Community Development History in America

Community development is a process that has transformed quite a bit over the years. It's nothing new, per se, but its progression over time has lead it to change significantly from what it was one hundred years ago compared to how it is presented today. Things such as political shifts, population growth, and changes in cultural dynamics have often played a role in how community development manifests and is acted upon. As a result, there's quite a bit of history involved with community development and how it has been used in the United States and throughout the world.

This article will address the long and varied history of community development. It will focus on the process' history in the United States, rather than its lifetime around the globe. However, some of the foreign influences that shaped it in the country's early days will be discussed. There are also some notable influences from the United States' history that played a role in the history of community development, and vise-versa, that will be included as well. From the colonial era to the modern day, this is the history of community development in America.

  Pre-History & Colonial Era

In order to understand the history of community development, you need to look at what was going on before it formally existed. Before community development was a consciously acknowledged process in society, the rudimentary basics of the concept did exist in some regard. A community-which could mean anything from an individual family or clan to busy village or town-needed certain resources in order for residents to sustain themselves. There was more of a focus on what the residents of a community needed to survive rather than providing the means to improve their socioeconomic status and non-essential comforts. This meant the basics, such as food, water, shelter, etc. Without those things in the proper quantities, of the proper quality (think clean, uncontaminated water), the community would literally and figuratively die. If you could not bring a resource to a community that did not have it-which was often the case due to factors of distance and sustainability-then the community would never be able to use it so long as they remained where they were. Autonomy meant survival, and communities that did not have enough local resources to be self-reliant did not last for very long.

Communities were often segregated based on geography, religious belief systems, and leadership loyalty, all of which shifted what resources were both available and necessary for survival. A community that was located by large bodies of water like the ocean, for example, would pull most of its resources from there and many of the societal aspects would be water based. Things like fishing and sailing would be much more dependable and practical means of survival than land-based activities and resources like farming.

Communities would also form around religion, usually following a particular faith and only interacting with other communities of that faith. Religious centers would also act as social, cultural, and governmental hubs within the community in addition to being places for worship; as a central location that everyone in the community had access to, it was usually the best choice for such matters. In terms of leadership and loyalty to that leadership, those in the community that did not follow the leadership often wouldn't survive. Early communities-and even some modern ones to a degree-were very authoritarian in their leadership and residents who failed to toe the line could be ostracized and perceived as a threat to the survival of the whole.1 When that happened, the person would be cut off from resources and any benefits that came from being a part of the community. This was applicable to any religious or cultural aspects of the community, not just its leadership.

In America's colonial era, much of these base aspects of community development were present. Early colonists, like those at Roanoke and Jamestown, are prime examples. Separated by an entire ocean and only able to bring what could fit (and survive) onboard a ship, they were dependent on a limited amount of resources to develop a stable community. Loyalty to the church and to England were as essential as necessities like food and water. Community development in the colonies did not move very far beyond providing those basic essentials until the Revolution and the fight for independence from England. The shift from a foreign authoritarian to a domestic democracy required more to be done in order to sustain the communities within the young nation. As the country grew and became more diverse, the need grew and progressed closer to what it is today.
The 19th Century

As the country moved into the 19th century (1800s), the modern day idea of community development came about. The country expanded geographically westward, with new communities appearing in the new territories almost as soon as they were acquired. Often, this meant that these new communities were developing on top of existing ones-Native American tribes, French and Spanish colonies, and frontiersmen who had had already braved the wilderness. As a result, there were many conflicts between the old and new communities, and with the foreign powers who had already laid claim to those territories throughout the early part of the century.2 Much of the aftermath of these conflicts and expansion impacted the country's progress later on, especially in the implementation and progression of community development.

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The increasing population and size of the country generated a more diverse range of socioeconomic statuses and made a clear divide between urban areas and rural ones. Community development was the tool that urban reformers sought to use on areas of the country that they deemed to be "backward" or lacking.3 Some of the divide was a byproduct of the country's capitalist nature; recent immigrants, minorities, and those who were working in the lowest paying positions were unable to easily escape poverty on their own. Those reformers were naturally inclined to help those on the lower rungs of society due to moral, religious, and altruistic intentions.4 The thought was that there would be a benefit throughout society-including for themselves-should they assist those in poverty.

Community development in 19th century America also developed as the economy changed and the Industrial Revolution came about. Factory jobs and other industrial expansions in the urban areas brought a variety of people from the rural areas to the cities in addition to immigrants. Those with shared similarities-language, culture, religion, etc.-lived together in neighborhoods within the city and formed their own internal communities.5 This also lead to the development of slums due to overcrowding and subpar conditions in tenement buildings, which amplified poverty and the separation of these communities. Despite most of these smaller communities practically being in spitting distance from each other, there was great potential for them to isolate themselves from one another. Such issues were avoided with the assistance of community development and the actions of the reformers, amongst other aspects. The social intersections of today and the country's melting-pot identity would not have easily come about otherwise.

  Rise Of Education

Progression in any regard tends to impact knowledge and education. As the United States moved into the later part of the 19th century and into the 20th, there was a rise in education rates. This was both a byproduct of community development and an asset to it. Advancements in the sciences allowed for more resources to be available for the ever expanding population, thus allowing more things to become accessible within communities. New ways of stretching and maintaining resources were developed, which allowed them to be shared or given to those who needed them the most. Increased education also lead to the identification of new needs within communities based on individual factors and their connections to larger communities as a whole.

The rise of education in America also brought community development to the attention of the academic world. The 1915 conference held by the National University Education Association (NUEA) brought the concept of community service and its importance into an academic setting, with the term "community development" itself originating roughly ten years later in 1924.6 The groundwork to generate a proper field of study and practice for community development was laid at that time, with NUEA formally calling upon universities to offer programs on it in 1935. Additional education associations echoed this call, and such programs began to develop at universities throughout the country in the 1940s.

With the academic world now paying attention to community development, society's understanding of it and its effects became better known. There was significantly more research and advocacy for community development, which lead to new resources for those who wanted to implement the process in their own neighborhoods. Using the information that the academic world found through studying community development, practitioners of it were able to come up with different and more flexible approaches that better fit the conditions of each situation. Better methods, better understanding, and overall better execution of the process understandably lead to better results when it was carried out.

  Institutionalization And Federal Involvement 
The academic interest in community development naturally brought it to the attention of the federal government. When the Great Depression hit the country at the end of the 1920s, poverty rates skyrocketed and there was a significant need for improvement in communities to revitalize them. Due to how widespread the issue was and how deeply the country was affected by the Depression, it wasn't going to be an easy task. Many of the reformers of the 19th century were unable to do anything on their own as a result, and they were unable to properly act until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the presidency in 1933.7
  •          The New Deal-FDR had a progressive approach in how to bring the country back to economic stability that was largely in line with the practices of community development. A series of programs spread out over the course of eight years, the New Deal sought to address the problems head on and direct community resources to where they were needed the most.8 A lot of these programs originated as laws and bills that were designed to make improvements in particular areas of society. This ranged from ending Prohibition, to workers' rights, to new power sources, to boosts to particular industries. Many of these programs, like Social Security and the Public Works Administration, are still active today and fit into the vein of community development. Even though there was significant opposition to the New Deal-it wasn't a perfect plan and it didn't generate the immediate relief that many expected it to-it's still one of the largest community development projects in American history and it served as the forbearer for many community programs active today.

    In the post-World War II era, community development started to go more towards an institutionalized approach. This lead to the rise of community development corporations (CDCs) that were independent organizations that would implement community development in areas where it was needed.9 They were basically non-profit organizations dedicated to improving conditions for those in poverty. Many grant and loan programs were formed as a part of this institutionalization, with independent and federal agencies developing from them. Government operated organizations, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), were developed to manage the operations of these institutionalized agencies and provide additional resources for community development on their own. Many of these federal organizations like HUD are still in operation today and are crucial to modern community development.

      Community Development Today

    Today community development is all over the place. It's getting attention both directly and indirectly from people across the country who genuinely want to improve their communities for the better. The ever growing and ever expanding diversity of the United States has led to culture values and traditions of residents to be a significant area of focus, with questions regarding its impact on the rich-poor gap being brought up regularly.10 With how frequently things change in today's society and how often communities need to address the issues present in their environment, it's safe to say that community development is going to continue to be around and advance for many years to come.