Definition of Community Development
Can Be Broad

Last Updated: May 22, 2024

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

To be truthful, we can't give you a standard definition that will fit all circumstances simply because communities are as different as people and snowflakes. We can say that "development" should mean forward progress for all or almost everyone in the community, and all or almost all attributes of the physical community. Below we will offer ideas that we personally have witnessed in play as viable aspects of community development.

diagram of the many aspects of community development

In some parts of the world, war, disease, famine, extreme poverty, and climate change may threaten human life and social organization at such a basic level that community development must emphasize helping people overcome those threats to stability. During extreme events, such as the coronavirus pandemic, community development might even focus on emergency relief for the unemployed, overworked health care workers, or food insecure folks in the community.

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

A More Detailed Definition of Community Development for Wealthy Regions

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

Since that program requires that the benefits flow primarily to people of low and moderate income, an undeserved narrowness has been attached to the phrase community development. Instead we think community improvement is necessary and gratifying across the entire economic spectrum. Other nations may have similar difficulties with the local population identifying the term too much with a specific program or set of initiatives.

In one wealthy community where we recently worked, they began to see an imperative that they help out neighboring suburbs that were in slow decline. After several meetings where we discussed this with them, we were a little amused and a little surprised to hear them talk about their community development program. We shouldn't have been.

To broaden thinking, below we propose the types of activities that fall within the definition of community development in a developed country. We emphasize building the capacity of the local population and institutions to address whatever challenges comes along. In our view community development includes anything that:

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

It's a challenging definition of community development already, but your community may see that you also need to focus on promoting creativity, leadership, social equity, greater civic involvement for young people, more emotional ownership of neighborhood outcomes, or increased coordination and networking among organizations and sectors that affect how well your community is positioned for the future. We think we have made our case that community development applies to people of all income levels, including low, moderate, and lavish.

Community Development as an International Development Framework

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

In the global context, sometimes the definition of community development tends to be entangled with trying to imitate Western-style development. Certainly in the past century, colonial powers believed that their way was the only way.

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

More about Community Development Theory

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

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

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

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