Community Development & Growing Democracy Series, Part 1: What is community development? 

By Hannah Lebovits, Assistant Professor at University of Texas, Arlington (and former Growing Democracy project manager)

Community development is the process by which individuals and organizations work together to resolve community-wide issues that require collective efforts, despite varying personal interests.

In the United States, community development rose to prominence in the 1960’s, the era of urban renewal. Newly diverse cities had faced decades of disinvestment- having lost massive amounts of resources due to the continued development of suburban areas- and were given plans for physical revitalization. Rather than divert more value to cities, these historical community development efforts typically came at a cost for low-income and Black communities- many of which saw their neighborhoods destroyed to make way for physical redesigns. 

Today, the term has been applied more broadly to include changes to the built environment of a city or neighborhood as well as efforts to organize social groups to achieve common goals. 

Though the subject matter seems very broad, community development is actually a defined field/discipline. There are degrees and certifications that one can acquire in the area as well as associations for community development professionals. As a discipline, community development theory and work is framed through efforts to promote social justice, human rights, empowerment, participatory democracy, and other similar themes. 

Community development practitioners, who often work for public and nonprofit agencies, tend to look to incorporate these frames in their work. Scholars who research and measure community development apply similar framing to their efforts, often testing whether these goals can be achieved and how. 

Many OECD countries prioritize community development efforts through direct federal support and indirect assistance to regions and cities. In the United States, Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) programs provide funding to states, municipalities, and nonprofit organizations for a variety of efforts including inclusive housing, neighborhood revitalization, disaster recovery, and economic opportunities for low-income individuals. 

Some of this funding might be intended for specific uses while other dollars can be widely utilized for a number of different projects. Community development professionals often assist nonprofits and local/regional governments in determining how and when to use these grants. 

Community development is an ever moving target- a long-term goal with short-term objectives. Regardless of the specific project, however, community development efforts should endeavor to maximize voice and representation from historically marginalized groups within the decision making and implementation processes. Development with community is the ultimate focus, not simply development for community.