Instead of relying on outside experts and governmental intervention, the asset-based community development approach counts on the local knowledge of citizens and organizations. Their understanding of physical, social, and historic advantages, combined with new and creative thinking through the lens of concentrating on assets instead of liabilities, can guide and inform the best path forward for a community.
We think the popularity of asset-based community development started with John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, who wrote a book published in 1993 called Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets.
That jolly-looking green book revolutionized the way that many grassroots activists, neighborhood groups, and professionals thought about community development. I wore out my first copy telling people about it.
The book shifted thinking from a problem-based focus toward a steady
appreciation of what is going right with our communities, and what under-appreciated aspects of the neighborhood are ripe for use as community development building blocks.
In case you hate business and are not really sure what an asset is, the word just means something you own. Your bank account, the amount of equity you have in a house you're buying, your clothes, or a retirement account are financial assets.
Intangible assets might be your personality, your education, your stunning good looks, your family's good name, your survival skills, and the like.
An asset is the opposite of a liability, and in community work, an asset is the opposite of a problem, which is where we usually start our discussions.
For example, instead of seeing vacant lots and lack of a grocery
store as problems that we try desperately to solve, proponents of this
approach would say that the lots represent the potential for new
construction, gardening, or a new park.
That's a potential that a neighborhood fully built out with mediocre homes doesn't have. The lack of a grocery store is an opportunity for local residents to control the quality and types of food that they purchase, through joining together in a food co-op or an outdoor market.
It's the community development equivalent of getting out of thinking about the scarcity of money or something else that you crave, and noticing how abundant the world really is.
A typical response to beginning to think like an asset-based community is to do a walk or other kind of physical or mental tour of the neighborhood, on one day or over a period of time, to notice, list, and define geographically the assets. Often this is called an asset map.
From there, the next actions are to enhance and build upon the assets, rather than to focus the energy on problems and import problem-solvers from outside the neighborhood, who may or may not have your best interests at heart.
In asset-based community development, you may look at children, the elderly, mildly mentally ill folks, and disabled people as overlooked creative minds. No asset is so small as to be meaningless, and every person can contribute to local development and prosperity.
Proponents of this theory usually feel very strongly about the value of community organizations and what they would call civil society in general.
Let's just talk for a minute about civil society, which may not be part of your everyday language. Civil society is a term used to describe everything in a community that goes on in terms of voluntary association that is not government-based.
In an open democracy certainly government can and often does encourage civil society through voluntary civic organizations, neighborhood associations, and informal social groupings of friends who act together to care about each other and their immediate community.
But government or the military isn't the primary driver, nor is any other top-down institution.
Faith based organizations of course are a very important part of civil society, and they are among the strongest features of an asset-based community development approach in many environments.
Creating an Asset Map
May we encourage you to gather some neighbors and walk around your neighborhood this weekend? Take the children and a map, if you can find a big one. Make some symbols on your asset map for the various kinds of potential or already available assets that you see. They might be:
1. A closed school with a gymnasium
2. A pretty fountain that just needs to have a few weeds pulled so we can see it again
3. Mrs. Brown with that fabulous apple pie
4. A wide sidewalk in front of the bank (and in many nations and neighborhoods, just having a bank is a big asset)
5. Young Pedro, a really a good artist
6. The very strong Glory Church
7. Three neighbors who decided to plant the same kind of tulips in their front yards
8. Folks who hang out at the corner pub, really like each other,
and won't let any brawls or drug-dealing break out, for fear of losing
their special place
9. Several blocks of houses that were well-constructed a century ago
10. The absence of freeways, assuring that the local streets don't carry much traffic
11. Wide streets, allowing for easy implementation of bike lanes
12. Several great-looking houses of worship, whether or not they are occupied
13. Gorgeous architectural flourishes that could never be re-created at a reasonable cost today
See how this goes? If you are a pessimist, you easily can figure out how to turn each of these assets into a problem. Even if you're pessimistic and proud of it, don't go there.
Here is the big question: Which makes people feel stronger and more resourceful—noticing how bad things are, or dwelling on how much good raw material they have to work with? Which approach likely leads to greater creativity, especially in group gatherings?
If you want the people who live near you in a neighborhood to act and feel empowered, motivated, and goal-oriented, it's best to begin with an asset-based community development approach, rather than the well-worn exercise of listing every problem we can think of.
While the problem-centered approach works, and I've often used it myself to kick off neighborhood plans, it fails to attract grassroots people who are not already involved in the community.
To dig more deeply into this positive approach, check out the free resources of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute.
Also keep in mind that our website offers abundant resources for asset-based community development, as well as organizing, economic development, sustainability, stemming sprawl, and other subjects important to strong communities. You can use the search button in the left column (or at the bottom if you are using a mobile) to find more helpful articles.