Friday, August 3, 2012

NextGenCD: Evolving Definitions

In honor of the upcoming NeighborWorks America Young Professionals symposium, we have collected several blog posts from those under 35 asking their feelings on the meaning of community development. Share your comments on Twitter using #NextGenCD.

Dani Rosen, NeighborWorks America
community scholar intern
NFMC Quality Control and Compliance
At each stage of my academic and professional life, “community development" has emerged as a different issue, program, or agenda. My interest in community development started at the local level – while I was working as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in Hudson County, New Jersey. While there, I saw community development as an effort to increase access to resources for families and individuals in need. This definition broadened while I studied as a Master of Urban Planning student at New York University (NYU). In the classroom, I learned about community development as neighborhood organizing. For example, the way Jane Jacobs fought to preserve the local character of homes and shops in Greenwich Village, New York.

Unfortunately though, I also came to understand that in many areas the phrase "community development" is used as a disguise for potentially unwanted change in a community in transition. Developers and city officials use the term to smooth over the introduction of out-of-context buildings or large commercial developments that could alter the nature of a specific neighborhood.

I currently understand community development as an investment in a specific area. The investment can be financial, political, or social and the area specified can be a block, a neighborhood, or a metro-area. With the right motives and support community development can make a substantial impact.  The strength of community development can best be seen in the depth and breadth of projects and programs available.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons
Community gardens are a great example of what community development can achieve at the local level. Community gardens have become incredibly popular in urban areas in the past few years. They come in all shapes and sizes and bring many different advantages to an area. Community gardens are social and financial investments that provide both education and opportunity for social interactions. They provide fresh produce, often to those who lack other access to fruits and vegetables. They also reinforce the connection to local land as residents work to transform patches of dirt into small, but beautiful natural spaces.

At the state level, community development has the potential to benefit a much larger audience. NJ After 3 is an initiative to provide quality after school programming for school-aged children in New Jersey.  The program goals include reducing gang involvement and increasing scholastic enrichment so that all members of the community have the opportunity for a better future. NJ After 3, and similar programs, fill a gap by giving working parents more structured time for their children when parents cannot be at home.

There are countless additional examples of community development addressing other issues at multiple levels of focus.  The value of each program rests in the benefits that are brought to the individuals and families involved.  Community development has the potential to be a “catch all” phrase but I think that is one of the most important strengths of the field. Because community development includes many different types of investments in a range of geographic sizes, successes are magnified and can be celebrated by the entire field.