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Article - Holistic Community Development Part I & II

The following opinion piece was published in the Merwin Rural Services Institute's newsletter, North Country Local Government Newsletter 9/98(Part I) & 12/98(Part II). 

(Part 1)

Planning and Development

If there ever were two trendy words that seem be used by politicians and bureaucrats alike with alarming frequency is it "planning" and "development". A shiver runs down my spine every time I hear any phrase that includes "…planning to develop…" as I am fairly certain that the former hasn’t occurred and that whatever follows never will develop.

Are "planning" and "development" polar opposites? Are they opposite in goals and techniques? How can they be put together such that a plan relates to the development and that the development reflects the objectives of the plan?

A Holistic Approach to Planning and Development

As community leaders we tend to spend a great deal of time "putting out the fires" and very little time "planning" for the future of the community. Also referred to as the "squeaky wheel" syndrome, we often find that utilizing our limited resources to address highly visible or "squeaky" issues it is often the easiest path to take - both logistically and politically.

Unfortunately, as a result, we find that - more often than not - we are treating the symptoms rather than the root causes of a number of community ailments. A more troubling byproduct of this approach is the haphazard, patchwork process of planning and development that results.

Just as a doctor might perform a physical as part of an assessment of a number of distinct yet potentially related symptoms in consultation with an ill patient, we too, need to take time periodically to perform a systematic and holistic assessment of our community to fully assess its strengths and weaknesses and to develop a plan designed to address the root causes of our community ailments and not just individual symptoms. We will likely find, in addition, that there are distinct linkages between a number of issues and just like in a prescription for curing a medical problem, as we address on issue, we will help address another given the linkage between them.

What we need to do

A holistic assessment is like placing a three-dimensional grid over and through the community that allows for horizontal, vertical and diagonal links between issues to be identified. Sometimes the linkage is obvious. If a neighborhood does not have water or sewer service than an obvious need is addressed by extension of infrastructure to that neighborhood. However, a subtle community health issue may have also been addressed if drinking water was previously compromised in any way. New business may locate in the area now that municipal services are available increasing community convenience, reducing travel time for residents and development may occur in other areas of the community as municipal service rates are lowered due to an increase in the service base. However, there will likely be a reduction in business for those that provided septic tank service and an increase in neighborhood traffic if new commercial uses locate in the area. Not all linkages are necessarily positive.

A holistic assessment needs to be reality based. A common approach to a broad assessment of the community health is a technique developed from a variety of business planning strategies and is referred to as a "SWOT" assessment. SWOT stands for Strengths - Weaknesses - Opportunities - Threats. A SWOT assessment, if properly prepared and conducted can be a brutally frank exercise for a community. However, it can also be a magnificent planning tool since once each of these elements is known and understood, a plan which capitalizes on strengths and opportunities while minimizing the exposure of weaknesses to threats can be developed.

Unto itself, a SWOT assessment is not a holistic assessment because it tends to identify only a variety of symptoms. Linkages between issues need to be identified and understood. Sometimes these linkages may be on the same plane (in thinking about a tree dimensional grid) and sometimes they will cross planes. These linkages are important to understand because they may lead to a better understanding of the broad class of symptoms and can be used to ultimately develop a plan and priority for community development objectives.

Why should a community prepare a holistic plan for development

There are a number of reasons why a community should prepare a holistic plan for development. Perhaps the most important is that it provides the community with a systematic approach to prioritizing their development needs. This in turn will allow the community to focus its limited resources on addressing its needs in the most efficient and/or effective manner.

Such a plan can also serve as a compass by which a community can periodically check the "direction" of its activities and make certain that it is continuing in the direction or along its chosen path. Further, more and more we are seeing funding agencies - public and private - asking for some demonstration that the proposed activity advances a community plan or objective. Such a plan can be used to demonstrate both purpose and community resolve and it is often rewarded in the scoring criteria for competitive funding.

This latter point is not insignificant. Many times we see a neighboring community receive some tremendous aid package or activity and we refer to how "lucky" they may have been. While on rare occasions, such may be luck as we normally define it, probably more often than not, the "luck" is the convergence of preparation and opportunity. It is important to stress that successfully funded projects tend to be well thought out and conceptually developed before submission to potential funding sources. Just as a business wouldn’t approach potential investors or bankers without a prospectus or well developed business plan, communities shouldn’t expect to successfully land development assistance without demonstration of a sound understanding of the issues and the preferred, detailed strategy to address the issues.

The next issue’s column will focus on the process of developing a holistic plan and the development strategy designed to address the prioritized community objectives.

(Part 2)

Undertaking a Holistic Community Assessment

In the previous column the purpose of a broad-based community assessment which leads to the development of a multi-layered plan designed to address a number of priority needs, which really sounds more daunting than it is. This section will identify a process by which such a process might be undertaken

Community Participation

Perhaps the most important element in an community assessment and/or planning process is the inclusion of the public in the identification of community strengths and weaknesses. There are two particular means be which to gather input from the public: community-wide forums and targeted-group discussions. While the community-wide forums will allow the planning team to obtain information on a broad spectrum of community issues that can be further addressed, there will likely be a need to explore particular community issues with a target group of individuals specifically familiar with the particular topic.

For both the broad-based assessment and the targeted assessment, a technique known as a SWOT (Strengths - Weaknesses - Opportunity - Threats) analysis is a good method for determining what a community has going for it, what it needs in order to be improved and what everyone sees in their particular "crystal" ball. SWOT analyses are generally conducted in facilitated small groups discussions be them with the community as a whole or for a particular topic with local experts. It is a technique that comes from a business world and is designed as a means by which to explore market strengths and opportunities. For many communities, the same basic marketing concepts apply.

In undertaking a SWOT analysis, each groups discusses, in turn, the community’s strengths, its weaknesses, what opportunities are apparent on the horizon and what threats are perceived by community or target groups members. The facilitators should try to make certain that the topics discussed are broad in scope and range. Typically for a community topics might include: housing, commercial activity, health care, education, municipal infrastructure, governance, community services, crime and other special topics that may be particularly important in a given community. Targeted focus groups may be formed to speak about any or all of these particular topics.

At the end of each of the public meetings or focus group sessions it is important to get the audience to prioritize or rank each of the issues identified One important feature of such discussions is that what is expressed are perceptions about the community. In many respects, these perceptions are considered as the reality for the public whether real or not. Many times, it is the perception (or misperception) rather than the reality that must be addressed as an objective of the planning or development process.

Analysis and Linkage

Conveniently, a process like a SWOT analysis gives the community four broad and basic categories in which to lump the results. These results (which have been prioritized) are often the basis for the specific focus groups that are formed to specifically explore particular issues. The key to the analysis is often not the obvious issues identified within any particular issue layer (such as lack of business and lack of employment alternatives on an economic development layer) but the exploration of the linkage that may exist between layers (such as insufficient water treatment capacity limiting development). There may be self contained issues, however, more likely than not there will be multi-layered and multi-dimensional issues that cross and connect multiple issue areas. Understanding these linkages allows for the development of holistic plans that allow communities to address the systemic root causes of problems rather than just the surface level symptoms.

Development of the Plan

Here are those two dreaded words again in the same section heading but in this case, the words, in effect, can be reversed to be the "plan of development". The plan can again focus generally on how to maximize or take advantage of the community strengths, reducing or shielding of community weaknesses, taking advantage of (or creation of) opportunities and the deflection or mitigation of community threats. A simple example that may touch in all four areas is addressing a common rural community problem - the recruitment of health care professionals to the area.

A surface level need is identified - a community has problems attracting and/or retaining general practice physicians which is identified in the community forums as a significant concern. A focus group identifies a number of issues related to the need on other layers such as adequate office space, start-up assistance and a lack of trained support professionals in the area. A potential solution might be to market the community strength (great rural place to live and work with a significant coverage to care providers ratio). Minimize a community weakness by working with the local hospital or developers on creation of office/clinical space and establish a fund to provide start-up assistance. Utilize an opportunity to recruit other required health care professionals to the area by the commitment to recruitment of one or more general practitioners and the community may have deflected a significant threat of having insufficient primary health care in the community.

Please note that this is more than an "hospital" issue or a "health care" issue. It is a broad community well-being issue that requires broad support and attention. You may also find that if successful, the presence of additional family practitioners may become a marketing advantage in the recruitment of other development and that what was once and weakness and threat is now a strength and opportunity. Continuing with a medical analogy, what is often required is more than what a "bandage solution" can provide.

This last point illustrates an important concept in the utilization of any community development plan – that being that the plan is not a static work. The community dynamics change constantly and the only way such a holistic plan remains useful is if it remains current and meaningful. Periodic review and revision is of paramount importance for the long-term success of the planning and development process.

Despite being trendy and probably over used, planning and development are not bad, four letter words (they are actually both much longer) nor are they usually synonymous with any. While in the past planning and development where often perceived as being somewhat contrary (as planning was often construed as restraining or delaying development), with today’s increasingly complicated and competitive development projects, a merging of planning efforts with development opportunities is usually required to be successful – especially when competing for limited development projects or funds.

The old adage suggests that "luck" is often the convergence of preparation and opportunity. This is increasingly true as many of the traditional funding support organizations are requiring evidence of significant preparation before committing limited resources to any project, no matter how sound the general concept. Holistic planning can be a tremendous tool to any community as it prepares and pursues its development objectives.