May 7, 2020 Kim Hopes

Exploring the Ecology of Neighborhoods (Learning Twenty-six)

John McKnight
Co-founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute

A common definition of ecology is that it is the relationships of groups of living things and their environment. While the word was first used in the science of biology, it has more recently come to be used for the interrelatedness of almost everything, including communities.

Applied to local human communities, we hear of the “ecology” of a family and its network. We also recognize the ecology of the three basic institutions – the relationships of government, not for profit corporations and business organizations. However, there is a local ecological domain manifested in the relationships of local associations – the groups, clubs, and organizations that are usually small face-to-face groups of citizens who do their work without pay. We call them “voluntary associations” because their work is outside the marketplace.

To understand the ecology of associations, consider the human structures of locality. At the primary level is the individual, their family kinship network and allied friends. At the secondary level are the voluntary associations, formal and informal. These groups are collective expressions of the interests, identities, causes and affinities of local residents. They are the primary sites where the work of citizenship occurs. The tertiary level of locality is the neighborhood institutions. These organizations of paid people have their own distinctive interests and functions. The institutional networks and relationships are intensively studied by graduate schools of management. The collective efficacy of the associational domain is much less studied and often not even recognized as the secondary social structure in society.

To understand the associational domain and its relationships, a few basic features of the associational terrain helps us find our way in understanding associational ecology.

The Prevalence of Associations
Thought of as the secondary social structure in a neighborhood, neither neighbors nor social scientists usually see the collective space occupied by associations. This is usually because they are thought of as informal, impermanent, unstructured and consequently unimportant. This combination of factors commonly leads to associational “invisibility.” Therefore, their interrelationships are not a serious question to be examined.

One exploratory study of associations in a town of 5,600 people found at least 81 associations with names. This indicated at least one association for every 70 people. Other studies of associational prevalence in varied localities are appended as Exhibit 1.

While these “associational maps” are preliminary probes, they suggest that in local communities, making visible the associational domain can provide the elements of an eco-map and an opening to understanding the primary work of citizens.

The Web of Associational Relationships
Once the associational prevalence becomes visible the nature of their interrelationships can be identified. At least five primary relationships emerge. First, each association creates a context for relationships that empower each member. Second, the associations have relationships with each other when they engage in collective initiatives. Third, some associations have relationships with regional, statewide or national organizations. Fourth, many associations have relationships with local non-­‐governmental institutions including businesses and not-for-profit groups. Finally, the associations have relationships with governments, primarily at the local level.

The Civic Benefits of the Associational Web
The dense, vertical and horizontal associational web is in itself a structure that provides several community benefits. These include:
1. The structure is a network that communicates information among the community actors.
2. The information creates the basis for partnerships, coalitions and joint activities.
3. The network enhances the effectiveness of both the institutions and associations.
4. The connections between associations and institutions facilitate bridging as well as bonding.
5. The entire structure is the community generator of social capital.

The infrastructure of Communal Well-being
As the intricate ecology of associational relationships is manifested it produces the social capital that is the primary necessity for well-being. These include:
• The vehicle for problem solving and community invention.
• The primary connections that create the power to decide and act as advocates.
• A safety net of services and funds
• The continuity of care for the vulnerable
• The individual knowledge that, when shared, enables mutual education among adults as well as local children.
• The support of a community culture that identifies “our way” reflected in stories, ceremonies, rituals and celebrations.

Finally, the key to this ecosystem is human relationships with each other and a place. The activating force within the associational domain is connectiveness. It’s manifestation in practice is the person, group or institution that precipitates connections non-hierarchically. This “connector” is often the spark that energizes the community’s capacity to create a culture for the common good. And another name for the associational ecosystem is the common good. We are common people living in an inescapable ecos where each of us knows and celebrates our interconnected commonality.

Download PDF

[1] Several guides to identifying local associations are included in the list of publications of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute ( They include: Voluntary Associations in Low In See ABCD Institute website (, Publications, A Study of the Community Benefits Provided by Local Associations.come Neighborhoods; New Community Tools for Improving Child Health; Getting Connected.

[2] See ABCD Institute website (, Publications, A Study of the Community Benefits Provided by Local Associations.


Connect with us to receive information about
upcoming ABCD Institute trainings and events.


DePaul University Steans Center
2233 North Kenmore Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614

(773) 325-8344

John L McKnight

© 2011 – 2019 an initiative of Common Change in collaboration with John L McKnight