The Future of Community Development

November 1, 2018

city nightscapeThis commentary addresses key concepts to consider for the future of community development. This is not an academic paper, and is primarily based on just over a half a century of life experience, and 25 years of work experience with communities, diverse populations, programs, policy, and networks primarily in Oregon, United States of America (USA), as well as the Western U.S., nationally, and to some degree, internationally.  I have worked for local government, a council of governments (COG), a combined community action program (CAP) and community development corporation (CDC), and a non-profit organization serving rural communities through training, technical assistance, and financing, primarily for small water and wastewater projects, and economic development—celebrating my 20 year anniversary!  I have also led an advocacy team and have successfully advocated for community and economic development programs, housing programs, and water and wastewater infrastructure programs.  To address the question, “what is the future of community development?”, one must consider that “community development” is about connecting people, primarily–and further connecting people with knowledge, skills, resources, to develop capacity (capability) to move forward with initiatives, activities, and projects  to strengthen communities.

Recently, the International Association of Community Development (IACD) adopted a definition of community development
(a bold endeavor): community development is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes participative democracy, sustainable development, rights, equality, economic opportunity and social justice, through the organization, education and empowerment of people within their communities, whether these be of locality, identity or interest, in urban and rural settings. The Community Development Society (CDS) adopted this definition following the CDS IACD Annual International Conference, Sustaining Community Change; Building Local Capacity to Sustain Community Development Initiatives in Bloomington, Minnesota, July, 2016. The National Association of Community Development Extension Professionals (NACDEP) adopted the definition in conjunction with the CDS NACDEP Conference, Big Skies, Bold Partnerships; Moving Mountains Together in Big Sky, Montana, June, 2017. These events brought together hundreds of people involved with community development from around the world, and particularly the U.S., to share research, projects, programs, resources, challenges, and success stories to further the field of community development, and partnership—the basis for connecting people.  So the future of community development must involve “partnership”. Partnerships help bridge divisions between people, groups, communities, organizations, agencies, business, etc. Partnerships are relationships based on understanding and agreements around principles, purposes, goals, processes, mutual benefits. Partnerships break down the silos we fall into with programs such that we can collaborate on initiatives, activities, and projects for greater impact in communities.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The SDGs adopted in 2016 also offer a plethora of areas to focus on for the future of community development—I believe “Goal 6, Clean Water and Sanitation” is the most important. Why? Because human beings cannot exist without water.  In fact, water is so important that we cannot have life on earth without water.  Water is arguably the most important element (air also) to survive.  Since life is the foundation for human beings, and human beings make up communities, water must be in the top considerations for the future of community development. So, while we are it, let’s talk about “climate change”. Whether or not you believe in “global warming”, let’s look at the world. Just this year, and last year, and the last few years, there have been larger storms, with greater intensity, with more frequency. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) routinely posts updates about records for the “hottest year” on record, the warmest spring, the coldest winter, which seem to be more and more common. There is no doubt that what we have seen this past summer into fall in the first part of hurricane season alone, the impacts of storms—and the need to be prepared for emergencies, and protection of water and health. Fires in northern California are the result of immediate adverse environmental conditions due to (dry conditions and wind) and several years of drought— it’s all about water. 


Health is another critical area for the future of community development, because health, like water (and food) is vital for biological survival. Without water, food, and health, all of which are inter-related of course, we die. Air too. Health care, access to health care, and preventive approaches to curbing risks, and costs, are key basic elements which we need to get a handle on for the future. Some may say we are in a crisis in the United States—some folks think our health care system is a disaster, others are making proposals which many think are disasters—bottom line, we need to expand the access to health care, particularly for people who cannot afford it, as these populations are most at risk for health problems—the cycle of poverty keeps people unstable. It becomes difficult to live in a house, which makes it difficult to find and keep a job, and buy food, and feed kids, and have time for family, and so on. Access to care to maintain decent health cornerstone for any civil society.


Homelessness in my city, Portland, Oregon, and in Oregon as a state, is becoming a greater, more noticeable,
problem. There was an area along a creek recently “swept” by the city which yielded pounds of human waste, needles, and garbage throughout the area, and many of the people who “lived” there can be found along a neighborhood street corner, in a vehicle parked in a street, under the highway bridge, along the railroad tracks, and in neighborhoods throughout the city. 
Meanwhile, home prices are sky rocketing making homeownership more difficult, and most of the new housing is higher end condominium or town houses, rather than single family, or affordable housing. Portland is filling in, and people are finding it more difficult to find affordable rental, or homeownership, housing. At the League of Oregon Cities (LOC) Annual Conference in Portland, nearly every representative from every city I spoke with about needs mentioned “housing”. For a country where poverty is so severe, and resources so scarce, basic shelter may not even be possible. Humans need covered places for safety, warmth, and stability—even nomadic people had camps with shelter. Without it, human life cannot be stable.

Arts and Culture

People need to belong. We are social creatures who identify with others through groups, behaviors, common meaning through values, expression, symbols, language, music, customs, and art. I hesitate to even say what art “is”, given the wide range of interpretation (isn’t that the point?). I will suggest the ability to create leads to everything we develop. Everything we have ever invented comes from creativity!  Economies come from creativity, solving problems or addressing needs—the 
foundation for entrepreneurship—comes from creativity, products and services come from creativity, money comes from creativity, and the idea to do something comes from creativity.   

People identify with each other through culture, and art, as intrinsic elements of our being. The CDS NACDEP Conference in Big Sky, Montana featured leadership through lyricism; hip hop culture and leadership in community development including two inspirational hip hop artists and teachers of culture about how expression of challenges in