Community Development: History, Theory, and Imaginative Practice

Community development is a heterogeneous and contested field of planning thought and practice. The profession has generally prioritized people and places that are disproportionately burdened by capitalist urbanization and development. In the US, the dominant focus has been on personal or group development and widening access to opportunities, with a growing reliance on market incentives to deliver housing options and spur economic development. Yet for many communities at the margins, development has rather connoted practices of freedom— freedom from oppression and deprivation; freedom to enjoy one’s time, make choices, and experience life as abundance and possibility. Thus conceived, community development is less a question of remedial policy than acts of resistance, claiming rights and power, and strengthening collective ownership and governance capacity over productive infrastructures and resources.

The course begins with an examination of evolving patterns, drivers, and explanations of urban inequality and poverty and corresponding urban policy and planning responses— with a primary focus on the US but in comparative world-historical perspective. We trace the evolution of community development from the Progressive Era to the contemporary period, where global trends such as urban-based economic growth and the new urban agenda are pushing community development practice beyond the neighborhood scale to local, metropolitan, and even supranational scales. In critically analyzing community development concepts and strategies, the course pays close attention to the dilemma of race that has continued to define capitalism, politics, and spatial production in America as well as divided working class and progressive movements, including those defining the field of community development. We also draw insights from historic movements that have sought to change race relations in America in connection with global assaults on capitalism, empire, and patriarchy.

For students to further develop their own community development agendas and skills, the course is built around a speaker series and discussion sessions focused on applied practices and cases. Notwithstanding significant advancements in affordable housing development, social service delivery, and placemaking— the traditional mainstay of community development— the course focuses on emerging community development approaches such as transformative economic projects built on community-labor partnerships, anchor-based strategies, and cooperative ownership and wealth creation. It also surveys innovative sectoral practices focused on renewable energy, mobility and access, food justice and sovereignty, and art, culture, and fashion. Guest speakers will moreover include political organizers and leaders working to build intersectional movements that inform progressive urban policy and planning agendas and community development goals.

Course evaluations will be based on three assignments (blog entry or comic strip, semi-structured interview, and applied research project) and class participation. It has no prerequisites and is open to graduate students across different disciplines.