19 Favorite Community Development Ideas to Inspire Both Small Actions, Big Projects

community group organizing itself for a day-long project in a green space

Last Updated: August 7, 2020

To introduce this community development ideas section of the website, we've chosen  19 concepts for winning events and initiatives that your neighborhood could initiate right now, 

Further down in the page, we also introduce and highlight seven Big Ideas of great importance to community development. Lastly, this page is a doorway to the broadest categories of our visitor-submitted questions and our answers. 


Adapt These Community Development Ideas to Your Own Setting

l.      Exploit the potential of pop-up businesses and restaurants to meet local needs, help start-ups, and call attention to the possibilities in your neighborhood.  A pop-up is a temporary establishment; often building owners who cannot find a permanent tenant will be willing to compromise by allowing a pop-up to occupy space for a weekend or a month or two either free or for a very reasonable rent.  This technique can help you identify a healthy mix of businesses to pursue, and may help you find good operators as well.

2.      Plan a "Tourist Eye View" day.  Encourage businesses, government, citizens, and especially employees in hotels, restaurants, and transportation industries to be especially watchful for needs that tourists might have.  Everything from courtesy to ease of obtaining information to appearance and functioning of major walkways can be explored and discussed.

3.      Start an Against All Odds campaign to choose and address one of your five peskiest problems.  Be honest with yourselves about what those worst problems are, and be sure to include people problems such as addiction, poverty, or lack of education.  Then pick one problem and really amplify your community development ideas in that area, even if you appear unrealistic at first.  Concentrating your effort, thus converting a problem into an issue, often yields better results than scattering your effort over many major problems.

4.      Adopt a color scheme for plantings in a business district, small town, or neighborhood.  We know it sounds silly, but it makes a memorable display of unity and cohesiveness.  In many places, your neighborhood is in effect competing against others, and if you can become known as the place that always has the red flowers, or the place that has a new theme color every year, it is a small advantage you should be use in your favor.  It’s fun for residents too.

5.      Guard your community’s reputation because it impacts whether people want to invest in homes and businesses there, and whether tourists want to visit.  If someone says something incorrect about your village, town, neighborhood, or city on Facebook or out loud, be sure to gently challenge and correct poor impressions with factual information.  If there is a grain of truth in some negative publicity, address the situation directly and aggressively, and then use the full power of your social media to shout out your success when the negative has turned positive.   

6.      Create attractive gateways to your community.  Don't make people wonder "are we there yet?"   People think immediately of an entrance sign, but keep in mind that the size and the expense of a marker are not as important as whether the gateway feature (which could be a sign, or something else) is creative, memorable, and attractive.  Incidentally, soften signs or stone markers with a landscape element, even if only a bit of evergreen shrub.

7.     Install temporary traffic experiments to convince a reluctant government or community to initiate or remove a one-way street system, roundabout, bike lane, four-way stop, road diet, or curb pullout that removes parking to allow more landscaping or outdoor café seating on the sidewalk.   If you cannot make the improvement permanent due to objections, letting people try out the change often is an important step in gaining acceptance—or in deciding it would be a terrible mistake.

8.      Organize a Youth Expression Program.  Let young people between 14 and 24 name and plan their program, which might include dancing, hip-hop, sports (including pickleball, sand volleyball, or whatever is popular, wacky, and non-competitive), trash pickup with repurposing of found objects, drama, mural painting, pool parties, a screen-printing business for the summer, or even whatever community development ideas the youth can identify.

9.      Create an Empathy Tour.  You could visit various parts of your city, checking out ethnic pockets, minority faith traditions, schools, prisons, or factories.  Or send college students deep into town, and townspeople into the university's by-ways.  Adults without children in school may need to visit the public schools, or children can visit a community meeting sponsored by the local government or a neighborhood association, labor union, or consortium of congregations.  Possibilities are endless; you know where empathy will help implement your best community development ideas.

10.  Identify good contractors capable of quality work on the prevailing type or types of housing in your neighborhood, and share that information with the entire neighborhood organization.  A great tuckpointer of old brick buildings might not be someone you would want installing concrete siding, so zero in on the needs of your neighborhood.

11.  Investigate hiring a neighborhood or town architect if the housing in your neighborhood or community has many similarities that now present issues for current buyers.  For example, if your community abounds in 1950’s homes, it may be common for people to want to add a second or third bathroom, enlarge closets, or add a garage.  Create an economy of scale for current and future homeowners by hiring an architect together to figure out typical solutions to these problems.  The community benefits because you increase the chances of a quality product that will maintain property values, and individuals who could or would not hire an architect benefit from professional insight.

12.  Form a new partnership with an organization, university, school, or business large enough to be influential and have some money, personnel, or other resource that will be valuable to you.  It there are no obvious new anchor institutions for your specific neighborhood, find a corporation or foundation in a larger geographic area to build a relationship with, and work with determination to demonstrate how your community development ideas fit within the scope of their philanthropic work.

13.  Make sure your most traveled streets and roads look great.  We all become blind to sights that are familiar, so look with fresh eyes at the appearance of your major roads.  Often these are heavily influential in what people think of your community or neighborhood. Prioritize your most heavily traveled streets through landscaping, infill development, code enforcement, and assistance to homeowners as necessary.

14.  Take the best possible step forward in mixing incomes of residents.  The payoff of a mixed-income neighborhood is a more diverse business base, attitudes more accepting of differences, and greater contribution to the needs of your broader community as a whole.  We are not encouraging demolition, but just look realistically for opportunities to take one step in the opposite direction of your prevailing income level.  You may be in a position to attract housing for a higher income level, or to accept a lower-income development or better yet, a percentage set-aside in a mixed-income development graciously. 

15.  Ensure plenty of convenient places for residents of your town or neighborhood to learn about and finance entrepreneurship (establishing businesses).   This is crucial because: (a) some people just need to be their own bosses and will struggle within other people’s organizations, and (b) in some minority communities, the rest of the metro area may be very reluctant to invest, so any business start-ups that occur will need to be homegrown.  If these resource centers don't exist in a location convenient for your folks, contact local universities, business organizations, governments, and university extension centers about establishing a location closer to you.

16.  If municipal courts are ineffective, make judges and attorneys notice that you are watching.  A common T-shirt can identify you as a concerned citizen of the 24th ward or whatever. If you attend a hearing together, you may exert a subtle influence over the proceedings even if there is no mechanism in place for allowing you impacted neighbors to speak.  This is especially important where there is a significant crime or nuisance problem.  A frustrated local prosecutor or code enforcement official might be your sponsor or ally in this project, by the way.

17.  Launch a concert or concert series to bring excitement to your places and spaces.  Live music can energize a slow time of the year, celebrate successes, showcase parks and buildings, and mark good and bad anniversaries (if you need an excuse).   Bands may work free or for a low cost, if they need the publicity or especially identify with your community development ideas.  Keep concert costs free or as low as possible, when your aim is community development.  (Or use the concert as a fund-raiser.)  Potential venues include a park, church, union hall, lodge, empty building, school, vacant lot, or large home.

18.  Take advantage of community development ideas and resources from your government.  To some of you, this is extremely obvious, as community development ideas go, but others are missing out on free presentations, information, and advice; opportunities to apply for grants; and chances to publicize your needs and your successes so that government officials will think of you when they are looking for a place to invest their tax dollars.  To attract positive attention, you need to be well-governed yourselves, speak with one voice, contribute to the broader community, and make your complaints discreetly unless ignored.  Treat your government as if it were made up of humans who like to be treated nicely—because it is!

19.  Multiply financial literacy in your community.  By teaching people how to decrease mortgage expense and debt of all kinds, or how to form a babysitting co-op, the end result will be increased purchasing power.  That extra money will go toward retirement savings, better home maintenance, more viable local businesses, or other things that are important to maintaining a healthy community.


Now for the BIG Community Development Ideas

Many of you site visitors work in communities of color in the U.S. and other countries. Our important page about racial equity and community development describes seven topical areas where local action and activities can propel racial justice, without waiting for state, provincial, or national programs. At the end, the article raises the question of whether equality is really enough. This is appropriate reading for each of you, as you ponder the way forward amid worldwide discussion of the treatment of black people.  

The purpose of community development page explores a subject that is usually raised by people who are newcomers to community work or who don't understand the dynamics of neighborhoods. Well, we all fall into that latter category, so you may want to read our thoughts about the reasons we do all of this.

After understanding the purpose of community development work, people often want to concentrate on just a couple of principles of community development. We settled on three, which we then illustrate with stories of specific places in the U.S. This page is especially helpful to enthusiastic new volunteers without much background in neighborhood work, but we also believe that most of our target audience will learn something new and intriguing by thinking about our examples.

Next we also wrote an introduction to an international community development perspective. That page gives a bit of the history of thought about this field in the U.S., explains a bit of the background of international aid and development initiatives, and invites further exploration. There are many similarities across the world, but also there are vocabulary and perspective differences that we need to respect.

Appropriately enough, international development discussion leads naturally to a discussion of environmental sustainability topics. The first big idea for you in this arena is something called regenerative design. In this emerging field, it is not enough to just do not harm to the environment, since it is possible to design landscapes, buildings, and processes in such a way as to actually heal pre-existing degradation of the earth.

Environmental justice refers to equal distribution of potential environmental hazards and potential environmental amenities, regardless of economic status, race, or ethnic or religious identities of neighborhoods. Often the least desirable heavy industries, facilities such as landfills or sewage lagoons, or transportation hubs are placed in minority communities or historically lower income neighborhoods. Explore the significance and self-fulfilling prophecy of these tendencies. 


Starting The Community Development Storytelling

Here you can brag about your terrific big community development ideas or small victories such as  community improvement programs and events, successful community projects, plans that can be implemented, improving urban design, redevelopment that works, and how development around the world differs from the U.S. where we are.  Your examples and details of what went well and what was a disaster will help others.

To check out visitor tips and photos or submit your own, click on any specific category below.  The page that opens will show a form where you can comment, ask questions, and post up to four photos. If none of the categories seem to fit, go ahead and use the form on any of these pages, and we will find an appropriate page for you. When accepted, your submission results in a standalone web page you can share on your own social media too. Sharing community development ideas through storytelling really accelerates your own learning and inspires others. 

You can comment on published community development ideas too. At the bottom of each of the three pages below, you will see links to the already-published pages.

Understand that everything that visitors submit in this section is moderated and edited to tighten it up. We want to keep this a lively space so that it will be a practical community development ideas resource for you. Let the storytelling begin!


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