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Calgary may explore asset-based community development, but what is it?

ABCD is based on the principle that a neighbourhood should build on the assets it has.

It could start with something simple, like connecting people in a Calgary community. Before long it snowballs into park beautification, a community garden or more.

At its root, that’s asset-based community development, or ABCD, as it’s often called.

During Tuesday’s Executive Committee meeting at Calgary city hall, a notice of motion to explore the ABCD approach in Calgary was moved on to a full meeting of council where it will need final approval.  The motion was put forward by Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer.

Great. But what is asset-based community development?

It’s a community development philosophy established in 1988 by John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann at the Centre for Urban Affairs at Northwestern University.  It was founded on the basic principle that you should build communities based on its assets rather than its needs.

The belief is that if you focus on small victories in a community rather than the negatives, a stronger social fabric is formed.

“It represents, largely, just a kind of shift in how service delivery is done,” Spencer told LiveWire Calgary.

“In many ways it de-centres an institutional approach that focuses on creating goods and services, and centres the folks those goods and services are meant to help.”

Spencer said it requires a city to shift its thinking to identifying, encouraging and partnering with the community assets. That’s as opposed to looking at it from a straight goods and services delivery model.

Community development itself is about asset mapping and list making, Spencer said.

“It’s just better understanding what gifts, what talents, what resources, what experiences people can bring to bear on any given situation or issue or opportunity,” he said.

ABCD- The Essentials -2 by Darren Krause

Empowering citizens to solve some of their own neighbourhood issues: Coun. Spencer

Right now, the city works on a report-based system to deal with community issues: Calgary 311. 

He said that system might foster resentment and frustration with the city if complaints stack up or the issues isn’t addressed in a timely fashion.  ABCD alters that model.

“The city would endeavour to empower and ask citizens in neighborhoods, not just to report issues, but to get involved in solving some of their own local issues,” Spencer said.

“We partner with them in doing that.”

It could involve creating community connections to bring people together. ABCD can go much further than that.

Many communities have ‘assets’ in place to remove snow from city streets – but aren’t allowed. Communities have expressed interest in maintaining boulevards, beautifying parks or even participating in building the urban canopy. It can be met with city support but is often stalled in bureaucracy.

Leslie Evans, executive director for the Federation of Calgary Communities said that when they inherited the Block Watch program back in 2009, they used an asset-based approach help communities identify issues they wanted to solve.

“We had many, many different projects that actually revitalized parks and made places safer,” Evans said.

They helped start the Community Development Learning Initiative (CDLI), which began as an asset-based operation. She said either volunteers or staff worked on cultivating the assets in Calgary communities.

“This is about not doing things for the community, but rather empowering them to take control of the organization using their existing assets, their people, the things in their community,” Evans said.

“Like a park that might be run down is still an asset. It just needs to be reclaimed, for example.”

It’s been here, we’re just naming it: Coun. Penner

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer gets a firsthand look at the efficacy of Malissa Sargent’s fabric covering on her back fence. He’s picking the foxtail seeds out of it. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Whether it’s an adopt-a-rink program or community playground builds, this kind of work is already happening, said Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner.  Prior to her first term on council, Penner was the president of the Haysboro Community Association. She saw much of it first hand.

The kind of community action – whether it’s vegetable gardens or dog poop pick ups – isn’t necessarily called asset-based community development, she said.

“We have a lot of it. We just haven’t named it for what it is,” Penner said.

“I think part of what we’re doing here is we’re naming the work. We’re calling it out as a tool to be leveraged in communities.”

Spencer, when he was a part of the Copperfield – Mahogany Community Association, got a provincial grant to run the Abundant Communities initiative for a year. The City of Edmonton department – Abundant Community Edmonton – is based on the ABCD model.

Dozens of neighbourhoods are a part of that program, according to the City of Edmonton website.

He’s put it into action as a councillor already, too. Earlier this year, Spencer and his Ward 12 office arranged a foxtail barley pick around the Mahogany stormwater pond. City personnel were there to facilitate (aka – help pick and then dispose of the plants), but the community was mobilized to do the bulk of the work.

Evans said they also tried to establish an asset-based model for safe communities a few years ago. At that time, she said she couldn’t muster much interest from the City even though they were seeing success using the model.

“I think our city is very focused on risk management,” Evans said.

“We have a lot of assets, our communities do, and so I think we spend a lot of time in compliance areas, as opposed to trying to advance approaches that really genuinely engage people and get people to solve problems.”

‘Take back what we can’: Spencer

Coun. Penner said this is a great place for the City to flex its strength as a convener. The first step is recognizing it and then be the connecting piece to all of the shared knowledge between communities.

“I would hope that would sort of be part of the goal and the outcome so that we don’t necessarily feel siloed in our neighbourhoods, and across the city,” she said.

“We’re learning from each other and are equipped with the language to share it.”

Penner said it’s worth looking at including it as a part of the city’s Local Area Planning process.

Evans said it doesn’t have to be deep asset mapping to start. It just needs to start with connections, she said. One simple example she brought up was a community Whats App group. Neighbours could post about kids getting together in the park, or a family’s need for a Friday night babysitter.

She also recalled a group of southwest Calgary residents cleaning up green space near a train station. They created a biodegradable mural on the side of a building of people’s faces so there would always be community eyes on the park.

Implementing it large scale is possible, too. Like Abundant Community Edmonton model.

“It takes commitment. It takes funding and it takes people that are committed to it to actually get something like that off the ground,” Evans said.

Spencer understands there are impediments to this model.  Many of them are around liability. Others are labour-focused.  As Evans mentioned, funding, too.

He said it boggles his mind, however, that the city activates a park or weeds a shrub bed and puts in fresh mulch.  City employees can be involved, it just shifts to mobilizing rather than doing, Spencer said.

“It feels to me that there’s an awful lot to explore,” he said.

“My hope would be just to take back what we can.”