A Clearer Understanding

The complexities of trying to create an understood and universally accepted definition of community development are nothing new. A UNESCO working paper from 1956 shows the vague and mixed viewpoints that the term can occupy: “The term… has been defined as ‘a generic term used to describe the processes by which local communities can raise their own standards of living…” This definition is very broad - saying that any activity that communities self-perform for their own advancement can be defined as community development. 

It hasn’t gotten much clearer with time - the United States Government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development currently defines community development as: “activities (that) build stronger and more resilient communities through an ongoing process of identifying and addressing needs, assets, and priority investments.” 

The main issue with using definitions like these as the basis for understanding community development is the vagueness of words like “resilient” and the fuzziness of concepts like “addressing needs.” Whose needs are you addressing? What does resilient mean to your place vs. another? So, instead of trying to come up with a definition of community development itself, perhaps it is better to break down the field into the smaller sectors that make it up.

In 2015, ArtPlace America created a“Community Development Matrix” to “lay out (a) sense of how the community planning and development world self-organizes.” This matrix, displayed to the right, is an excellent snapshot that shows the span of sectors that encompass the field of community development. It is broken down by sector on the vertical axis, and by influence/organization type on the horizontal axis.  This is a much simpler way to understand what community development is. It can be any and all of these sectors working in concert to raise the standard of living for any given place.

There are a few important distinctions that can be pulled from this matrix. First, it shows the many different points of intersection that can make up the field, demonstrating that no specific set of sectors or set of organization types have sole ownership of community development. Each of these intersection points need to be at the table in conversations around comprehensive community development.

The matrix also clarifies that economic development is not in and of itself community development, it is instead one aspect of community development. Far too many economic development projects in Lexington are given the banner of community development, often to the detriment of community perceptions about the field as a whole. It is important to remember that while economic development and growth can be positive things, they are only one object in the overall picture.

Lastly, there are a few things that are clearly missing from the matrix. Two that immediately come to mind are social justice and arts & culture. Their omission from the matrix is intentional. These are not sectors of community development, but are lenses through which all of the work in the field should be seen. ArtPlace addresses this concept in a blog post discussing social justice’s omission from the matrix (it was actually removed from the Immigration sector):

Immigration - Many of you will recall that this sector was previously ‘Immigration & Social Justice.’  For us, immigration refers to both new entrants to a country and new entrants to a community—and encompasses people and organizations focused on the complexity of otherness.  We included social justice in the Matrix because it’s an important facet of community undertakings, but as Jamie B. recently said at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit, ‘Every decision is an equity decision.’  Social Justice is a lens that applies to all community planning and development because every decision impacts access and opportunity for at least a subset of community members.

The concept of whole-field lenses are incredibly important to establishing a set of principles for community development practices in the North End. There are some lenses that should be universal - social & racial equity, authentic culture & creativity, citizen participation and grassroots leadership - but there are also some that are more place-specific to the North End. These lenses, when combined, can create a set of principles that can be commonly understood across all sectors of community development, and can be applied to any aspect of the work.