In vs. Of

Red ribbons. Photo ops. Gold shovels. Oversized scissors.

These are what people have come to accept as the hallmarks of ‘good’ community development. Unfortunately, all too many of these projects come with great anticipation but die without much fanfare.

Why is that?

Our culture has been brought along to understand economic development as synonymous with community development. While there are similarities, there are differences as well.

A differentiator in the realm of community and economic development lies between activities developing infrastructure and economies versus those building social networks and human capacity.  Put another way, what we are talking about is the difference between ‘development in communities’ versus ‘development of communities’.

As discussed at length in a past post, community emerges when people living in a certain area come together to address common concerns and issues.

From this, development of community consists of activities which allow the growth of social interactions which in turn create social fields, activities which promote the generalization of interests across those social fields, and which reduce barriers around access to resources and the ability to engage within the community.



Programs that include the community early on are more likely to be sustainable as long as they stay focused on common interests and not on private ones. Photo by author.

Development in community occurs within projects that promote physical infrastructure, promote business creation, or which promote activities within a defined group of actors and interests.

Both are important in any locality, but many economic development programs or projects fail because they are driven by one or two interests which lie outside of the majority of the area’s residents or which fail to address (or create barriers toward) social interaction and human capacity.

Ironically, the lack of community in projects often turns the project into a focal point around which social fields form and community fields emerge (often against the project).

Meaningful community development occurs when programs integrate (generalize) interests across social and economic actors and associations. This type of development recognizes that locally important issues – such as available, livable housing – have both social and economic (and in many cases cultural) components which need to be addressed.

Think about a program or project you are familiar with. Is it focused on ‘development in’, ‘development of’, both, or neither? Is there something missing? If so, who needs to be at the table? Does it matter?

It does! Asking these question is a start toward making programs (and places) stronger. It ensures all interests are addressed and at the table right from the beginning, rather than interjected into the middle of a project through politics, protests, or legal maneuvers. Fresh eyes and perspectives can bring both options and solutions those promoting a program/project can’t see or think of.


Synergy Alberta was started by the provincial government, oil and gas developers, and residents in oil and gas fields  as a way to work through development issue prior to permits being issued. The Synergy process significantly reduced the amount of time and conflict associated with permitting and gave landowners and residents equal voice to government and industry. Photo courtesy of Synergy Alberta.

We all have the ability to connect development in and of where we live, as long as we understand there are real differences between the two and that one can complement the other if we are mindful. These simple questions and the understanding they bring can make a huge difference where you live.


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