Asset Building & Community Development


Gary Paul Green & Anna Haines

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    Can community residents work together to improve their quality of life? There are numerous examples of residents collaborating to provide affordable housing, job training, and credit for local businesses and consumers. Yet there continues to be skepticism about the ability of communities to overcome problems of concentrated poverty in the inner city, underdevelopment in rural areas (especially in Appalachia and on Native American reservations), and social isolation in so many of our communities today. In this book, we examine the promise and limits of community development.

    We define community development as a planned effort to build assets that increase the capacity of residents to improve their quality of life. These assets may include several forms of community capital: physical, human, social, financial, environmental, political, and cultural. For each type of community capital, we examine the role of community-based organizations in mobilizing these assets, the strategies that communities can use to improve their quality of life, and the external institutions and organizations involved in the community development process. We contend that these assets will not generate as many local benefits if communities rely entirely on either markets or governments to guide their development. Development that is controlled by community-based organizations provides a better match between the assets and the needs of the communities, whether we are talking about job skills, housing, natural resources, or financial capital.

    We should note that our definition of community development is fairly broad. Many people today limit the definition of community development to the activities of community development corporations (CDCs), especially in poor neighborhoods. Although CDCs certainly have become key actors in the affordable housing and economic development arenas, there are many other organizations and institutions actively involved in promoting locality development. Although we discuss the role of CDCs, we also explore other organizations outside the “industry.” In particular, we discuss local economic development organizations, neighborhood associations, and faith-based organizations. Many other informal organizations, such as neighborhood watches, building-level tenant associations, block clubs, and volunteer youth groups doing community service, serve as the foundation for community development work. We also consider the role of specialized organizations, such as microenterprise loan funds, land trusts, and training consortia.

    Most people use the term community to refer to residents of a specific geographical area. Our book is directed primarily at “communities of place,” although the material is relevant for “communities of interest,” such as organizations and associations, as well. We also discuss many innovative regional programs that go beyond traditional place-based community development efforts. Although most of the literature on community development focuses on urban issues, we address rural communities and their concerns, too. Discussions of community development also are limited frequently to low-income neighborhoods. Again, we take a broader perspective and examine how middle-class communities are relying increasingly on community-based organizations to address problems associated with urban sprawl and the environment. Many of the lessons learned about working in low-income neighborhoods can be applied to a variety of settings.

    We do not intend this book to be a cookbook for practitioners. There are several excellent books and manuals that readers could turn to for these strategies. We discuss some different approaches to community organizing, but our focus is much more on the outcomes of these processes. Instead, we provide students and practitioners with several elements of community development: (a) the basic concepts and theories; (b) a conceptual map of the institutions, organizations, and actors involved in various arenas of community development; (c) common strategies and tactics used by communities; (d) case studies of successful (and unsuccessful) communities; and (e) resources available on various topics related to community development.

    In Chapter 1, we discuss the major concepts, issues, and theories used in the community development field. Although community development draws from a variety of disciplines, a growing number of concepts and theories help define community development in theory and in practice.

    In Chapter 2, we present a brief overview of the history of community development in the United States. Community development efforts in other contexts will look quite different because of the variation in local versus central control and in the cultural factors influencing participation and authority. Even within the United States, there is considerable variation in community-based development efforts. We begin with a discussion of early attempts at community development with the rise of settlement houses through the New Deal and the War on Poverty to contemporary efforts of CDCs, community development finance institutions (CDFIs), and comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs). A critical assessment of the history of the movement helps to identify the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary community development efforts.

    In Chapter 3, we introduce the concept of community sustainability. Originally a concept from ecology, sustainability has been given many definitions. Essentially, the term sustainability refers to the ability of a system to sustain itself without outside intervention. We evaluate how communities are attempting to incorporate sustainability in their development strategies and the types of indicators communities are using to assess their progress toward the goal of achieving sustainability. The concept of sustainability is not considered a separate topic, but it is woven throughout our entire discussion of community development in this text.

    Chapter 4 focuses on four stages of the community development process: community organizing, visioning, planning, and implementation/evaluation. Many academics and practitioners have debated the importance of process (development of community) versus outcomes (development in the community). Most community development programs, however, involve both elements. In this chapter, we focus on various strategies for developing a process that will engage residents in the strategic decisions affecting their localities. We also discuss alternative approaches to community planning and public participation.

    CDCs are the most visible organizations engaged in community and neighborhood development. There continues to be a debate over the effectiveness of CDCs. Critics charge that CDCs have lost their capacity to mobilize communities and have become primarily technical assistance providers. We examine these debates and assess the future of CDCs. In Chapter 5, we describe the structure of CDCs and review some of their strengths and weaknesses. We examine some of the constraints and limitations CDCs face in promoting neighborhood development. We also look at other community-based organizations, such as local development organizations, neighborhood organizations, faith-based organizations, and youth organizations. The larger issue for this discussion is whether organizational dynamics contribute to the loss of local control and bureaucratization of these entities.

    We next examine seven forms of community capital: human, social, physical, financial, environmental, political, and cultural. We refer to these attributes as capital because investments in these resources yield greater returns in the quality of community life. In many cases, these forms of capital are public goods that require collective action, rather than individual investments, to grow. Each chapter follows a similar structure: limits to individual or government solutions to these problems, history of community development efforts in these areas, the theoretical basis for community intervention, key actors and institutions, and strategies.

    Human capital theory focuses on the relationship between a worker’s education, skills, and experience and the individual’s labor market experiences. According to the theory, workers with lower level skills tend to be less productive and therefore are rewarded less in the labor market. A major focus of many community-based development organizations is training, which is assumed to increase the level of human capital and ultimately the quality of life in the community. In the chapter on human capital (Chapter 6), we focus on the role of community-based organizations in providing workforce development. We discuss how federal and state efforts are placing increasing emphasis on comprehensive approaches to workforce development that rely on community-based organizations. These workforce development strategies help overcome some of the obstacles workers face in obtaining training and the barriers employers encounter in providing job training.

    Social capital is defined as the norms, shared understandings, trust, and other factors that make collective action feasible and productive. Social capital enables members of a neighborhood or social network to help one another, especially in terms of economic opportunity and social mobility. In the chapter on social capital (Chapter 7), we concentrate on community networks (both individual and organizational) that influence local development. These social ties and networks can serve as both resources and constraints in a community’s effort to promote collective action. In many ways, social capital is at the center of asset building for all the forms of community capital we discuss. It is an essential feature of community action.

    Physical capital refers to buildings, tools, and infrastructure. Investments in physical capital can enhance quality of community life and provide support for other forms of community capital. In Chapter 8, we focus our discussion of physical capital on housing, primarily affordability issues. The federal government has had a huge role in physical capital since the Great Depression, evidenced by the variety of programs for housing and other areas of physical capital, such as roads and other infrastructure. Due to federal devolution to lower levels of government and others, communities have an opportunity to pursue innovative affordable housing solutions. In this chapter, we examine the variety of ways in which communities can address affordable housing problems. We also assess why community-based organizations are at the forefront of the efforts to build more affordable housing options.

    Poor and minority communities frequently lack access to financial capital. Capital markets typically do not solve these problems. Many communities are building local financial institutions, such as revolving loan funds, microenterprise loan funds, and community development banks, to address their credit problems. Chapter 9 explores various strategies for addressing credit problems in communities. Most of the emerging community-based models emphasize the importance of social as well as economic objectives.

    In Chapter 10, we explore the concept of environmental capital. Many communities are beginning to recognize that wisely managed natural resources, a community’s environmental capital, play a major role in community satisfaction, quality of life, and economic development. Community-based organizations can offer an alternative to public sector zoning and regulations that aim to protect a community’s environmental capital, especially in places that do not have the broad support necessary for protecting key environmental resources. To demonstrate the role of community-based organizations in preserving natural resources, we look carefully at the role of land trusts in addressing environmental problems.

    Power is central to the community development process. Before engaging in a community development project, it is essential to understand the local power structure. It is equally important to know how to organize residents to build community power. In Chapter 11, we examine different ways of measuring and analyzing the local power structure. We discuss different strategies that organizations use to build political capital. Much of the literature on community power structure has focused on local issues. We discuss how community-based organizations can build political capital through establishing stronger networks with other communities and organizations.

    Cultural capital, the subject of Chapter 12, is seen increasingly as an important factor in community development. Unfortunately, cultural resources are often viewed as something consumed by the rich and having little to do with middle-class and working-class residents. This view of culture and its potential role in community development is very limited. It is important to recognize how cultural capital in a broad sense can contribute to community well-being.

    The next two chapters illustrate how the asset-based development approach can be applied to food, energy, and natural disasters. In Chapter 13, we examine how community assets interact to promote local self-reliance through the development of community food systems and renewable energy systems. The growing criticism of our global food system has spawned a wide variety of community initiatives that promote local food systems. Similarly, the challenges we face in the area of energy policy have sparked a movement to promote new renewable sources of energy at the local level. These examples illustrate how local initiatives can build on community assets to promote greater sustainability.

    Similarly, in Chapter 14, we explore how the asset-based development approach can promote local responses to global climate change and natural disasters. While these local strategies are not a solution to these larger problems, they do represent some ways in which communities can become less vulnerable.

    Globalization and technological change are presenting new challenges and obstacles to community development and to the organizations that pursue it. As financial capital becomes more mobile, it may be increasingly difficult to establish bonds among other forms of capital to create a sense of place in a community. In Chapter 15, we consider how technological changes are presenting new obstacles, and possibly new opportunities, to the field of community development.


    This new edition was shaped and improved significantly because of the valuable insights and suggestions that reviewers offered. These individuals include Michael Ba Banutu-Gomez, Rowan University, USA & Banutu Business College, The Gambia; Robert Blair, University of Nebraska Omaha; Amy E. Boren, University of Nebraska–Lincoln; Moe Chowdhury, Jackson State University; Thomas Kersen, Jackson State University; Eva M. Moya, University of Texas at El Paso; and Kenneth L. Stewart, Angelo State University.

    About the Austhors

    Gary Paul Green is a professor in the Department of Community & Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a community development specialist at the University of Wisconsin–Extension. Green’s teaching and research interests are primarily in the areas of community and economic development. His recent books include Mobilizing Communities: Asset Building as a Community Development Strategy (2010); Introduction to Community Development: Theory, Practice, and Service Learning (2011); and Handbook of Rural Development (2013). Green also has been involved in teaching and research on community development issues in China, South Korea, Uganda, and Ukraine.

    Anna Haines is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and a land use and community development specialist with the University of Wisconsin–Extension. Haines received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. Her research and teaching focuses on planning and community development from a natural resources or environmental perspective. Her research has engaged in evaluating community planning and zoning in terms of smart growth and sustainability, land parcelization, and local food systems. Her extension work has concentrated on comprehensive planning and planning implementation tools and techniques, sustainable communities, and property rights issues.

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