The Complexity of Community
From the Immediate Past Chair Jon Farris
Communities are complex systems. When approaching issues and
opportunities in community development we often only focus on
what is immediate and obvious without consideration for the
inter-relatedness of the people, organizations, and institutions
which exist in that community.
The community capitals framework, developed by Cornelia and
Jan Flora along with Susan Fey and Mary Emery, provides a tool
for analyzing how communities work. Every community has its
own unique “ecosystem,” where resources and dynamic forces
interact in complex ways. By examining those complex forces
through a framework that identifies the elements inherent in
each community, we are not only able to compare successful
strategies, but also assess that communities greatest challenges
Thinking of each element of community dynamics as “capital”
helps us to realize that these vital components can be utilized,
invested, blended together and exchanged to enhance the
community in significant ways. By regarding the various
community capitals as bank accounts we can see them as
fundamentally fluid parts of the working assets of a community—
and we can build, use, or invest them in the ways that do the most
good for that community.
Human capital is the “people” account, including leadership,
knowledge, information, and skills possessed by the people who
live in the community. Social capital is the “networking” account,
bringing together family and friends, as well as other people and
organizations, such as those in government office who can help
us understand the system.
Natural capital is our “environmental” account of natural
resources such as air, soil, water, and natural beauty—things we
depend upon for our quality of life. Financial capital is the
“money” account related to financial resources and access to
funding including savings, credit, grants, and tax revenue.
Built capital covers our buildings and infrastructure, including
houses, schools, businesses, clinics, libraries, water systems,
electrical grid and communication and transportation systems.
Cultural capital is our way of viewing the world as well as our
habits and attitudes, bringing in dances, stories, food, and
traditions and also our values and spiritual connections.
The last of the seven “community capitals” is political capital,
representing power and our connections to the people who have
power, necessary as we unite to solve controversial issues both
inside and outside our community.
By assessing and using our community capitals we can formulate
more effective plans for the future and achieve a healthy
ecosystem, a vital economy, and social well-being for all