An early book on community-development practice shows where the field started – and how far it has come. A century ago, it was the first book use the words "community development" in a title. It certainly wasn't the last.
It’s safe to say that whenever you have a group of humans living together in a place, you have some sort of community development going on. For most of our human existence, however, we never called it that.
History tells us that early colonists of the budding United States practiced various forms of community building, such as establishing governments, schools, libraries, and churches, building markets and roads, and even trying to attract businesses. During the 19th century, village improvement and beautification movements emerged, especially in the Northeast.
Shortly after Theodore Roosevelt’s Report of the Country Life Commission of 1909, interest in the idea of community began to emerge. Rural sociologists Dwight Sanderson and Robert A. Polson, in their 1937 book, Rural Community Organization, note that in the Readers’ Guide, almost no references to community are found before 1910, but in the next five years, the topic began to become something of a fad in both rural and urban areas. The first mention of community development in a book title can be traced to Frank Farrington’s Community Development: Making the Small Town a Better Place to Live in and a Better Place in Which to Do Business, published in 1915.
Farrington’s century-old approach to community development focuses on starting a business man’s group to do community projects. It is a virile (a word popular at the time), mostly top-down approach to men’s business. The village improvement society, led by women, is the handmaiden of the business group, important, but secondary to building wealth.
Farrington notes that he had considerable experience with guiding communities in establishing communitywide business organizations. His approach to community development requires widespread participation, but its traditional top-heavy approach to leadership builds competitiveness:
One strong man can make a community a great success because a community is as strong as its strongest link, as strong as its strongest man — if he so wills it. A city or town of business men of high average ability may easily fall far behind one which averages much lower in the ability of its business forces, but which possesses one man of exceptional ability who will act as a leader…. The exceptional leader will be able to make proper use of the other men whose low average ability is no hindrance to their doing their parts in the general uplift work.
The exceptional leader, who emerges from a group of select businessmen, knows how to work with everyone in the community and its market area. He knows how to delegate jobs to others and make sure there is follow through. He knows how to engage residents in making the town attractive for farm families and works with local merchants to attract and keep business, the main driver of community development.
The book is full of ideas for organizing people around projects that, when linked together, offer a program for community and economic development. In a time of nationalistic fervor in the early 1900s, Farrington’s discussion of “local patriotism” for children is a lesson in socialization with the hope of stemming the loss of children to the city:
The place to begin to inculcate the right home town spirit is with the children. If local patriotism is to increase and to become a more prevalent feeling, the children must be taught to believe in and work for their own community. Then, too, the youngster who learns the importance of standing up for his town, the advantage of buying at home, and other desirable knowledge of the kind, will not hesitate to proclaim the new-old doctrines at home when occasion arises. And the home folks are always influenced by the children.
Competition among rural and small towns for new businesses ran counter to the overall trend of nation building that was prevalent at the time. The U.S. was becoming an empire with colonies overseas and national markets were growing rapidly. Communities had become far less insular. They wanted to protect their local identity in the face of wider intrusions, but growth was imperative, not only locally, but in becoming part of the broader economy. Farrington offers advice on marketing for industrial development with a caution:
It must be remembered in connection with the desire to bring in manufacturing enterprises that they may bring with them an undesirable element of foreign labor. The introduction of alien labor will inevitably have the effect of weakening the moral fiber of the community and of causing a definite deterioration of its institutions. Something more than the financial side of the question should be considered.
Farrington’s book is a product of his times. He expresses the prevalent anti-immigrant sentiments of the early 20th century. Male chauvinism is predominant in his description of top-down leadership.
Times have not changed in some ways, and community developers today still deal with social class conflict, racism, xenophobia, and sexism. But the professionalization of community development in the past century has been built on inclusivity. This includes a principled stance for democratic processes that increase a community’s understanding of itself and embrace diversity, and a creed that activities must not disrespect or harm the disadvantaged.
From a historic perspective, Farrington’s Community Development contains many recognizable elements of art and science of community practice today. As an artifact of another time, it contains any number of good ideas that have been modified and used over time.
On the other hand, the book is cautionary by contemporary standards, with divisive language and practices that inhibit community development as we understand it today. The practice of community development has seen continuous improvement, still imperfect, but far more empathetic than a century ago.
Farrington, Frank. Community Development: Making the Small Town a Better Place to Live in and a Better Place in Which to Do Business. New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1915. https://archive.org/details/communitydevelo00farrgoog.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.