Commentary: Making Our Towns Better Places to Live

A holistic approach to community development means looking beyond strict economics
to other factors that sustain rural communities.

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A few years ago, I was chatting with an economist friend who had spent a late night with a rural economic development group. His projections of future job growth in the area were met with disappointment. As his presentation was closing, the focus turned toward a discussion on community development.

“Sometimes, you just need to make your town a good place to live”. These weren’t the words the group wanted to hear, but they were the words they needed to hear.

I’m not abandoning economic approaches to improving the quality of life in rural America. However, I’m a pragmatist who sees the world through a systematic lens. I’m also an optimist who has spent his fair share of time on the outside, looking in. Our communities must be safe and inclusive places for all who live and visit them.

There are times, I fear, community leaders make serious mistakes believing economic development can be the force in improving the quality of life in our rural towns. I suppose this thinking is understandable. Most of us wish our towns could have an abundance of locally available jobs with higher wages and vibrant retail districts. Absent of either or both wishes, we still must make our towns good places to live.

Our towns are more than places on a map. Ask anyone in a small town how it felt to lose a school to consolidation or see a long-time locally owned business close. For many, their identities and emotions are deeply invested in their towns, in their communities.

The definition of community is difficult to nail down. The list of community types is long and diverse. A community may refer to a place where social systems exist or the social system, itself. A social system is essentially a network of more than one actor (individuals or groups). In either case, community is the shared sense of identity held by a group of people. The tool I have found most useful to envision a community is the Community Capitals Framework. 

The Community Capitals Framework (CCF) offers a systematic approach to community development without abandoning the economic influences of community quality of life. More appropriately, as Drs. Mary Emory and Cornelia Flora explain, the CCF offers practitioners a way to analyze community and economic development through a systems perspective.

There are seven stocks or capitals in the CCF. Each capital plays an important role in the overall health of a community. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing how we shaped the community development projects of Rushville, Illinois, through a CCF approach.

Natural capital refers to our environment. Clean water, renewable energy, and climate change are relevant issues in community development and political discussions. To paraphrase Bo Beaulieu, our environment, when healthy, can provide us with food, timber, flood control, and recreation. All of these contribute to the quality of lives in rural communities. Often, natural capital is an ignored or overlooked asset in our communities.

Many of our rural communities are undergoing significant cultural changes. Cultural capital is reflected through the ways people live their lives. It includes but is not limited to our rituals, language, and clothing. Ann Swidler, in 1986, described cultural capital as “a toolkit of symbols, stories, rituals, and world views”. Because cultural capital plays a significant role in who and how we trust, it influences the reproduction of our social capital.

Human capital is reflected in the investments we make in the institutions and practices that affect the quality of our lives. These investments include but are not limited to education, health care, and vocational training. As rural communities shrink, the ability for communities to invest in these institutions become compromised. Complicating the issue is the increasing shifting of public resources away from public education by state governments and the inability of local communities to support community healthcare systems. The benefits of human capital are shared and extend to the entire community. These benefits can

Community Capitals Framework, courtesy Rural Communities, Legacy + Change, Cornelia and Jan Flora, 2013

work to prepare a community to withstand downturns in general economic conditions, similar to what was experienced during the Great Recession.

Social capital is comprised of the bonding, bridging, and linking activities that have the capacity to spur community development and economic change. Social capital is a shared resource that has been described as the glue that holds a community together. Through social capital, community members and organizations exchange views and ideas and acquire necessary resources that facilitate community development. 

Political capital is reflected in the ability of individuals or groups to influence how resources are accessed or distributed. Political capital may reflect the priorities of the dominate cultural capital in a community, serving to protect the status quo. Within the CCF, it is political capital which may be most influenced by the conditions of social capital. Often, political capital is not concentrated in the institutions of elected office, but in those who are consulted by elected officials. 

A stable and vibrant rural community is dependent on the availability of reliable financial capital institutions. Financial capital is representative of the resources needed to provide for the design, construction, and implementation of programs, community projects, and asset development serving social and economic interests. Similar to political capital, financial capital investment is often reflective of the cultural priorities within a community. 

Built capital is the built, physical infrastructure of a community. It encompasses all that facilitates the physical activities in a community. Often, it is the quality of built capital that is most immediately associated with the overall conditions of a community.

We’ll explore more about these concepts in future articles.

Scott Thompson is a labor market economist who lives in Iowa. Read Scott’s previous Daily Yonder columns. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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