Society and the communities in which we live face some difficult challenges from resource consumption patterns. Large gaps are evident between those who are wealthy and the 1 in 6 people globally that live in poverty today. And the poverty is worsened by the fact that every day 24,000 people die of malnutrition – half of them children. Communities whether they are far away from where we live or right next door are disproportionately using up resources faster than they can be replaced. Simultaneously, other large population sections of the globe (e.g., Somalia) do not have enough resources available even to meet people’s basic needs of food and shelter. As long as more prosperous communities continue to live beyond their local availability of sustainable resources the situation of widening gaps between the rich and poor will continue to grow.
The response from many international development entities to the developing world is to offer short-term economic programs that might alleviate some of the poverty. But at what cost environmentally? Too often human improvement is encouraged that correspondingly degrades the ecological integrity of those locales where improvement is being sought. This leaves the community insecure over the long-term and concurrently has impacts well-beyond the boundaries of targeted improvement. For example, consider rainforest regions around the world at risk due to short-term development programs in farming and ranching. These encourage economic improvement that over time not only destroy the forest ecosystems but also impact global conditions from loss of biodiversity and large-scale effects on global climate change.
Communities must place their core values first, based upon the assets they possess. In many instances it comes down to differentiating “needs” from “wants.” Biophysical research and ecosystem science have contributed immensely to our understanding of the interdependent functions of nature and how recognition of interconnections is important to preventing unintended consequences from our actions. These efforts have led to the idea of conservation-based development. Similarly notable programs have focused upon helping communities examine their own assets as a means of achieving self-sufficient and sustainable livelihoods through such economic activities as “adding value.” And the principle of identifying criteria and indicators of human and ecological well-being that will usually include valuable assets and resources possessed by the community, has gained wide attention around the world as a way of designing for and adapting to continuing uncertainties toward improving situations of resiliency.
Sustainable community development (SCD) can succeed in the mainstream of community improvement provided that stakeholders encourage equitable distribution of resources. All peoples today should have access to sufficient resources (human, financial, environmental) to meet their needs, provided in a way that does not interfere with the ecological integrity of natural systems, so that similar options will be open to future generations. And these options will always depend upon having locally healthy environments and productive natural resources if community self-sufficiency (an element of sustainability) is a goal.
Resources, or assets, are those things that can be used to improve the quality of life in a community setting. They can be anything from people to places to organizations to material goods (e.g., librarian, the Nature Conservancy, wildlife, forests, rivers, etc.) and services (e.g., auto repair, ecosystem services). These resources and assets can be “captured” by individuals and organizations in order to improve the community. In applying asset and resource assessment tools the SCD practitioner will be able to assist community stakeholders in matching up needs and problems with locally available assets and resources that will further inform the planning and design process as any community development project unfolds. Ultimately these assets and resources may play a significant role in the implementation of a strategic sustainability plan developed by the community.
Examining a community’s resources and assets says another important thing about your approach to community development. Not everyone has the same view of what community development means. Some believe it refers to “development IN the community,” while others view it as “development OF the community.” Believe it or not, there is a big difference between the words “IN” and “OF” when speaking of community development.
Development “IN” the community suggests the major interest is on attracting new businesses, new facilities or new services to the community. It represents efforts to do all that can be done to add to the physical, service and economic infrastructure of a community. This is sometimes referred to as the “bricks and mortar” approach to community development.
Development “OF” the community, however, does not have the physical, service, and economic infrastructure as its major focus, at least not at first. Rather, it seeks to uncover and expand the knowledge and skills of people in the community. The belief is that community-wide improvements (be they physical, service, or economic infrastructure) cannot be fully realized unless people representing all parts of the community are involved in deciding their own future. So, the emphasis is on finding the talents that exist in the community and locating people with the potential for leadership. Building on the skills that people already have has proven the best foundation for dealing with the variety of community concerns. As such, asset mapping is an essential step in the development “OF” the community.
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