University of FloridaSolutions for Your Life

Download PDF
Publication #FCS9207

IFAS Community Development: Toward a Consistent Definition of Community Development1

Mark A. Brennan, Michael Spranger, Randall Cantrell, and Muthusami Kumaran 2

This paper is part of a series of discussions on community development. This series will include specialized papers on civic engagement, community action, and other topics important to the development of community.


The need for community development is widely recognized, and it is the focus of much of our academic, Extension, and research efforts. However, there is an inconsistency in the definition, usage, and general understanding of what community development represents. To some, it is synonymous with economic development and is characterized by efforts to recruit industry and services. For example, business development, infrastructure improvements, and city planning all often fall under the description of community development. To others, community development serves to enhance the social realm that economies and other structures exist in. Included here are efforts to form locally based planning efforts and cross-community resident coalitions to enhance local decision-making.

Without a consistent definition of community development, our programs will do little to contribute to the overall improvement and well-being of our communities, and our development efforts are likely to benefit only select segments of our communities. Such development fails to maximize the diverse skills, knowledge, experience, and resources that exist within our communities.

Community development is a recognized discipline that has the interest from both community practitioners and academicians. Although it has been defined in many different ways, community development can be defined broadly into two categories. Academicians view community development as a process that provides individuals of a community the ability to act collectively and enhances the capacity of members within a community to improve their situation in their local area. Practitioners view community development as an outcome that improves the physical, social, economic, and environmental conditions in a community. In both cases, the end result is collective action in which local decision-makers and residents work together to improve the critical social, economic, and environmental conditions in their communities (Phillips and Pittman, 2009).

From an interactional perspective, community development is seen as a dynamic process involving diverse social groups (Wilkinson, 1991; Luloff and Swanson, 1995; Luloff and Bridger, 2003). All communities have numerous distinct groupings of people. Through these groups, people act to achieve various interests and goals. Finding common needs and connecting these diverse individual groups is central to community development. Meeting these general needs contributes to the greater well-being of the entire locality, while significantly enhancing local structures and/or institutions as well as the environment for small business, entrepreneurial efforts, and other locally based economic development. Furthermore, each of these groups presents an enormous range of skills, experiences, and methods for addressing local needs and problems. Bringing together these local assets allows for the maximization of local resources and development programs (Green and Haines, 2012).

The Development of Community

Community is important because it contributes to individual and social well-being by establishing and maintaining channels of communication, organizing resources to meet local needs, and providing a framework where the collective is more than the sum of its parts (Wilkinson, 1991). Community development can be seen as an action that is purposively directed towards altering local conditions in a positive way (Wilkinson, 1991; Luloff and Bridger, 2003; Phillips and Pitman, 2009). When specific projects are pursued with an emphasis on building social relationships and communication networks, community development has occurred. Community and community development are based on the assumption that they contribute to the social well-being and the self-actualization of community members. Community is enhanced when residents work together to address common issues. However, for development to be most effective and to maximize its impact within the locality, it must incorporate both social and economic needs. In understanding this process, the distinction between development of and development in community is important (Summers, 1986; Luloff and Swanson, 1995).

Development in and of Community

The term community development is sometimes used to represent social, environmental, or economic change. Many times, it is associated with the recruitment or establishment of industry and other economic structures. This constitutes development in community and is often characterized by attempts to enhance specific social components and structures (economies, institutions). This aspect of development is characterized by modernization, outside control of industry, and other characteristics associated with the “growth machine” image of development (Summer, 1986; Bridger and Luloff, 2003). In this context, a community is seen as a given and development is said to enhance this existing entity (Wilkinson, 1991).

From this development in perspective, clearly defined outcomes are envisioned, and their achievement signals the success and end of development. An example would include the recruitment of a chain store distribution center by a local community government. In this setting, a process exists in which plans are made to assess both local conditions and the potentially positive impact that a distribution center would have locally. If it is determined that the distribution center is desirable, then steps are taken to encourage the location of the industry within the community. Development plans then focus on the successful recruitment of this industry. The corporate decision to locate or not signals the success or failure of local development efforts. While such indicators or successes are important, focusing only on them ignores the significance of the social realm to the well-being of local residents.

The development in specific community areas and systems, while contributing to enhancements of the local community, is not sufficient to lead to the emergence of community. Simply enhancing local economies or structures does little to increase the social and cultural connections between residents or to communicate needs and opportunities throughout the locale.

The development of community seeks to enhance the social realm and relationships between people (Summers, 1986). It is the process of interaction, communication, and collective mobilization signaling the development of community that is important. Central to the development of perspective is the establishment of relationships and networks between diverse community members (Wilkinson, 1991; Luloff and Swanson, 1995; Luloff and Bridger, 2003). An example is the establishment of a local community council. Such an effort would begin by bringing together a diverse and representative grouping of the local population in a routine and focused setting. This process allows channels of communication to be established that cut across class and other dividing lines. Through the purposive assessment of skills, needs, and opportunities for action, locally based plans for community and economic development that reflect the community can be prepared. The success of individual plans in this setting is irrelevant. Through this development of community, a framework is presented that allows future efforts to be attempted. This model allows for long-term, community-based collective action to take place. Such efforts are purposive and serve as the basis for interaction that benefits the overall community.


Through community action and the purposive interaction of community members, the development of community takes place (Luloff and Bridger, 2003). This process provides a basis for social and economic development that benefits the entire community by representing all segments of the locale. By building and maintaining channels of communication and interaction, the development of community takes place. Without a local basis for economic and structural change, wide ranging and beneficial efforts cannot be expected (Wilkinson, 1991; Luloff and Swanson, 1995). The development of community and in community can, and should, take place together; one does not preclude the other. Only by developing strong, local social bonds can more effective, focused, and reliable economic development plans be established.


Green, G.P. and A. Haines. 2012. Asset Building and Community Development. (3rd Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press, Inc.

Luloff, A.E., and J. Bridger. 2003. “Community Agency and Local Development.” Pp. 203-13 in Challenges for Rural America in the Twenty-First Century, edited by D. Brown and L. Swanson. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Luloff, A. E. and L. Swanson. 1995. "Community Agency and Disaffection: Enhancing Collective Resources." Pp. 351-72 in Investing in People: The Human Capital Needs of Rural America, edited by L. Beaulieu and D. Mulkey. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Phillips, R. and R.H. Pittman. 2009. (eds.) An Introduction to Community Development. New York, NY: Routledge.

Summers, G. 1986. “Rural Community Development.” Annual Review of Sociology. 12:341-71.

Wilkinson, K. 1991. The Community in Rural America. New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Suggested Websites

Civic Practices Network

Community Resource Group

Community Tool Box

The Community Development Society

International Association for Community Development

International Economic Development Council

Southern Rural Development Center

Sustainable Development Communication Network

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Rural and Community Development

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Rural Development

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Community Development



This document is FCS9207, one of a series of the Family Youth and Community Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date December 2004. Revised January 2014. Reviewed January 2014. Visit the EDIS website at


Mark A. Brennan, PhD, former faculty member, assistant professor; Michael Spranger, PhD, professor; Randall Cantrell, PhD, assistant professor; and Muthusami Kumaran, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.