corporations (CDCs). They were first established in 1960s through the federal Special Impact Programs and Model Cities. Initiated by racial minority activists with strong ties to economically depressed urban and rural communities, these nonprofit corporations introduced a comprehensive approach that included both social and community economic development. The emphasis was on community empowerment through increased resident participation and housing services, the establishment of small and medium size retail and manufacturing enterprises, workforce development, and job training. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, most CDCs had redefined their missions to abandon community empowerment, thereby concentrating on the narrower economic objective of providing nonprofit housing (Stoutland, 2000). This was partly a response to the declining financial base of federal funds for poverty programs, and the rise to prominence of neoconservative political and economic thought. In 1993, federal legislation authorized Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Community programs for locality-based community development in both rural and urban areas. The primary objective of these programs was the creation of employment opportunities in economically distressed areas (Hyman, 1998; Wang & Van Loo, 1998).

More recently, however, CDCs have responded to the need to build community capacity in more comprehensive ways, including resource, organizational, programmatic, network, and political components (Glickman & Servon, 1998). This change is accompanied by a growing recognition of the value of and need for progressive community organizing in fostering positive outcomes in community development (Murphy & Cunningham, 2003; Rubin & Rubin, 2007). Case examples of CDCs also point to community organizing as an essential component of sustainability in urban community development (Capraro, 2004).

Beginning in the 1990s, “community building” became the term used to identify a movement toward more comprehensive community development. Community building puts equal emphasis on community empowerment and economic development objectives through its “people-based, place-based” principles that include the following seven themes: (a) focused around specific improvement initiatives in a manner that reinforces values and builds social and human capital; (b) community-driven with broad resident involvement; (c) comprehensive, strategic, and entrepreneurial; (d) asset-based; (e) tailored to neighborhood scale and conditions; (f) collaboratively linked to the broader society to strengthen community institutions and enhance outside opportunities for residents; and (g) consciously changing institutional barriers and racism (Kingsley, McNeely, & Gibson, 2000).

Funding for community development has been enhanced by the establishment of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) through the Reigle Community Development and Regulatory Improvement Act of 1994, which provided CDFI funds through the Department of the Treasury. These nonprofit institutions mobilize and provide credit for investment and financial services to CDCs in economically depressed urban and rural communities. Much of the investment is in the form of mortgage loans for housing, commercial, and industrial development (Lehn, Rubin, & Zielenbach, 2004). For example, Shore Bank is a nationally known CDFI in financing neighborhood revitalization in Chicago (Taub, 1994).

Models of Practice

Because of varied professional disciplines, different organizational affiliations, and diverse global and local contexts, community development practice is fragmented. The growing recognition that community problems are recalcitrant, multifaceted, and complex has led to the practical use of knowledge from a mixture of academic and professional disciplines to help resolve them. Some models are tied closely to specific disciplines; others are widely used across disciplinary boundaries. In practice, stakeholders from various professions come together in what may be called interdisciplinary community development, although a clear definition of this type of community development is not well developed (Johnson Butterfield & Korazim-Korosy, 2007). To accentuate the complexity as well as the synergy that takes place when diverse stakeholders come together in community development practice, Korazim-Korosy et al. (2007) liken interdisciplinary community development to a kaleidoscope, flower, or a salad bowl. Amid this complexity of disciplines and approaches, it is helpful to think of the broad field of community development as a tree and the various models and methods of development as its branches.

Urban and regional planning is a professional discipline concerned with orderly and efficient use of land, resources, and infrastructure to promote economic development and the health and well-being of urban and rural communities. With an eye toward urban renewal or revitalization, community development is one of the specialized fields of training and practice for urban and regional planners. Urban planning is involved in the development of affordable housing and its related social services and physical infrastructure, commercial and economic development, public transportation, and in the promotion of increased participation of local residents in community development activities. Another important area is downtown, neighborhood, and main street development (Feehan & Feit, 2006). Historically, the model used by urban and regional planners differed from the social planning approach advanced by social work, the latter being concerned with the design of social and human service programs that have direct bearing on the well-being of individuals, groups, and communities. In current practice, urban and regional planners have incorporated social planning concepts into their disciplinary practice.

Rural development is an interdisciplinary field of practice that focuses on the well-being of people who reside in rural communities, including villages and small towns. The strategy is to increase economic productivity and growth through agricultural and nonagricultural sectors. This is achieved by undertaking multisector activities, including investment in social and economic infrastructure services such as education and health, transportation, electrification, and communication technology. It also involves the mobilization and empowerment of rural populations through increased participation and ownership of development (Moseley, 2003). Overall, the emphasis of rural development is poverty alleviation (Bradshaw, 2006).

Social development is a process of planned change designed to promote people's welfare within the context of a comprehensive process of economic development (Midgley, 1995). It is an approach to development that puts equal emphasis on the provision of social welfare services and economic well-being as opposed to emphasizing one or the other. It considers these two dimensions of development as complementary in nature, and thereby promotes the redistribution of wealth. Investment in social welfare services such as education and health is considered as redistributive and essential for economic development through human resource development. Similarly, promoting economic development is a means of promoting social welfare through the creation of employment opportunities.

Sustainable development promotes economic development and the use of natural resources in a responsible way to ensure long-term availability of the same. Sustainable development assumes that continuous improvement in living standards is possible when community members are mobilized to become active participants in the design and implementation of development. Participation is a means of developing the capacity of community members to control and own its local resources. Control and ownership by external agencies does not ensure continuous improvement in the living standards because development activities are usually not sustainable after the development agency disengages from the community (Elliot, 2006).

Asset-based community development is a participatory approach to community capacity building, which builds initiatives on the skills, talents, and capabilities of individuals and local associations within impoverished communities. Only after assets from “inside the community” are inventoried and mobilized, do communities call upon outside institutions to fill the gaps in community development efforts (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993). ABCD is similar to Participatory Rural Appraisal, Asset Building, and Community Development sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Community Driven Development utilized by the World Bank, and Rights Based Approaches that are extensively used throughout the developing world (O'Leary, n.d.)

University–community partnerships are based on the idea that universities and communities both stand to benefit from mutual relationships. The community benefits from the university's technical resources; the university benefits by linking theoretical knowledge to practice through community problem-solving processes. Such partnerships have a long history in the United States (Fisher, Fabricant, & Simmons, 2004), which includes a growing trend in university–community partnerships and campus civic engagement. During the 1990s, Community Outreach Partnership Center programs provided new financial incentives for universities and communities. As universities extended their teaching, research, and service learning to the community, they became vital partners through collaboration in community problem solving and development (Maurrasse, 2001; Soska & Johnson Butterfield, 2004).

Methods of Practice

As an approach to planned change, community development uses a variety of methods and techniques. Among the widely used methods and techniques include community assets assessment, empowerment-based approaches, multisector partnerships and collaborative networks, community organizing, organizational development, and leadership development (Chaskin, Brown, Venkatesh, & Vidal, 2001). Most of these methods and techniques derive from the various disciplinary approaches and development models. Community development's primary objective of improving the living standard of marginalized groups is compatible with the historical mission of social work.

During its formative stages in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, social work practice paid attention primarily to poverty and the needs of special populations such as children and women. Today, the majority of social work practitioners focus on mental health, direct practice, and individual problems in human development. Nonetheless, poverty, social justice, and inequality still occupy a center stage in the profession, by infusion within all forms of professional social work practice. The operational principles and methods of community development practice, such as participation and empowerment and a systems approach to problem-solving, are especially compatible with macro social work practice and consistent with widely used models of practice with communities, such as locality development, social action, and social planning models of community organization (Rothman, 1999). The Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA), and its sponsorship of the Journal of Community Practice, works to strengthen community organization and development, planning, and social change. The ACOSA Web site http://www.acosa.org provides resources for community development and other forms of macro social work practice. Another organization, the International Association for Community Development (IACD), fosters the idea of interdisciplinary community development through international conferences and the Community Development Journal.

Future Trends and Innovations

New trends and innovations in community development emphasize social networks, technological advances, and asset accumulation. Social capital is the use of networks of relationships, social institutions, and traditional practice wisdom for community problem solving (Díaz, Drumm, Ramírez-Johnson, & Oidjarv, 2002). Geographical information systems are computer-based mapping models used to assess causes and patterns of community problems, as well as social, economic, and environmental impacts of community development (Faruque, Susan, Theresa, & Mágnum, 2003). Family-based community development is a new approach that includes the use of housing as a productive family asset for gardens and home-based urban and rural businesses (Kordesh, 2006). Community gardens are a poverty alleviation strategy by the urban poor in the United States, as is the case with the poor peasants in cities and villages in developing countries. The model is related to efforts to develop entrepreneurship capacity as effective strategy for poverty reduction. In particular, innovative methods emphasize various types of financial strategies for helping poor persons accumulate assets (Green & Haines, 2001), including the Grameen Bank (Bornstein, 1997; Pickering & Mushinski, 2001), Time Dollars (Cahn, 2000), microcredit and credit unions (Bhatt & Tang, 2001; Friedman, 2001), community development financial institutions (Molseed, 2006), microenterprise (Sherraden, Sanders, & Sherraden, 2004), and Individual Development Accounts (Sherraden, 1991).


The interdisciplinary nature of community development contributes to the richness of its models and methods of practice, which hail from geography, public policy and administration, social work, education, public health and so on. In fact, most community developers do not come from a professional social work, community development, or community organizing background but seem to “discover” the field by finding themselves working in it (Brophy & Shabecoff, 2001).

Although there is an historic linkage between community development and social work, United States schools of social work are not at the forefront of preparing students for community development practice, nor is the profession providing leadership in training for community development practice. It may be true. But, the focus of the entry is on the U. S. experience, and we cannot comment on the situation in other countries throughout the world where the context and the educational systems may be very different. In recent years, there has been a decline in the number of schools offering specializations in macro social work. According to Fisher and Karger (1997), some reasons include limited employment opportunities due to declining government funding for community organization activities, and a perception that compensation is inadequate. The reality, however, is the increasing status of community development in the United States, with job opportunities ranging from $35,000 to more than $100,000—most of which are being filled by people with training backgrounds in sociology, public and business administration, psychology, education, and urban planning (Brophy & Shabecoff, 2001). Perhaps, a major underlying factor for the lack of social workers in community development is their inadequate training in community development per se.

Since internships often lead to jobs, this problem is compounded by the failure of schools of social work to seek out social workers in community development to serve as supervisors for students in field placement. Another cause of too few social workers in community development is the lack of information about the diverse range of employment opportunities. If social work graduates are unaware of opportunities in the field of community development, and likewise the transferability of their skills to jobs in community development, they simply may not or will not apply for such positions.

There are many international development organizations that provide opportunities for careers and funding for projects in community development. This includes bilateral organizations such as United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and multilateral organizations such as the agencies of the United Nations, including UNICEF, UNDP, and UNHCR that are actively involved in poverty alleviation in developing countries. Private international development organizations, such as Care International, Oxfam, Christian Children's Fund, World Vision, and InterAction also engage in community development projects around the world.

Community development has evolved into a competitive interdisciplinary field practiced in a variety of social and economic sectors, including downtown and neighborhood development, affordable housing, social entrepreneurship, workforce development, financial management, among others. At local, regional, and national levels, employment opportunities are being generated by private nonprofit organizations, whose primary focus is on community development.

The challenge facing social workers is how to take advantage of the expansion of community development, and the opportunities to contribute their knowledge, skills, and core values. To become employed in the field of community development may mean applying for jobs that do not list a social work degree among those sought by employers. Nonetheless, employment in community development by social workers lends itself to the profession's expansion into the field of community development.


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                                                                                        Further Reading

                                                                                        Association for Community Organization and Social Administration. http://www.acosa.org

                                                                                        Association for the Study and Development of Community. http://www.senseofcommunity.com/

                                                                                        Center for Social Development. http://gwbweb.wustl.edu/csd/

                                                                                        InterAction. http://www.interaction.org

                                                                                        International Association for Community Development. http://www.iacdglobal.org

                                                                                        Local Initiatives Support Corporation. http://www.lisc.org/

                                                                                        Social Work Education in Ethiopia Partnership. http://www.aboutsweep.org

                                                                                        The Council of State Community Development Agencies. http://www.coscda.org/

                                                                                        The Enterprise Foundation. http://www.enterprisefoundation.org/

                                                                                        Time Dollar Institute. http://www.timedollar.org/