Assessing Community Capacity
The rapid increase in national rates of disease linked to sedentary lifestyles (e.g., obesity, diabetes and heart disease) has prompted municipalities throughout New Jersey to work toward improving their “activity friendliness”. Often focused on increasing opportunities for walking and bicycling — activities frequently overlooked in Municipal Master Plans or Circulation Plans, active living initiatives have few models to guide development and implementation. Given the inherent community focused nature of active living projects, this lack of a roadmap is not a deficiency but a tremendous opportunity to start from the ground up with the twin goals of identifying community resources to contribute to the project, and securing wide-scale approval for and engagement in the effort. As an organizing tool, an excellent first step is to conduct a community capacity assessment for active living. What follows is 1) an explanation of community capacity and community capacity assessments; 2) a description of the benefits of community capacity assessments for municipalities; and 3) a handy checklist for municipalities to use in conducting community capacity assessments for active living.
According to the nonprofit Aspen Institute, community capacity refers to “the combined influence of a community’s skills, resources and commitment that can be deployed to build on community strengths and address community problems and opportunities.” Others have described it as “the ways and means needed to do what has to be done. It is much broader than simply skills, plans, and people. It includes resources, commitment, and all that is brought to bear on a process to make it successful.” In short, community capacity is a set of qualities inherent to each community that advance and/or constrain it on the path towards its goals.
Community Capacity Assessment
A community capacity assessment is the measurement of various dimensions of community activity and resources, including leadership, participation, financial assets, sense of community, community history, community values, community relationships, skills and knowledge, social and inter-agency networks, and critical reflection. In a community, development activities assessments often use a framework that divides capacity into 5 interrelated components:
Conducting a Community Capacity Assessment
Assessing your community’s capacity entails recognizing those assets that already exist. It generates awareness of community strengths, issues, and problems, as well as a sense of commitment, empowerment, and common purpose on the part of community members. It also facilitates the identification of networks across agencies, organizations and individuals.
A community capacity assessment offers a number of additional advantages to planning and development:
Checklist for Local Community Capacity Assessment
The attached community capacity assessment checklist was developed as a tool for New Jersey municipalities as part of the NJ Walk & Bikes! pilot project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and administered by the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. NJ Walks & Bikes! provided funding and technical expertise for 10 active living projects in nine unique New Jersey communities, and included evaluation by Rutgers researchers of all stages of the project from conceptualization through implementation. During evaluation, researchers identified a striking similarity among those projects with particularly successful outcomes: project leaders had worked with their communities to identify, in a strategic fashion, the lay of the land and the wide variety of resources available. With an improved understanding of their community capacity, leaders were then better equipped to organize for the better of the project.
Working to identify capacity needs specific to active living, and using community development framework for community capacity assessments as a guide, the Rutgers NJ Walks & Bikes! team developed this checklist as an organizing tool for New Jersey municipalities interested in impoving opportunities for walking, biking and active living and building community along the way.
What Can Mayors Do?
Mayors should encourage their community task force to use the following checklist to determine assets and weaknesses that would influence planning for an active living initiative. An inventory of existing programs, previous studies on pedestrian and bicycle safety, resident expertise, etc. will help the task force to design programs based on strengths and to seek technical assistance in areas where knowledge and experience are needed.
Checklist for Local Community Capacity Assessment
√ Community demographic profile Population, education, income, race, ethnicity, age, gender, Community maps of schools, parks and recreation facilities
√ Tourism, industry, economic and labor force data√ Latest status of local overweight, obesity and diabetes rates
√ Latest statistics of traffic conflicts involving cyclists/pedestrians
√ Community health advocacy
√ Hospitals, doctors, dentists, clinics, public health community
√ History of health risks issue awareness efforts
√ Community bicycle/pedestrian advocacy
√ Bicycle/walking clubs
√ Bicycle/pedestrian planners, engineers or consultants
√ Engagement in iWALK (or similar) activities
√ Engagement in Safe Routes to School activities
√ Local Policies and process
√ Local bicycle/pedestrian-related laws and public policies
√ Local enforcement, compliance and regulations record
√ How local laws get passed, timeline
√ Referendum analysis
√ Local politics and elected officals, Assessment/bios of Mayor, city council, and city staff
√ Assessment/bios of other elected officials (county/state level)
√ Potential champions among council and staff
√ Political trends: voting history, political boundaries, election cycle
√ Review of current and pertinent city/county issues
√ Media and communications
√ Newspapers, radio, tv/cable, web-sites
√ Editorial pages
√ Community organization updates, publications or newsletters
√ Community support and polling
√ Existing visions(s) for active living, healthy communities approach
√ Recently conducted community polls or surveys
√ Worksite surveys and community-wide polling
√ Related indicators of support for active living programs