It can be dispiriting to see the continued growth in mental health problems, addiction, homelessness, poverty, lack of community safety and care shortage for people experiencing vulnerability. Despite the dedication of many professionals, programs designed to address these problems can sometimes seem to become more expensive and less effective.
One promising idea is asset-based community development (ABCD), a community-building approach that focuses on identifying the strengths (or assets) present in each community and building on these to improve the lives of people living there.
Last year one of us (Heather) visited Edmonton to understand more about how the city has established itself as a leading ABCD practitioner, while the other of us (Tim) has observed developments as founder of Nous’ Canada office in Toronto.
Western culture has elevated the values of individualism and independence – from other people, from families and from governments and the services they provide. People who struggle to remain independent are seen as deficient and requiring of service. We even describe people in terms of their deficits – homeless, unemployed, disabled.
Services are designed by professionals to attract funding and clients. There is a pervasive sense that only professionals can address the deficits experienced by people. Clients develop a dependency on services, believing neither they nor the non-professionals around them can create the conditions for them to live a good life.
This system and the cultural values that underpin it have led to an epidemic of loneliness and isolation impacting people regardless of age, culture, economic status or location. Neuroscience is demonstrating the impact of loneliness and social isolation on mental health and overall mortality. We know mental illness often precedes addiction, homelessness and poverty.
Statistical analysis of vulnerability to natural disasters also demonstrates the impact of loneliness and social isolation on the very young and the elderly. And the physical isolation brought about by the response to COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of strong social bonds.
Asset-based community development seeks to connect people
Amid this bleak outlook, it is vital to look for new approaches that might yield results. One promising approach is asset-based community development, which aims to build more inclusive communities, revitalise neighbourhoods and connect people.
ABCD starts by identifying the strengths in a community (such as skills, capability, passions and knowledge) and then unlocks the power of individuals and associations to improve the lives of the people around them. There is growing evidence that activation and empowerment of communities through ABCD has protective and preventative impacts for the people who live in those places. (Despite its strengths, it is not a treatment modality for existing complex social issues, such as ill health, mental health problems or substance abuse.)
Leading ABCD practitioners John McKnight and Cormac Russell offer authoritative evidence suggesting empowered communities are best placed to fulfil seven critical functions:
- Promoting good health
- Maintaining safe communities
- Providing care
- Raising children
- Protecting the local environment
- Producing healthy food locally
- Developing the local economy
- Many local communities in Edmonton are experiencing the benefits of ABCD.
For example, shared projects such as community arts space The Carrot and the community gardens of Sustainable Food Edmonton are enabling diverse groups of people to connect with one another by sharing their common passions.
The community gardens of Sustainable Food Edmonton.
Elsewhere, in the community of Crestwood, planning authorities had approved the construction of a new housing development against strong opposition from the local community. It was a remarkable testament to the resilience of the community that they set aside their disappointment about the planning decision to welcome the residents of the new development and make them part of the community.
In other cases individual lives are transformed through community connection. Take the example of Bill, an older single man living in a rooming house, and his neighbour Gillian, who bonded over mutual dedication to helping abandoned cats and reducing the number roaming the neighbourhood. In the end, Bill and Gillian were living as housemates and the neighbourhood was free of abandoned cats!
Beyond these local stories, Cormac Russell, the managing director of ABCD practice Nurture Development, has presented an array of data gathered through his research, including:
- People are four times more likely to find work through friends than through a job centre.
- Living in a supportive community increases our chance of good health by 27 per cent.
- Loneliness and social isolation contribute to more frequent use of health services, such as emergency departments and general practitioners.
- Stronger neighbourhoods have significantly less crime.
ABCD aligns with place-based development across Canada
Many municipalities and provinces across Canada are pursuing place-based initiatives and service design in health, human services and education, while
Canadian universities are looking to create more value for their local communities and to deliver a more fulfilling experience for their students.
These endeavours are often driven by institutions (provincial and municipal administrations, agencies and not-for-profits) with community engagement through consultation and, more recently, co-design. But often, despite the best of intentions from dedicated professionals, these efforts fail to engage community members in service design and other place-based activities. Even when organisations target those with greater needs, who are sometimes completely disengaged, it is often the usual suspects who turn up.
And sometimes where projects do generate innovative solutions through authentic community engagement, momentum can dissipate once the project ends and there is no funding or capacity for implementation, particularly at scale.
ABCD involves flipping this approach: communities develop and drive initiatives based on the needs they identify, drawing on their skills and capabilities, obtaining support from professionals and institutions only if required.
Starting this work in communities that are disempowered and disengaged is a challenge. Edmonton offers four important lessons:
- Get started in communities with the right champions. Edmonton was testament to the fact that by focusing on a community’s assets, positive outcomes can be achieved even in neighbourhoods previously known for their deficits (e.g. high unemployment, crime, disadvantage). The key is to identify and empower people and associations who can get the work started. Leading community consultations, we see missed opportunities for this kind of community empowerment. Too often we consult with community associations (e.g. neighbourhood houses, faith communities, sporting teams) and may even locate our consultations in their facilities to promote better engagement. But we ask what they want from institutions and services, overlooking what they can do for themselves and then finding ways to empower them for action.
- Attract professional support. Early support from institutions can set up communities for success. In Edmonton the municipal government provided support through its Abundant Community Initiative. Support can include provision of physical space and infrastructure, paid coordination, training and leadership development, grant funding for community initiatives, and materials, including consumables, for community activities. In Australia we have observed this happening in pockets defined by the presence of powerful community champions (either individuals or associations), who initiate work with local government or service providers. A more proactive approach from these institutions would help to activate people in communities who feel disempowered.
- Shift the power. Recognise that the aim is to shift power away from institutions to strong communities, so initiatives are conceived of and carried out by individuals and associations that are part of a community, rather than being done to them or even with them. In Canada it can sometimes feel as though power rests entirely with institutions, who control public funding and demand ever more sophisticated measurement of evidence and outcomes requiring professional support to achieve. Shifting the balance of power will take time, because it calls on institutions and professionals to relinquish the idea that they know better than the community what is good for them, and calls on bureaucrats to take calculated risks in pursuit of trust and better outcomes.
- Make it social. Acknowledge that people are attracted to sharing their lives through social gatherings, not through meetings. For example, a regular neighbourhood picnic can be a more effective mechanism for increasing local safety and security than a regular meeting to address the problem of crime. Our experience of community consultations in remote first nations communities bears this out. It can be very difficult to achieve authentic engagement at a one-off community meeting. On the other hand, if you are introduced to people by a trusted community member and hang around talking with people for long enough, the truth of their lived experience in that place will start to emerge.
Far-sighted Canadian government departments, municipal governments and service providers are looking for different approaches to important community challenges that expensive programs and services are failing to address.
Evidence for the effectiveness of ABCD is compelling. It is worth exploring the potential of ABCD to unlock the capabilities of empowered communities in a Canadian context. Lessons from Edmonton and around the world offer principles on which to base our work in community development. Pursuing ABCD in other sites would enable us to learn as we go.
Get in touch to discuss how we can help you put asset-based community development into practice.
Prepared with input from Sandy Forbes during her time as a Principal at Nous.
 Hari, J. (2018). “Lost connections: uncovering the real causes of depression - and the unexpected solutions”, Bloomsbury USA
 Russell, C. (2014). “Things are hotting up: The fallacy of loneliness surveys”, Nurture Development blog post
 “The Carrot”, The Carrot Community Arts Coffee House
 “Community Gardens”, Sustainable Food Edmonton
 Halton, C. (2018). “Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood”, The University of Alberta Press
 Brook, K. (2005). “Labour Market Participation and the Influence of Social Capital”, ONS/Labour Market Trends
 Gilbert, K. Quinn, S. Goodman, R. Butler, J. and Wallace, J. (2013) “A meta-analysis of social capital and health: a case for needed research”. Journal of Health Psychology. 18 (11)
Z Matthews, T., Danese, A., Caspi, A., Fisher, H.L., Goldman-Mellor, S., Kepa, A., Moffitt, T.E., Odgers, C.L., and Arseneault, L. (2019) “Lonely young adults in modern Britain: findings from an epidemiological cohort study”. Psychological Medicine, 49 (2). Also Monbiot, G. (2018). “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community”, The Guardian
 Sampson, R. (2013). “When disaster strikes, it’s survival of the sociable”, New Scientist
 “Abundant Community Edmonton”, City of Edmonton