Community, Regional Collaboration, and Local Well-Being

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Working across social, political, and geographical boundaries to address issues can be a difficult, frustrating, and time consuming process. Each boundary often has an inherent culture or bureaucracy which works to maintain the integrity of those boundaries. Unfortunately, most issues and problems don’t follow these lines – and in many cases defy them! – which makes it increasingly difficult for residents living within these boundaries to tackle those issues.

As an Extension educator with a ten county region, I see firsthand how lines on a map prevent meaningful conversation and cooperation amongst people and places. From my perspective, thinking from a community and abundance mentality can help break down these barriers and move our localities toward more effective partnering and collaboration to improve local well-being.

The three-part definition of community I use in this blog to define community

  1. A locality,
  2. a local society, and
  3. locally oriented action toward the common good,

points to a variety of potential spaces from which community can emerge. As Wilkinson (1992, 1999) notes, the difficulty in finding the community field is that many of the defining factors of community can be difficult to find at a small scales in rural areas (e.g. not enough people to take effective action, lack of sense of place, lack of cohesive local society, etc.). Because of real world constraints, we sometimes we have to expand the area and people involved in developing community, especially in tackling wicked issues across broader regions.

Wilkinson (1992) points to six factors guiding the creation and emergence of community within and across broader, multi-community regions. These factors are:

  1. Residents of these localities must be given the opportunity to work on problems within their areas, not simply be the recipients of efforts at development.
  2. Local residents must overcome local power barriers and quiescence which prevent people from becoming engaged in local society and locality oriented action.
  3. Local organizations must emerge that are inclusive of all residents in an area and which are representative of issues (interests) being faced across multiple localities. Thus, rural areas must find a way to bridge across multiple communities within a region, not just focus on the issues and problems of one area.
  4. The assets of the local population within the region must be utilized and mobilized to address problems.
  5. When local assets are underdeveloped or missing, residents need to gain information and assistance to help make decisions toward action.
  6. Those involved take action to address problems. This is where community development (development of community) takes place.

Regardless of whether the action undertaken is successful or not, the accomplishment of these six steps – the establishment of networks, pooling and organization of assets, and action – creates capacity which can help residents address current and future social, economic, and environmental well-being issues (Wilkinson 1999).

Flint, Luloff, and Theodori (2009) build upon Wilkinson’s notion of multi-community collaboration to describe something known as the regional community field. The regional community field emerges when two or more local community fields generalize across their interests in order to form a community field capable of addressing issues of common concern at the larger scale.

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The regional community field is restricted to the same set of conditions the community field is. Therefore, barriers to the emergence of local community fields also serve as barriers to regional community fields. Additionally, it is important that residents (1) identify and address problems within their own areas (allowing the local community field to form); and (2) to identify that these problems exist within multiple communities across space and move toward addressing them collectively (which moves them toward the emergence of the regional community field).

So what does all this really mean? To simplify, it means that:

  • People need to recognize they have a problem at the local level.
  • They then need to engage with others in their locality about this realization.
  • They need to take action across interests to address the problem (allowing a community field to emerge).
  • Those engaged in addressing the problem in one locality need to recognize other places are facing the same problems.
  • Then they need to seek out and engage with other communities.
  • All involved community fields need to generalize their interests toward the common good (allowing the regional community field to emerge).

No wonder regional collaboration is difficult!

I think this difficulty is why there is so much focus on development projects within communities – why go through six steps when you can go through three? And in some instances, problems truly are locality specific.

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But here’s the thing: both the local and regional community fields start with individuals – you and I. And as noted in Wilkinson’s six points, if we aren’t able to work on these problems are prevented from taking action, community doesn’t emerge. If we don’t have a certain level of well-being in our communities, no amount of development is going to change things – it’s going to be status quo at best!

Thus, by ensuring an adequate level of well-being, we set the stage for better interest around and engagement in local issues. So how do we get there and what does it look like?

In the next post I will talk more about well-being and what it means at both the individual and community level.


This post is adapted from a section of my doctoral dissertation, Resilience, Community, and Perceptions of Marcellus Shale Development in the Pennsylvania Wilds (2010).

Cited materials:

Flint, C.G., A.E. Luloff, and G.L. Theodori. 2009. Extending the concept of community interaction to explore regional community fields. Southern Rural Sociology 24(3): 1-13.

Wilkinson, K.P. 1992. Process of emergence of multicommunity collaboration. In Multicommunity Collaboration: An Evolving Rural Revitalization Strategy, Conference Proceedings; ed. P.F. Korsching et al., 259-264. Ames, IA: North Central Regional Center for Rural Development.

———. 1999. The Community in rural America. First Social Ecology Press Ed. Middleton, WI: Social Ecology Press. (Orig. Pub. 1991)

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