COMM-ORG Papers 2003

Neighborhood Strengthening through Community Building

Suzanne M. Singh


~ Abstract
~ Introduction: From the University Back to Reality
~ Review of Literature
  1. Community Building Defined
  2. Principles of Community Building
  3. Concepts underlying community building principles
~ Community Building Strategies for Neighborhood Improvement
  1. Leadership Development
  2. Community Organizing
  3. Organizational Development
~ Community Building in Action: A Case Study in Louisville, Kentucky
  1. Individual Level Skill Building Through Leadership Training
  2. Organizational Level Development Through Community Organizing
  3. Network level through coalitions of neighborhood groups
~ Limitations and Challenges to Community Building
~ About the Author
~ Recommendations
~ Notes
~ References



Current trends in neighborhood improvement initiatives show alignment with an emerging community building philosophy that values resident participation and decision making, emphasizes the importance of local conditions, and develops the capacity of residents to work toward long-term solutions. Community building projects can not replace the traditional work of social service provision and physical revitalization in neighborhoods. However, efforts to build the capacity of residents through community building strategies can lead to greater citizen participation and increase the sustainability of long-term initiatives to strengthen neighborhoods. Community building efforts in Louisville, Kentucky offer examples of the philosophy in action and highlight the success of place based resident driven initiatives. Although there are limitations and challenges to the work in any community, strategies for neighborhood development that embrace the community building philosophy can have a greater impact on community buy-in and long-tern sustainability.


Current trends in neighborhood improvement initiatives show alignment with an emerging community building philosophy that values resident participation and decision making, emphasizes the importance of local conditions, and develops the capacity of residents to work toward long-term solutions and sustainability. Tough neighborhoods facing multiple challenging conditions often are assisted with revitalization efforts focused on physical and economic development. Community building takes neighborhood development and revitalization to the human and social level. Instead of focusing solely on physical and infrastructure improvements in a neighborhood, community building initiatives turn their attention to people and the relationships and skills they need to strive in challenged communities. There is a collection of research that has influenced the shift to a community building approach, including works on sense of community, concentrated poverty, social capital and civic engagement.

Across the U. S., there are a growing number of examples of initiatives based in the philosophy of community building. Residents are engaged in designing and managing projects to improve their neighborhoods and community organizations offer capacity building support to neighborhood residents and groups through leadership development, community organizing and organizational development. These activities occur at the individual, organizational and network level. Metro United Way in Louisville, Kentucky is one group that is investing time and resources into initiatives based in the community building philosophy. Since 1997, the "Vital Neighborhoods" community investment initiative has been researching issues of community building and experimenting with investments in neighborhood based projects to create community change.

The limitations and challenges to community building work lie primarily in relationship, process, and technical issues. Community building strategies have not replaced short-term professional social service interventions such as job training, youth programming, and direct assistance for families and individuals in need. Instead, these initiatives seek to enhance opportunities for individuals to build relationships and acquire skills to identify solutions to local problems and act collectively for the good of the neighborhood.

Review of Literature

Much has been written recently about community building and other closely related topics in response to Robert Putnam's popular work on social capital and increased attention from national foundations in the field of community capacity building. Several scholars offer definitions of the work that can be synthesized into common principles of community building philosophy. Research on the topics of sense of community, concentrated poverty, social capital, and civic engagement reveals the theoretical background driving the community building movement.

  1. Community building defined

"Community building refers to activities, practices, and policies that support and foster positive connections among individuals, groups, organizations, neighborhoods, and geographic or functional communities" (Weil 1996, p. 482). It is guided by the shared values and vision of a community and enhanced by the development of skills in individuals and groups to effectively plan and act on collective strategies to create positive change (Chaskin et al 2001; Green and Haines 2002; Weil 1996). Efforts designed to build community value resident empowerment, consider the unique conditions of place, and rely on community assets to improve conditions.

  2. Principles of community building

Although there is not one agreed upon definition of community building, several common themes emerge from the literature upon which most discussions are based. The themes described below are common principles guiding the work of those who subscribe to community building philosophy.

        Place based

Initiatives aimed at improving conditions in a particular neighborhood(1) are tailored to unique local conditions. One-size models and approaches do not fit all communities. Some neighborhoods experience a concentration of poverty and challenging conditions that require more specialized and intense support. (Ellen and Turner 1997; Green and Haines 2002; Kretzman and McKnight 1993; Mohan and Mohan 2002; Naparstek and Dooley 1997).

        Asset based

Every community, challenged or not, is believed to have a local reserve of skills, talents, gifts, and resources to lend to improvement efforts. Assets exist in the innate untapped qualities of individuals, local organizations such as churches and business, and collective creativity and talent of residents (Chaskin et al 2001; Green and Haines 2002; Kretzman and McKnight 1993; Naparstek and Dooley 1997; Warner 2001).

        Public participation

There is value in the involvement of large numbers of people in civic activities acting collectively or individually. The term public is intentionally chosen over citizen participation to ensure the inclusion of the growing population of individuals in communities who do not possess the rights of citizenship (Chaskin et al 2001; Green and Haines 2002; Kretzman and McKnight 1993; Nash 2001; Weil 1996).

        Resident decision making

Broad resident participation is an important key to community building. In this model residents have opportunities to impact decisions that affect their neighborhood and their lives. Resident decision making moves participation beyond token seats on boards and commissions or public hearings on decisions that have already been made. Residents gain community control and become planners and decision makers (Chaskin et al 2001; Green and Haines 2002; Kretzman and McKnight 1993; Naparstek and Dooley 1997; O'Hara 1999). There is a merger of professional technical knowledge with resident street knowledge and experience to design community solutions (Friedman 1973; Green and Haines 2002).

        Collective action

Residents identify their long-term hopes and dreams for the neighborhood and develop solutions toward a shared vision or common good (Chaskin et al 2001; Forrest and Kearns 2001; Kretzman and McKnight 1993; Naparstek and Dooley 1997; Nash 2001; Weil 1996). Increased participation and a role in decision making builds the opportunity for groups of residents to take action toward positive improvement, beyond the individual.

        Relationship building

Networks are developed within the neighborhood among members of the community (Chaskin et al 2001; Nash 2001) as well as making connections to the larger community, outside the neighborhood (Chaskin et al 2001; Kretzman and McKnight 1993; Weil 1996).

        Comprehensive and integrated approach

The neighborhood is seen as a whole. Services and initiatives are created and administered in recognition of other programs in the neighborhood and where possible coordination or collaboration occurs (Green and Haines 2002; Kretzman and McKnight 1993; Naparstek and Dooley 1997). There is an understanding of how people and programs interact and affect one another.

  3.  Concepts underlying community building principles

The literature supporting community building principles covers discussions on sense of community, concentration of poverty, social capital, and civic engagement. Although scholars have not engaged in much empirical research in community building, some case studies around the U.S. offer suggestions for strategies to develop the capacity of residents to improve their neighborhoods.

        Sense of community

Since the turn of the century, scholars have written about a continuing loss of sense of community and connection to place. Sense of community relates to the level of connectedness among residents and shared circumstance within geographical boundaries (Chaskin 2001). The urbanization(2) of cities and advances in transportation and communication technologies are most often cited as the cause of a decline in community (Chaskin 2001; Hunter 1975; Talen 1999; Wilson and Baldassare 1996; Wirth 1938). "The effects of urban migration were to uproot old ways of life, destroy folkways and mores, and create confusion in thought and contradictions in behavior" (Lyon 1987, p. 88). Increases in personal mobility and communication, such as the internet, give people the freedom to choose their community and rely less on spatial proximity (Forrest and Kearns 2001). Kasarda and Janowitz (1974) found no effect of size and density on attachment to place. Hunter (1975) found an increase of sense of community in one urbanized neighborhood due to the influx of residents consciously seeking out community in an urban setting.

Some argue that attachment to place may indeed be weakening as people develop relationships outside of their kinship/friendship circles traditionally based on geography, and are building instead communities of interest that are not necessarily linked to place. Whether they are called secondary relationships, weak ties, or bridging capital, relationships outside the neighborhood have grown tremendously over the last century (Chaskin 2001; Green and Haines 2002; Hunter and Suttles 1972; Putnam 2000; Talen 1999; Wirth 1938). While communities of interest are less attached to place they are not necessarily void of community, although some scholars argue that increased access to society and freedom of association leads to partial communities, fragmentation of interests and decreased effectiveness (Berger 1998; Hunter and Suttles 1972). Sense of community can also be hampered by resident mobility and turnover increasing instability and loss of familiarity and trust that is so essential to community building at the place based level (Chaskin 2001; Forrest and Kearns 2001).

        Concentration of poverty:

Research shows that place does matter when it comes to predicting outcomes for individuals and families (Chaskin 2001; Ellen and Turner 1997). Low income areas lack conditions that foster social cohesion (Forrest and Kearns 2001). Place becomes more important to low income and elderly residents due to their lack of mobility (Forrest and Kearns 2001) and may experience isolation due to weak social connections with mainstream society, becoming constrained to the meager services and supports that exist within the neighborhood (Ellen and Turner 1997; Green and Haines 2002). Individuals with relationships outside their communities are less likely to be influenced by their neighborhood environment and have a broader network of opportunities (Ellen and Turner 1997).

The decay of central city neighborhoods can be explained by a loss of resources and other forms of capital through disinvestment and migration of residents leading to a loss of connectedness and community (Mohan and Mohan 2002). William Julius Wilson argued that the rising conditions of poverty in inner-city neighborhoods could be explained in economic terms as employment moves into the suburbs, manufacturing jobs decline, and low-wage service jobs increase (Green and Haines 2002).

"The coexistence of problems within a neighborhood creates a mutually reinforcing process of decay that in turn limits the effectiveness of narrowly focused initiatives" (Naparstek and Dooley 1997, p. 510). The Annie E. Casey Foundation(3) is researching the effectiveness of place-based comprehensive improvement through their Making Connections initiative. The Foundation's research on indicators of child well-being revealed that 50% of negative outcomes experienced by children in the U.S. can be linked to less than 700 neighborhoods across the country (Nelson 2001a). "In New York state, for example, a study showed that 80 percent of the state's incarcerated young adult male population had grown up in only seven of the state's zip codes. In Iowa, it is estimated that almost two-thirds of the state's most negative child statistics can be traced to families who reside in two areas of one city." (Nelson 2001b). Casey's work is founded in the belief that tough neighborhoods can be transformed by focusing intense efforts on areas across the country with high concentrations of poverty.

Even with strong evidence supporting a need for place based initiatives, some scholars argue that work in homogeneous communities can be exclusionary and divisive within the larger context of a city. They believe that the focus on place detracts from a regional development perspective (Green and Haines 2002). Others criticize the lack of attention of research aimed at measuring the effectiveness of strong neighborhoods. "In the recent revival of interest in issues of community and neighborhood, the tendency has been to focus almost exclusively on disadvantaged and poor neighborhoods. This reflects research driven by a policy agenda rather than one which seeks to provide a more rounded view of neighbourhood dynamics and in particular the similarities or differences between neighbourhoods" (Forrest and Kearns 2001, p.2141). Targeting only impoverished areas fails to capture the general benefits of social capital and community connections to prevent the deterioration successful neighborhoods (Nash 2001).

        Social capital

Social capital can be defined as the mutual benefit from "the norms, shared understandings, trust, and other factors that make collective action feasible and productive" (Green and Haines 2002, p. ix). The term capital presumes that investments will yield returns in the condition of social connectedness and engagement leading to improvements in the overall quality of community life (Green and Haines 2002). Social capital facilitates collective action of groups and is seen as a building block for other forms of capital such as human, physical, financial and environmental (Green and Haines 2002). Common measures of social capital include voting, membership in voluntary organizations, attendance at local meetings, use of local facilities, and social interaction between neighbors (Green and Haines 2002).

High levels of social capital in a community can enhance the civic infrastructure, impacting public participation and community input in decision making (Warner 2001). Some scholars suggest that social capital impacts economic growth in communities and may be more important than human capital (Mohan and Mohan 2002; Putnam 1993) as trust increases between individuals and with the government. But this point has been criticized due to the number of variables that affect economic development (Green and Haines 2002).

Social capital exists within geographic areas, among neighbors and family members, and other groups that share common characteristics, referred to as strong ties, primary associations or bonding capital. Social capital also exists among weak or secondary ties in communities of interest, helping to build bridging capital between economic and social groups (Putnam 2000; Warner 2001). Poorer communities often lack access to capital (Green and Haines 2002).

In Robert Putnam's popular book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community", he suggests several causes for a decline in social capital including increased time pressures, residential mobility, increased labor force participation of women, growth of the welfare state, growth of suburbs, but places blame most heavily on television (Putnam 2000). Critics of Putnam's work argue that social capital is not declining but simply changing form. People are engaging in alternative forms of associations, beyond what traditionally has been studied, that may be more difficult to measure. Examples of emerging communities of interest include workplace associations, internet communities, and special interest or political groups where participation is minimal as paid professionals engage in associational activities (Mohan and Mohan 2002).

        Civic engagement

"As residents are isolated from the decisions which affect their own lives and livelihood, communication, networking, citizen involvement, community identity and trust are eroded as well" (O'Hara 1999, p. 1330). There are numerous societal benefits from resident participation and engagement in public affairs. Public participation is the foundation of democratic process (Green and Haines 2002). An engaged public leads to a community of active residents who are more knowledgeable about their city and, if involved in community decision making, more supportive of public projects (Forrest and Kearns 2001; Green and Haines 2002). Communities with higher levels of interaction between citizens and public officials are more likely to experience a greater degree of trust in local government and increase the accountability of public officials (Green and Haines 2002). City planners and other professionals can tap into resident experience to gather street level information for planning and revitalization and capture community interest and support, improving participation in overall civic life (O'Hara 1999). From a resident organizing perspective, there is power in numbers speaking with a common voice. It is easier for residents to join in a public debate if they are not speaking out alone (Green and Haines 2002).

Neighborhood conditions impact the level of resident participation (Ellen and Turner 1997) and community strategies to increase involvement are often focused on areas facing multiple challenging conditions. For example, people who live in high crime areas are less likely to engage in activities outside of their homes, leaving them isolated from vital social connections that foster personal and community development (Ellen and Turner 1997). In low income communities there are additional barriers to participation that do not necessarily exist in more affluent areas such as language and culture, access to decision makers, institutional barriers to process (O'Hara 1999), child care, transportation, and access to information (Green and Haines 2002). Lack of time to participate is a universal challenge to civic involvement.

Although central to community building work, public participation has its limitations. The process of decision making is complicated by the complexity of society and human nature. Some communities may exhibit homogenous characteristics but their inhabitants may not always be of like mind when it comes to decision making. Communities are collections of people and organizations with relationships and interests that may not always align (Chaskin 2001; Green and Haines 2002). With the addition or withdrawal of a member of a group there is the potential to shift dynamics and the outcome of collective decisions.

It can be difficult to determine who is the legitimate representative of a neighborhood (Chaskin 2001). Neighborhood stakeholders can include businesses and other organizations in addition to residents, each with a vested interest in maintaining or improving area conditions. Governments tend to identify officially recognized leaders who speak on behalf of the neighborhood without necessarily representing the interests of the residents. Public officials maintain closer control with a handful of carefully selected community leaders that maintain a disproportionate amount of influence in governmental activities and decision making compared to other residents from the neighborhood (Green and Haines 2002).

Community Building Strategies for Neighborhood Improvement

Neighborhoods lacking internal resources or connections to broad social networks necessary for improvement can turn to community building organizations(4)

for not only traditional assistance to meet short-term needs, but also for services and support that build the capacity of residents to participate effectively in decisions that affect their lives. Chaskin (2001) defines community capacity as "the interaction of human capital, organizational resources, and social capital existing within a given community that can be leveraged to solve collective problems and improve or maintain the well-being of a given community" (p. 295). It is the ability of residents to participate effectively in community life through collective problem-solving, translating plans into action (Chaskin 2001; Chaskin et al 2001, Green and Haines 2002). Capacity involves access to resources (economic, human, physical, political), networks and relationships both within and outside of the neighborhood (Chaskin 2001; Chaskin et al 2001; Naparstek and Dooley 1997).

Neighborhoods with capacity experience high levels of resident participation and empowerment, trust and support among neighbors, a sense of safety and belonging, common purpose and collective norms and values (Forrest and Kearns 2001). Where it may be lacking, community can be created (Warner 2001) through organizing, development, and planning leading eventually to change (Weil 1996). In areas where capacity is weak or seemingly non-existent, community building organizations provide support through a variety of strategies including leadership and skill development, community organizing, and organizational development (Chaskin 2001). The capacity building, or self-help approach, "assumes that increasing the capacity of residents to address their problems will result in improvements in the quality of life and the ability of residents to help themselves in the future" (Green and Haines 2002, p. 14).

  1. Leadership Development

Through leadership development, residents can build the skills and knowledge they need to perform effectively in their neighborhood. Training programs connect participants to resources and help them build relationships inside and outside of their community (Chaskin 2001, Chaskin et al 2001). Most programs are designed to assist participants in learning or improving technical skills, engaging in or leading group process, and managing external relationships. Technical skills may include financial management of an association, newsletter design and publication, events coordination, public speaking, fundraising/grantwriting, or planning. Problem-solving, relationship building, meeting facilitation, conflict management, and communication are critical skills to manage group process. In addition to training focused on running an effective organization, participants need to learn how to work with community stakeholders outside of the neighborhood through collaboration, building and managing relationships, working with government and the media, and tapping into community resources.

Capacity building at the individual level presumes "that most neighborhoods include enough people with adequate leadership capacity and interest to make the community function well if they can be identified, encouraged, trained, and supported" (Chaskin et al 2001, p. 30). It is advantageous to develop a broad set of leaders who can bring new ideas (Green and Haines 2002) and enhanced skills to transition into formal mainstream leadership roles.

  2. Community Organizing

Community organizing attempts to increase the awareness of residents about particular issues or problems and hopefully incite them to action. It involves recruitment and motivation for others to participate. Much organizing occurs around immediate short-term needs or threats to a community. Organizing in response to threats can lead to confrontational activities as exemplified in the Conflict model of organizing of the 1960's associated with the work of Saul Alinsky (1971). Other efforts to organize have embraced a consensus model based on collaboration and common vision. This type of organizing is focused on long-term planning with a future orientation. In this case, community building organizations can guide an organized group of residents through a visioning process to think about the future and the desired results they hope to achieve (Green and Haines 2002). Relationships are built through formal or informal gatherings to bring people together to create long-lasting networks of cooperation and collective response (Chaskin 2001; Green and Haines 2002; Naparstek and Dooley 1997). Regardless of which method is used, community organizing can change the way residents work with each other and how they are treated by community at-large (Chaskin 2001; Naparstek and Dooley 1997).

  3. Organizational development

Formal organizations provide continuity in neighborhoods and lessen the impact of leadership turnover. Effective organizations can capture broad expertise and skill sets from its collective membership (Chaskin 2001; Green and Haines 2002). Community building organizations can assist resident groups in becoming formally recognized in the community through articles of incorporation and the development of by-laws. Formal organizations can benefit from board and staff development, guidance in strategic planning, and skill development in fundraising, analysis and evaluation, and financial management (Green and Haines 2002). Community building organizations can facilitate learning opportunities with other groups and provide residents access to facilities and equipment (Chaskin et al 2001).

Aside from direct work in leadership development, organizing and organizational support, community building organizations can apply indirect strategies as well. Through their relationships inside and outside communities, they become a bridge between isolated residents and the larger community, breaking down barriers of access and trust. These organizations convene broad and diverse community groups to engage in dialogue. They capture the learning of successes and challenges to share with other struggling neighborhood groups and help to build relationships and support networks across neighborhood boundaries leading to increased interorganizational collaboration (Chaskin et al, 2001; Weil 1996). If funding is available, community building organizations make direct investments in neighborhood plans or lend organizational clout to persuade adoption of plans by public officials.

Community Building in Action: A Case Study in Louisville, Kentucky

The concentration of problems faced by children, adults and families are not evenly or randomly scattered across cities. They are clustered in places-neighborhoods-where families have the least and face the greatest challenges. Metro United Way, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, has a commitment to strengthening neighborhoods as one of four community visions, or investment priorities. A team of diverse volunteer community leaders, called the Vital Neighborhoods Community Investment Team, supports neighborhood associations and neighborhood support organizations with financial resources, technical assistance, opportunities for learning and sharing, and works to leverage relationships and resources outside the community. Over the past three years this group has invested over $1.5 million to support 40 neighborhood-based programs.

The Vital Neighborhoods Team took considerable time at its formation in 1997 to review current literature in the community building field, researching other initiatives throughout the country, and defining its own philosophy and strategy of neighborhood transformation. The Team held numerous forums with neighborhood leaders, neighborhood-based agencies, leadership institutions, and local government representatives. Through this dialogue the Team learned about the city's neighborhoods, their level of development, major issues affecting them, gaps in support services, and internal and external political struggles.

The Team identified characteristics of a vital neighborhood and discovered that neighborhoods in Louisville are at different stages of development. Few are organized and have the capacity to develop and execute neighborhood-transforming plans. During its first venture grant process, the Team learned that many neighborhood groups do not have the skills to draft strong proposals to acquire funding for programs that are important to them. In addition, a strong collective body of residents is missing within some neighborhoods that is capable of developing a unified strategy for neighborhood development.

Community building philosophy is the foundation of the Vital Neighborhoods Team's work, believing that programs supporting neighborhoods should be resident-driven, developed specifically for a particular neighborhood's conditions, and focused on assets, or what is good about the neighborhood. Locally, neighborhood leaders have embraced the philosophy of "doing for oneself". They have grown frustrated with outsiders telling them what is wrong with their community, how they think it should be fixed, and trying to fix it for them. Neighborhood residents have the desire to build their own plan for success, but frequently lack the capacity and tools to be effective. It takes more than a handful of residents to ensure a neighborhood's long-term success necessitating continuous recruitment and development of new leadership.

The Vital Neighborhoods Team created a specific theory of change and neighborhood transformation that guides their work and investment decisions. This theory recognizes that neighborhoods are in different places in terms of their development into fully functioning units of organization with empowered citizens and face unique conditions that require creative solutions and support.

Some neighborhoods are very well organized and exert a high level of power and self-determination in the city. They have hierarchies of well-networked associations. Residents are active and influential and perhaps only lack financial assistance to carry out their work. On the other end of the continuum, neighborhoods, particularly in the more challenged areas of the city, may have no formally organized civic structure. Existing neighborhood leadership is aging and new leaders are not being trained and cultivated to fill the void. Apathy toward change exists among residents who do not experience community support and feel overlooked and neglected, hopeless and tired of trying. Somewhere in between are neighborhoods that are in the process of organizing or are organized but have weak leadership or are struggling to define goals and plan for change. Many neighborhoods are not in a position, or simply lack the tools and resources, to effectively plan and advocate for changes and improved conditions. At the far right of the continuum, organized neighborhoods work across geographical boundaries to share information and expertise.

In response to the gaps in support for neighborhoods to achieve their goals, the Vital Neighborhoods Team identified the following community outcome as the focus of its work: Residents of challenged neighborhoods are actively involved in defining community assets and needs, and work to improve the quality of life in the community. Their vision is for all of Louisville's neighborhoods to be places in which people want to live, rather than places residents dream of leaving. The Team's primary function is to offer funding opportunities for groups and organizations aligned with two basic categories of programming:

1) short-term projects designed and led by neighborhood groups to increase resident involvement and sense of belonging to the community, and

2) longer-term capacity building programs through organizations that support neighborhood groups to develop skills or action plans for change.

Investment in neighborhood groups, including established neighborhood associations, informal community groups, or coalitions of neighborhood associations must be driven and managed by residents in a particular neighborhood. These groups are open geographically based associations, formal or informal, that are developing or already have a collective vision for maintaining or improving the quality of life in their neighborhood. The issue categories of most concern to them are: crime and safety, collective consumption (parks, waste removal, roads), lifestyle (housing), and development (physical or economic) (Green and Haines 2002). Most programs funded by the Team center around a model of resident recruitment and participation through community building activities. According to the model, resident participation can lead to involvement in the association or group, increasing community awareness and communication among residents, beautification and pride, issue identification and problem-solving, and assessment and planning for the future. Grants to neighborhood groups cover a one-year period and are viewed as start-up or seed money as opposed to on-going commitments. The most typical grant falls between $10-15,000.

Neighborhood support organizations are agencies that provide services or programs to residents in specific neighborhoods or to collections of neighborhood leaders from multiple neighborhoods. Support services include leadership training programs, strategic assessment and planning, skill development such as meeting facilitation or conflict management, and organizational development activities such as board assessment and recruitment, developing articles of incorporation and by-laws.

The majority of the capacity building groups funded by the Vital Neighborhoods Team are larger agencies with a track record of effectiveness in a particular neighborhood. Their work is based on existing relationships in the community and these agencies must exhibit strong support from the neighborhood group it intends to serve and produce a plan to involve neighborhood residents in the planning and evaluation of the project to be eligible for funding. The capacity building organizations typically develop the skills of individuals through leadership training or work with existing or emerging groups to develop and strengthen their organizations. Grants in this category may be multi-year projects and have ranged from $5,000 to $80,000.

Building community capacity can be approached at three levels: 1) through individuals, 2) through organizations, or 3) through networks of associations (Chaskin et al 2001). Over the past four years, the Vital Neighborhoods team has invested in programs aligned with each of these three levels. Examples of each level are highlighted below.

  1. Individual Level Skill Building Through Leadership Training

The Louisville Community Design Center offers a 13-week Neighborhood Institute for grassroots residents with some prior experience in neighborhood issues. The curriculum covers such topics as community organizing and recruitment, issue identification and problem-solving, consensus building and conflict management, working with city officials and accessing other community resources and networks. Typically 40-45 applicants are selected from neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan region. Great care is taken to select a balanced roster of class members to ensure representation of the diversity of the community. Although participants achieve personal development through the course, a far greater benefit is the relationships and learning that they share across neighborhood boundaries. Former participants have moved into leadership roles on boards and city commissions, held public office and served as leaders within their own neighborhood associations.

The Americana Community Center provides leadership training to a more specialized group of residents. The Americana Apartments complex is home to Louisville's highest concentration of recently settled refugees. These residents are healing scars from persecution in their home country and tackling language and cultural barriers as they transition to a new way of life. In addition to social support services for these families, the Center also offers training in leadership development focusing not only on personal skill development, such as public speaking and communication, but also educating participants on their rights and responsibilities as residents in this country. The first class usually begins with understanding first amendment rights. Some participants come from countries where it is illegal to speak out against government officials or where it may be forbidden to organize. Most residents will move out of the apartment complex within two to three years and the hope is that they are better prepared to engage in community life wherever they live.

  2. Organizational Level Development Through Community Organizing

The Concerned Association of Russell Residents, an emerging resident association in an area of heavy revitalization, is organizing neighbors to assess and document the physical state of the neighborhood. Residents canvas the neighborhood with disposable cameras recording blighted property and other problem areas. They create a grid covering the location of the site in question, the condition of the property, why it is disruptive to the neighborhood, possible solutions to problems and who is a potential partner with the authority to create a change in the condition. The resident group presents its findings to city officials, police and other community leaders in a forum designed to collectively solve the problems while building relationships. Because of their efforts, vacant lots have been cleared of debris, sidewalks installed, and homes repaired.

The Clifton Community Council developed a comprehensive neighborhood plan to address the residents' collective vision for the future. While resident participation in the planning process was broad and inclusive, the Council realized that there were still pockets of community members who did not participate. Clifton is home to a number of renters, immigrants and refugees, and has a sizeable visually impaired population. The Council has been working to identify pockets of underrepresented residents to develop small empowerment projects in the hopes of connecting residents to the neighborhood association. A small pool of funds is used to support micro-projects for each group to foster a sense of ownership and belonging in the neighborhood. Through these projects, existing leaders anticipate the attraction of new members to the Council and greater representation from all segments of their community.

The Phoenix Hill Association has traditionally focused on housing development in the neighborhood with leadership historically limited to business and professionals in the neighborhood and few residents. With a HOPE VI revitalization project on the horizon for part of the neighborhood, the Association decided that now is the time to build their membership to reflect the true diversity of the neighborhood and spend less time on housing development and more attention to building relationships and a stronger sense of community. Through a newsletter to increase awareness of neighborhood activities coupled with monthly community festivals and events, the Association has succeeded in bringing residents together and building a solid membership base. These intense recruitment efforts have led to an increase in both the number and diversity of residents involved in the Association.

  3. Network Level Through Coalitions of Neighborhood Groups

The Louisville Coalition of Neighborhoods began its planning work in early 2002 shortly after the City of Louisville and Jefferson County decided to merge governments. This impending event was seen as an opportunity for neighborhood associations across the region to gain a more powerful voice in the governance of the community. The Coalition grew out of discussions at the 2001 Neighborhood Institute, referenced above, where neighborhood leaders voiced a desire to work across neighborhood boundaries to share information and resources with each other for the benefit of the community. A diverse set of individuals in the same community system with a common vision can increase the number of leverage points to affect change within the system (Chaskin et al 2001). As they continue to develop, the Coalition's primary goals are to share information and expertise, advocate for neighborhood quality of life issues, and work with the new merged government and its agencies to ensure a collective neighborhood voice in decision making.

Limitations and Challenges to Community Building

Changing entire communities is a long-term and intensive process in terms of time and effort (Warner 2001). There are many challenges that can impede the work no matter how well planned. People and society are complex and on occasion unpredictable and volatile creatures. Changes in place are affected by multiple internal and external conditions that often can not be controlled simultaneously. Some complications come from interpersonal or historical experiences, some center around the process of transformation and community building, while others are merely technical issues.

In many communities there are barriers to engagement with outsiders based on past negative experiences that have left residents suspicious and void of trust. Government programs and other outside initiatives are perceived as using residents to meet funding requirements, or working with residents and building hopes and dreams until the funding dries up along with the community support. What is left is a sense of hopelessness, abandon (Chaskin 2001), and lack of trust for the larger community. Where these conditions exist, it takes community building organizations a very long time to rebuild confidence and establish relationships (O'Hara 1999). Once engaged, tension may exist between residents with short-term orientations who desire quick fixes and immediate results, and those who have a longer-term vision for sustainability and systems change (Chaskin 2001a). Additionally, problems can arise from the jargon-filled communication style of professionals that curtails dialogue with grassroots residents (Friedman 1973; O'Hara 1999).

The work of community building can be viewed as inefficient not only because it is time-consuming but also because it is process heavy and may not respond quickly to opportunities (Green and Haines 2002). With a high reliance on partnerships and collaboration, groups and individuals need to determine roles and responsibilities and develop methods for achieving consensus and decision making (Chaskin 2001). Groups participating in collaborative efforts are often working on two fronts, both internal to the neighborhood and externally to build relationships and tap into a broader base of resources (Chaskin 2001). Partnerships between residents and professionals can pose challenges in dialogue and flow of information. Residents may lack the technical knowledge to solve problems and can be intimidated by the planning and decision making process (Chaskin 2001; Friedman 1973). Critics of past community involvement programs argued that the poor are not prepared to assume power (Green and Haines 2002).

The difficulties associated with process are further complicated by challenges in data collection at the neighborhood level for planning and project evaluation. There is a bias toward quantitative analytical measures by professionals rather than qualitative social practical knowledge of residents (Friedman 1973; O'Hara 1999). Census data does not capture information on social capital and disaggregated data is difficult to find, leading project analysts and evaluators to rely solely on qualitative measures or engage in costly primary data collection (Ellen and Turner 1997; Mohan and Mohan 2002). Neighborhoods matter but research has not been able to explain empirically how they matter (Ellen and Turner 1997). There is no one model that explains the role of neighborhood in an individual's life. Much of the research on neighborhoods is focused only on neighborhoods of poverty rather than learning what leads to strong successful neighborhoods. In order to implement strategies to alleviate conditions of poverty in neighborhoods, practitioners need to know more about what works and why.

Finally, there exists scholarly debate over the goals of community building. Some will argue that project outcomes or specific desired end results or changes in neighborhood conditions are what matter most. Others believe the success of an initiative is based on the increase of resident capacity to identify and achieve long-term results, or the means to improving quality of neighborhood life (Chaskin 2001; Chaskin et al 2001; Green and Haines 2002). The debate boils down to programmatic versus procedural approaches to community building.


Despite the drawbacks and challenges of community building, there is still enough evidence to support an emphasis on place based efforts to build the capacity of residents to acquire skills and resources to develop their own power and expertise to improve neighborhood conditions. The work is not based in interventions to ameliorate isolated conditions nor does it set out to "fix" other people's problems or maladies. Instead it is based on a set of guiding principles, a philosophy of positive community change and assumptions of how resident involvement can be sustained over time (Chaskin 2001). Social capital and civic involvement are important to building a sense of community and connection to place. Research will no doubt continue as to whether or not we have lost a sense of community throughout urban areas and how place makes a difference in accessing resources and networks that build capital. Ellen and Turner's (1997) call for research in successful neighborhoods can lead to a greater understanding of what works and why. This learning would be helpful in discovering what is missing in challenged neighborhoods and experimenting with initiatives to combat negative conditions.

Every city, every neighborhood, is unique. There is not a single model or program that can be used across the board in every case. But, there are principles that can guide the work and successful strategies implemented across the country that can be tailored to fit a community's unique conditions. Community capacity building alone is not enough to solve the mulitplicity of challenges facing neighborhoods. But combined with other efforts such as housing development, job training, economic initiatives and social services, involved and skilled residents can help to share the efforts at transforming and strengthening their communities.

About the Author

Suzanne Singh has over 10 years of experience in the community development and capacity building field, including work in the U.S. and Eastern Europe. Ms. Singh is currently the Associate Director of Community Building for Metro United Way in Louisville, Kentucky, specializing in neighborhood development and community capacity building initiatives.

Ms. Singh's previous experience includes managing a medical assistance exchange program with Romania and Poland, coordinating an AmeriCorps VISTA literacy initiative in eight rural Kentucky counties and providing technical assistance in the Romanian education system after the fall of the communist government through the Peace Corps. Ms. Singh is working on a Ph.D. in Urban and Public Affairs, holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration, a Bachelors Degree in International Affairs and certification in Non-Profit Leadership.


1. Examples of place based strategies include President Clinton's Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Zones initiatives and the settlement house movement that responded to increasing numbers of immigrants around the turn of the century. "Settlement houses functioned a s neighborhood intermediaries that had a mission to provide comprehensive and integrated services, address community problems, and carry out a broad social reform agenda" (Chaskin et al 2001, p. 79)

2. Urbanization is frequently measured by increases in population, density, and heterogeneity of urban areas

3.  Making Connections is the centerpiece of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's multi-faceted effort to improve the life chances of vulnerable children by helping to strengthen their families and neighborhoods. The primary aim of the effort is to stimulate and support a local movement that engages residents, civic groups, political leaders, grassroots groups, public and private sector leadership, and faith-based organizations in an effort to help transform tough neighborhoods into family-supportive environments.

4. Community building organizations are often community development corporations. They are "private non-profit entity, serving a low-income community, governed by a community-based board, and serving as an ongoing producer in housing, commercial-industrial development, or business development" (Green and Haines p. 63).


Alinsky, Saul D. 1971. Rules For Radicals. New York: Random House.

Berger, B. B. 1998. Disenchanting the Concept of Community. Society 35: 324-328.

Chaskin, Robert. 2001. Building Community Capacity: A Definitional Framework and Case Studies from a Comprehensive Community Initiative. Urban Affairs Review 36:291-323.

Chaskin, Robert J., Prudence Brown, Sudhir Venkatesh, Avis Vidal. 2001. Building Community Capacity. Aldine de Gruyter, New York.

Ellen, Ingrid G. and Margery A. Turner. 1997. Does Neighborhood Matter? Assessing Recent Evidence. Housing Policy Debate 8:833-866.

Forrest, Ray and Ade Kearns. 2001. Social Cohesion, Social Capital and the Neighbourhood. Urban Studies 38:2125-2143.

Friedmann, John. 1973. Retracking America. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

Green, Gary Paul and Anna Haines. 2002. Asset Building and Community Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hunter, A. 1975. The Loss of Community: An Empirical Test Through Replication. American Sociological Review 40: 537-553.

Hunter, A. and G. Suttles. 1972. The Expanding Community of Limited Liability The Social Construction of Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kasarda, J.D. and Janowitz, M. 1974. Community Attachment in Mass Society. American Sociological Review 39: 328-339.

Kingsley, G. Thomas, Joseph B. McNeely and James O. Gibson. 1996. Community Building: Coming of Age. Washington, D.C.: Development Training Institute, Inc., and The Urban Institute.

Kretzmann, John P. and John L. McKnight. 1993. Building Community from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets. Evanston, IL: Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, Neighborhood Innovations Network, Northwestern University.

Lyon, L. 1987. Choosing the Best Approach to the Community. The Community in Urban Society. The Dorsey Press.

Mohan, Giles and John Mohan. 2002. Placing Social Capital. Progress in Human Geography 26:191-210.

Naparstek, Arthur and Dennis Dooley. 1997. Countering Urban Disinvestment through Community Building Initiatives. Social Work 42:506-514.

Nash, Vicky. 2001. Building Communities: Civic Renewal and Public Policy. New Economy, 8: 52-54.

Nelson, Douglas W. 2001a. Speech at the Jobs Initiative Showcase Conference Baltimore, Maryland September 6, 2001

Nelson, Douglas W. 2001 b. Making Connections Consultants' Conference Baltimore, MD February 6, 2001

O'Hara, Sabine U. 1999. Community Based Urban Development: a Strategy for Improving Social Sustainability. International Journal of Social Economics 26:1327-1343.

Putnam, R.D. 1993. The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life. American Prospect: 35-42.

Putnam, R.D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Talen, E. 1999. Sense of Community and Neighbourhood Form: An Assessment of the Social Doctrine of New Urbanism. Urban Studies 36: 1361-1379.

Urban Studies Institute. 2000. Making Connections: Neighborhood Profiles of Child and Family Well-Being, Louisville and Jefferson County. Kentucky Population Research, University of Louisville.

Warner, Mildred. 2001. Building Social Capital: The Role of Local Government. Journal of Socio-Economics 30:187-192.

Weil, Marie. 1996. Community Building: Building Community Practice. Social Work 41:481-499.

Wilson, G and Baldassare, M. 1996. Overall "Sense of Community" in a Suburban Region. Environment and Behavior 28: 27-43.

Wirth, L. 1938. Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24.