Balanced Development Outcomes

Policymakers and investors in rural and Native people, places, and enterprises define and measure development success as decreasing economic and racial inequality and reducing poverty while building local wealth, sustainability, and resilience.

Investments made in rural places, efforts, and people by large-system resource providers — whether government, philanthropy, or private financial institutions; and whether in the form of grants, loans, or some form of equity – are still most typically judged “successful” using narrow, short-term output measures rather than long-term cross-issue impacts. Thus, too much “development success” in rural and tribal places still focuses more on job creation outputs or loans made and not enough on who is getting those jobs or loans and whether other area assets and efforts may have been reduced or damaged in the process. 

To achieve more equitable rural prosperity today and ensure it for the future, those making development decisions must drive for a balance of outcomes that allow prosperity and opportunity to endure and grow. That balance must include decreasing inequality and poverty and maintaining or strengthening essential natural resources along with business and job growth and retention measures. Improving well-being for more rural people and places requires taking this longer-term perspective.


Evidence suggests this building block is important because traditional economic development assumes that benefits of development are distributed evenly across communities, without considering benefits or harms to specific groups.1 However, experts note that significant gender and racial wealth gaps in the US illustrate that this approach does not benefit all community members, and development approaches that prioritize equity are needed.1 In rural places, balanced development outcomes will stem from improvements in rural data collection,2 linked to measures of wealth and resilience that reflect the unique characteristics, assets, and capital of rural communities.3,4 

Researchers suggest the field should adopt standard measures of equitable growth and collect and disaggregate data to discern progress over the short and long term.1 Dimensions of equity to consider include historical legacy, which suggests equity be understood “cumulatively” in light of “past disparities, discriminatory practices, and exclusion”.5 (For a complete theoretical background of dimensions of equity to consider for use in measurement, see Urban-Martin 2019.5) Recent research also offers guidance for evaluating initiatives’ impact on community resilience.6 Data collected across sectors—such as housing, health, education, and the environment—should include “activities or groups that are likely locations of inequity” and experts emphasize that “equity measurement should be actionable”.5 

One framework for equitable economic development (EED) suggests strategies focused on “small-business expansion, accessible jobs and skills development, strengthening family financial health, and fostering quality neighborhoods” alongside “collective address of interacting barriers to opportunities”—including communities’ past and present experiences of racism and oppression.1 Stipulations for business grants or loans can include hiring locally, paying a living wage, and offering entry level positions. These are common features of community benefits agreements, negotiated by coalitions representing local residents.7 Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), such as the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB) can support community-based nonprofit developers in strategies to prevent resident displacement and gentrification as part of affordable land and housing development.8 Community development organizations can also support initiatives; for example, LISC DC played a key role in the 11th Street Bridge Park project in Washington DC.9

  1. Minzner 2020
  2. Urban-Payton Scally 2020
  3. Urban-Gold 2021
  4. NADO 2016
  5. Urban-Martin 2019
  6. Steiner 2016
  7. Boston Fed-de Barbieri 2017
  8. NALCAB 2021
  9. Urban-Bogle 2016

Curated Resources

People in boat white water rafting
Rural Outdoor Recreation Economies

Tourism and outdoor recreation are driving new opportunities for local communities in many rural places. Analysis of recent news articles and solutions shared with Aspen CSG by rural practitioners provide perspective on how to do economic development differently with rural recreation economies…

People walking with children on their shoulders
Naturally Balanced: What does it take to steward the land and grow rural prosperity?

Rural and Native communities have been stewarding the land for generations. Many are using new ways of growing nature and…

Environmental Justice Practices & Resources for Rural Communities

New efforts focused on environmental justice, just transitions, corporate stakeholder engagement, scientific conservation efforts, and Indigenous wisdom are helping balance natural ecosystems and strengthen local communities…

Pathfinders: Climate-Smart Solutions from Rural America and Native Nations

Jul. 7th, 2022, 2PM

Drought and wildfire in the West, rising seas and erosion in the Mississippi River Delta, and erratic weather patterns throughout…

Place Matters: Suiting Climate Solutions to Rural Regions

A recent New York Times article detailed the climate-related pros and cons of using wood pellets for heating in the Southeast United…

Towards Rural Resilience: Preparation for a Changing Planet

We are ever in search of silver linings. As our changing climate and lopsided growth increase risks for people and places, some rural communities, even as they respond to these challenges, are preparing and looking for opportunity…

Tension as Catalyst: Land Stewardship and Development Align for a Better Rural West

It’s no secret: the fortunes and future of many rural communities, especially in the West, are strongly tied to how natural resources are cared for and managed. In the past, economic development proponents and natural resource champions have often been at odds on resource use…

Collaboration and Innovation for a Better Rural West

The most recent America’s Rural Opportunity event brought together panelists from a forest collaborative, tribal government, environmental group and stewardship organization in Idaho and Oregon…

All Land is not Creating Equal: Unleashing Family and Community Wealth through Land Ownership

Nov. 18th, 2020, 1PM

The YouTube link above is a playlist – it has nine videos that cover all the different sessions of this…

For Our Clean Energy Economy Future, It’s Time to Tap Rural Innovation

Rural communities are integral to our nation’s economy, culture, history, and the environmental services that we all depend on. Yet…

Reframing Natural Resource Economies

This third America’s Rural Opportunity panel will focus on rural innovators who steward the nations’ natural resources and use those resources to create jobs and businesses…

Field Items

Three Ways to Promote Equitable Rural Investments

Urban Institute highlights three ways practitioners, policymakers, and investors can use their new mapping tool to promote equitable investments for all types of rural communities.

Measuring Rural Wealth Creation

This guide from NADO Research Foundation introduces concepts of measuring progress in rural wealth creation for RDOs that are involved in community and economic development within their regions.

Do community benefit agreements benefit community?

Federal Reserve Bank of Boston explores how CBAs can and do benefit communities when the coalitions involved represent diverse community viewpoints and when such coalitions can be held accountable by the broader community itself.

We see the framework as a living document, which necessarily must evolve over time, and we seek to expand the collective ownership of the Thrive Rural Framework among rural equity, opportunity, health, and prosperity ecosystem actors. Please share your insights with us about things the framework is missing or ways it should change.

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group