Asset-Based Community Development Focuses on the Strengths

Last Updated: November 11, 2021

Instead of relying on outside experts and governmental intervention, the asset-based community development approach counts on the local knowledge of residents and organizations.   Their understanding of physical, social, and historic advantages, combined with new and creative thinking through the lens of concentrating on assets instead of liabilities, can guide and inform the best path forward for a community.

nice bungalows in ordinary residential neighborhoodIdentify and Appreciate Your Forgotten Neighborhood Assets

We are strong proponents of this philosophy. It lifts the spirits instantly when we start focusing on what is right instead of what is wrong. Especially in neighborhoods that don't get enough attention within the context of an entire city or region, asset-based community development can help neighbors realize that they have a lot more power over their own destiny as a neighborhood than they may have thought.

In a time when social media and traditional media sell their products by magnifying fear, angst, and distrust, it's especially important for neighborhoods to go looking for tiny bits of both people talent and physical resources that could become the nucleus of a new, better community development project or program.

The asset-based community development notion started with John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, who wrote a book published in 1993 called Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets.

That jolly-looking green book revolutionized the way that many grassroots activists, neighborhood groups, and professionals thought about community development. I wore out my first copy loaning it to people.

The book shifted thinking from a problem-based focus toward a steady appreciation of what is going right with our communities, and how under-appreciated aspects of the neighborhood--including its people--become the building blocks for community development. 

In case you hate business and are not really sure what an asset is, the word just means something that you own. Your bank account, the amount of equity you have in a house you are buying, your clothes, or a retirement account are financial assets.

Intangible assets might be your personality, your education, your stunning good looks, your family's good name, your survival skills, and the like.

An asset is the opposite of a liability, so in community work, an asset is the opposite of a problem. Unfortunately many times our neighborhoods begin every meeting with a recital of their liabilities rather than counting their assets.

For example, instead of seeing vacant lots and lack of a grocery store as problems that we try desperately to solve, proponents of this approach would say that the lots represent the potential for new construction, gardening, or a new park. 

That's a potential that a neighborhood fully built out with mediocre homes doesn't have. The lack of a grocery store is an opportunity for local residents to control the quality and types of food that they purchase, through joining together in a food co-op or an outdoor market.

The asset-based approach is the community development equivalent of getting out of thinking about the scarcity of money or something else that you crave, and noticing how abundant the world really is.

Putting Asset-Based Community Development into Practice

A typical response to beginning to think like an asset-based community is to plan and carry out a group walk or other kind of physical or mental tour of the neighborhood to notice, list, and define geographically the assets. Often this is called an asset map. If you have a large neighborhood or community, you might need to divide up the territory so that you have two or more walks or tours to identify community assets.

From there, the next actions are to enhance and build upon the assets, rather than to focus the energy on problems and import problem-solvers from outside the neighborhood, who may or may not have your best interests at heart.

In asset-based community development, you may look at children, the elderly, mildly mentally ill folks, and disabled people as overlooked creative minds. No asset is so small as to be meaningless, and every person can contribute to local development and prosperity.

Proponents of this theory usually feel very strongly about the value of community organizations and what they would call civil society in general.

Let's just talk for a minute about civil society, which may not be part of your everyday language. Civil society is a term used to describe everything in a community that goes on in terms of voluntary association that is not government-based.

In an open democracy certainly government can and often does encourage civil society through allowing and interacting with voluntary civic organizations, neighborhood associations, and informal social groupings of friends who act together to care about each other and their immediate community.

But government or the military isn't the primary driver, nor is any other top-down institution.

Faith based organizations of course are a very important part of civil society, and they are among the strongest features of an asset-based community development approach in many environments.

Creating an Asset Map

May we encourage you to gather some neighbors and walk around your neighborhood this weekend? Take the children and a map, if you can find a big one. Make some symbols on your asset map for the various kinds of potential or already available assets that you see. Examples of community assets might be:

  1. A closed school with a gymnasium
  2. A pretty fountain that just needs to have the water turned on and a few weeds pulled so we can see it again
  3. Mrs. Brown with that fabulous apple pie
  4. A wide sidewalk in front of the bank (and in many nations and neighborhoods, just having a bank is a big asset)
  5. Young Pedro, a really a good artist
  6. The very strong Glory Church
  7. Three neighbors who decided to plant the same kind of tulips in their front yards
  8. Folks who hang out at the corner pub, really like each other, and won't let any brawls or drug-dealing break out, for fear of losing their special place
  9. Several blocks of houses that were well-constructed a century ago
  10. The absence of freeways, assuring that the local streets don't carry much traffic
  11. Wide streets, allowing for easy implementation of bike lanes, plantings that slow and absorb rainwater runoff, and delivery zones
  12. Several great-looking houses of worship, whether or not they are occupied
  13. Gorgeous architectural flourishes that could never be re-created at a reasonable cost today

Be sure to post your asset map prominently in your meeting place and encourage others to add to it.

Do you see how this goes? If you are a pessimist, you have to push yourself figure out how to turn each of these people or things into a potential solution to a problem. Even if you're pessimistic and proud of it, don't go there. Simply accept that your neighborhood will make much more progress if people feel that there is some hope of improvement and if residents develop and deepen their loyalty to the neighborhood based on their pride in your assets.

Here is the big question.  Which makes people feel stronger and more resourceful—noticing how bad things are, or dwelling on how much good raw material they have to work with? Which approach likely leads to greater creativity, especially in group gatherings?

If you want the people who live near you in a neighborhood to act and feel empowered, motivated, and goal-oriented, it's best to begin with an asset-based community development approach, rather than the well-worn exercise of listing every problem we can think of.

While the problem-centered approach works, and I've often used it myself to kick off neighborhood plans, it fails to attract grassroots people who are not already involved in the community.

Asset-based thinking also can diminish the amount of cynicism and powerlessness your community is experiencing. Let's consider for a moment the complaint that light sentences are returning criminals into the community too quickly. Many urban neighborhoods in the past felt they could not do anything about it. But a more resourceful course of action is to consider the residents as assets who can wear their T-shirts into the courtroom to look the judge in the eye and can write neighborhood impact statements about how a bully is bringing down their community. (This tactic is considered in more detail on our court monitoring page.)

To dig more deeply into this positive approach, check out the free resources of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute.  These are the folks that actually popularized the concept, noticing that it works far better than its opposite to empower people. They run a forum, which we find especially helpful in reporting experiences with rural and international community development.

This website offers abundant resources for asset-based community development, as well as organizing, economic development, sustainability, stemming sprawl, and other subjects important to strong communities. Noticing and even mapping your assets is only the first step. While it provides a mood elevation for the community, you have to leverage that energy to make something happen. That's where the rest of the website comes in. We have shown a few possible pages of interest below, but use the search button on each page to find more helpful articles.

These Pages May Be Especially Relevant to Asset-Based Thinking

  1. Making and Keeping a Good Community
  2.  ›
  3. Community Organizations
  4.  › Asset-Based Community Development

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