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Balancing Community Development Theory and Practice in the Classroom

Over the past few months, this column has explored community development through the theoretical lens of assets-based development. To illustrate this model, I have discussed a number of communities that are developing and implementing local plans based on their assets. For this month’s installment, I would like to switch gears a bit and discuss how I incorporate the assets model into the teaching of development.


Introduction to Community Development

Every fall, I teach a general community development course in Eastern Kentucky University’s MPA program. Joseph Coleman, a development specialist with the Kentucky League of Cities, developed the foundations of the course. The course emphasizes the connections between theory and practice through an innovative mixture of community case studies, practitioner talks with students, planning-based exercises and SimCity.

The students in the course come from diverse academic and professional backgrounds. Some are traditional students, who have progressed directly from undergraduate studies, while others are in-service students, who have worked in community development and public administration for years. The students also hold bachelor’s degrees from a diverse collection of disciplines. Because community development is such a multifaceted field, including theory from planning, political science, sociology, public health and public administration, I find having students with varying backgrounds useful (and exciting) in the classroom.

The course is designed around the assets model and my pedagogical belief that practitioners need to be involved in instruction. To ensure the assets model is a key component of the course, I use the Green and Haines textbook, Assets Building & Community Development, in conjunction with journal articles and web resources.


Course Activities and Assessments

During our first meeting, I ask students to discuss the meaning of community and how we can develop it in our cities and towns. Students are asked to list examples of community development in the city where our university is located. The purpose of this activity is twofold. First, the activity is an icebreaker that is not awkward. But most importantly, I use the activity to help illustrate the assets model’s focus on the differences between development and growth. Students have identified local parks, neighborhood gardens, local businesses, big box shopping centers and many other areas of the city as part of community development. This is an excellent starting point to discuss what projects may be more about strengthening the social, political and economic fabric of a community and what projects are more driven by pure growth.

Throughout the rest of the semester, the course is conducted in a seminar style. Each week, we examine a local asset or capital. These forms of capital include, but are not limited to, political capital, social capital, environmental capital, financial capital, and culture capital. For each of our meetings, I ask a local practitioner, involved in work related to that week’s capital, to talk with the class about their work. These talks are often a give-and-take exchange of ideas between the practitioner and the students. In the past, we have had a diverse collection of local practitioners to represent the multiple features of community development. Local city managers, art directors, environmental activists, and community planners have joined the class.

The course assignments also attempt to link theory and practice. In addition to the exams, there are two major projects in the course. First, the students have to do an analysis of a community’s development and planning decisions. In this assignment, students play the role of a consultant for their actual community. The students have to write a report applying the course theory and material to the community’s current and historical development process. In this report, students have to list recommendations for improving their community’s development policies. Second, the students have to construct a vision for a community and try to implement this vision using the urban planning simulation, SimCity.

The program has a number of limitations. First, SimCity promotes a traditional and outdated view of zoning. There is little opportunity to do any type of mixed development with the program. Second, the simulation allows the player to be a dictator and fails to mimic the collective decision-making that is required in community development. However, in class, these two limitations can be used in a positive manner to illustrate the problems with traditional zoning and the need for mixed-use development. However, the main pedagogical value of SimCity, to me, is that it shows the students how they can have the best-designed vision for a community, but when governance demands start to occur, such as the need to maintain a balanced budget, raise taxes, keep citizens happy, their visions have to be adapted. But without well-planned visions, communities have no guide to help them deal with this need for change.

I’ve had students construct small college towns and large bustling metropolises. In most of the simulations, students realize the limitations of planning, and those limitations emphasize the importance of the process and the need for community decisions to be driven by a vision.


Theory & Practice

Future community development students need to understand theory in detail, but they also need to see that theory in action. I think my approach to the teaching of development accomplishes this goal. Through meeting practitioners, writing analyses, and implementing a community vision, students gain a clear understanding of the linkage between community development theory and practice.


Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the department of government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be contacted via [email protected]

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