Building community capacity is a central concern of both policymakers and community residents. Both want to understand why some communities are more successful in achieving positive social, economic and environmental outcomes, and how to increase the capacity of communities to achieve these outcomes. This is particularly true in communities that face the most difficult economic challenges: central cities of large metropolitan areas and remote rural communities. Most attempts to define, assess and build community capacity, however, have been undertaken in urban neighborhoods. While there is much to learn from these studies of urban places, there are distinctive characteristics and dynamics of rural communities that introduce unique challenges to the assessment and building of community capacity.
Two efforts to study rural communities and assess their “capacity” in rural North America are reviewed in this paper: the New Rural Economy (NRE) Rural Observatory of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation and the social capital community assessments of rural Central Oregon communities in the Ventures Program funded by the Northwest Area Foundation. The NRE Rural Observatory, initiated in 1998, is a university-based research effort that involves contractual commitments with 23 rural communities in Canada – selected to represent the diversity of rural places in Canada along several dimensions – to monitor social and economic change and governance in these places. The Ventures Program, initiated in 1999, is a foundation/community partnership program that establishes long-term (10-year) commitments in 5 rural areas in the Western United States in order to encourage poverty-reduction strategies that will yield long-term impact. The project included assessments of community life in each of the participating communities using the Social Capital Community Benchmark Surveys.
This paper reviews literature on community capacity and related concepts, then examines the New Rural Economy Rural Observatory and community social capital assessments of Central Oregon Ventures program for lessons that can inform the understanding of these concepts in the rural United States. Drawing on publications and reports from these programs and input from the principals, the paper focuses on the criteria used to select rural communities, local participation in project design and data collection, and the measures used to assess community capacity in the projects. The goal is to generate knowledge leading to policies supportive of sustainable rural places. (author)