Balanced Development Outcomes

How to define and measure balanced development success as decreasing economic and racial inequality 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.

Building Block EVIDENCE

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

outdoor rec report page cover
Mapping a New Terrain: Call to Action

As new rural outdoor recreation economies take root, we can meet this moment by improving how we do outdoor recreation development to better support rural families, businesses, and workers, create more sustainable and equitable economic systems, and improve local health and wellbeing.

Research Brief
Equitable Food systems report cover
Using Networks To Build Collaborative And Equitable Food Systems

This brief focuses on local food systems as vehicles for collaboration and racial equity among multiple stakeholders and networks.

measure up report cover
Measure Up: A Call to Action

Today, we have a generational opportunity to strengthen prosperity and equity in communities and Native nations across the rural United…

Research Brief
Defining Rural Success Report Cover
What (and Who) Counts? Defining Rural Development Success

There are no easy solutions for the many challenges that rural Americans face, but it’s clear that rural communities themselves…

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…

rural road through mountains by lake
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…

Logger sitting on machinery next to logs
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…

Rooting a new rural legacy report cover
Stewardship + Equity: Rooting a New Rural Legacy

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

Team walking through wooded field
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…

Group white water rafting
Rural Outdoor Recreation Economies: Challenges and Opportunities

Outdoor recreation is driving new opportunities for local communities in many rural places. See ways to do economic development differently with rural recreation economies.

Aerial view of small mountain town
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…

Field Items Related to Balanced Development

Elkins Community Case Study

In Elkins, WV, creative business owners and city officials are bridging the arts and recreational tourism.

Downtown Revitalization Playbook
Lessons from Appalachia on investing in rural downtowns

This Playbook helps various stakeholders speak the same language of investment, identify key factors that enable investments to be successful, and provides examples of real investments that are leading to downtown revitalization in Central Appalachia.

Small town shopping area
Community Resilience Estimates Tool

The US Census Bureau’s Community Resilience Estimates (CRE) program tool includes a new dashboard and data that helps users understand their communities’ social vulnerability and equity.

DuPage, Illinois, Human Capitak, Financial, Industry, Agriculture, and Institutions and Partnership Capacity levels
Economic Development Capacity Index

The Economic Development Capacity Index (EDCI), uses publicly available data to assess critical elements that contribute to a county’s overall economic development capacity.

Tennessee district map
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, A Guide for Rural Wealth Creation cover from the NADO Research Foundation
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.

Community Benefits logo
Reimagine Appalachia Community Benefits Agreements Resources

Community Benefits Agreements (also known as CBAs or Community Benefit Plans) are legal agreements to get everyone – labor organizations, racial justice groups, environmental entities, faith communities and other local stakeholders – to work together and sign off to ensure the benefits of government dollars are optimized in our communities. This page collects resources on the topic that are useful for all communities.

Reimagining Job Quality Measurement. For too long, the US has measured the health of the our economy by counting the total number of jobs, not whether these are good, dignified jobs that provide financial stability and a ladder to opportunity. As we rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine our measurement systems to more accurately reflect working peoples' experiences and aspirations. The Reimagining Job Quality Measurement report provides bold, actionable recommendations for governmnet, philanthropy, business, and

The Reimagining Job Quality Measurement report provides bold, actionable recommendations for government, philanthropy, business, and the nonprofit sector to strengthen how we collect, connect and use data to tell a fuller story about the economy and the experiences of the workers who power it.

The Economic Benefits of the New Climate Economy in Rural America

Federal investment could support 260,000 rural jobs each year over at least five years to create new economic opportunities in rural places while addressing climate change.

two hands clasping each other
Do Community Benefits Agreements Benefit Communities?

Community benefits agreement (CBA) campaigns have become commonplace nationwide as a way to address income inequality in poor neighborhoods. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston explored the actual effects of CBA campaigns on communities.

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