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Rural Communities

What is Community Vitality?

Community Vitality is a way of looking at and thinking about communities, and here, rural communities in particular. It is a relatively new idea so its definition is still being developed. Community Vitality is very similar to concepts like "Community Sustainability" or "Quality of Life," and in fact it borrows elements from each, but it differs from each of these slightly.

Community Bridge Photo by Jeff Kubina

Community Bridge
Photo by Jeff Kubina

Before we get to define Community Vitality its important to have a bit of background on the idea. Essentially the idea of a vital community is based in the concept of a good community. But obviously, any one persons definition of a good community will differ from the next persons. Ultimately, there is no universal definition of what a good community is; only different perspectives on what a good community is that vary by peoples morals and their values (Grasso and Canova, 2008). This subjectivity (and subsequent lack of a universal definition) is not unique to the notion of vitality, it is also apparent in the concepts of Sustainability and Quality of Life.

As there is no universal notion of what a good community is and subsequently no universal notion of what a vital community is, it is important to note that the definition we outline here reflects our own values and moral beliefs, and therefore is open to debate.

Broadly speaking, we define Community Vitality as:
The ability of a community to sustain itself into the future as well as provide opportunities for its residents to pursue their own life goals and the ability of residents to experience positive life outcomes.

More specifically, we suggest that a vital community has community capacity (the ability to plan, make decisions, and act together), and realizes positive social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

In 2008-2009 OSU Rural Studies Program and Extension Service faculty worked with two rural Oregon communities to arrive at community-specific definitions of vitality and indicators thereof. The documents below are the products of these efforts, and outline how each community defined vitality and how vital they judged themselves to be in 2009.

Tillamook Vital Indicator Project Wallowa Vital Indicator Project
Full 2009 Report Full 2009 Report
Vitality Summary Vitality Summary
Project presentation Project presentation

Reviews of relevant scientific literature indicate the following as additional indicators of community vitality:

Positive Social Outcomes

A diverse and integrated population
  • Ratio of community to state proportion for the following groups: White, Latino, aged 25-44, and single parent families
  • Perceived Discrimination
  • Ratio of workplace employees and school students to state proportion for the following groups: white, Latino, aged 25-44, and single-parent families
A healthy and educated population
  • Obesity
  • Infant Mortality Rate
  • Positive Mental Health: the % of population with High psychological well-being, high sense of mastery, sense of optimism
  • Suicide deaths
  • Enrollments in: foreign language, labratory science, and adult education
  • % of population over 25 years old with 4 year degree or greater, or with trade/professional degree
  • % of children entering school "ready to learn"
A safe & stable human environment
  • Subjective safety rating
  • Violent crime and child abuse rates
  • % of population, in-migrants from out of county
  • Population growth rate
  • % of homes, seasonally occupied
Community support for residents' needs
  • Out-migration by income, community tenure, and age
  • Community satisfaction with services: health, child care, education, and social
  • Number of libraries per capita
  • Number of schools per capita
  • Presence of training center, community college, college, or university
A sense of place
  • Number of arts, cultural, and historical establishments as well as festivals, parades, and fairs per capita
  • Presence of updated and communicated Community Vision/Values
Community Equality
  • Income inequality
  • Housing conditions by age and Socio-Economic status of owner

Positive Economic Outcomes

A diverse economy
  • % of income by source: employment, transfer, pension, and investment
  • % of jobs by sector (for profit, government, non-profit), by industry, by occupation, and by employer
  • % of jobs/income from self-employment
  • % of firms locally owned
  • Presence of entrepreneurial support systems
  • Number of new businesses and number of new jobs
A match between residents and jobs
  • Unemployment rate
  • Underemployment rate
  • Average or median commute time
  • Population change (increase, in- and out-migration)
Economic opportunities that provide for the needs of individuals and families
  • % individuals and children above poverty rate
  • % above 185% of poverty rate
  • Per capita household income
  • Median houshold income
  • Housing affordability
  • Income sufficiency (ratio of cost of living to median income)

Positive Environmental Outcomes

A healthy natural environment
  • Miles/% of streams with poor, fair, or good water quality index (index includes temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, bacteria, pH)
  • Wetlands acreage change
  • Native fish abundance
  • # of days in violation of clean air standards
  • # of threatening invasive species not contained or excluded
  • Per capita solid waste disposal
Diverse use of natural resources
  • Land use change: change in percent of land in forestry, farming, ranching, urbanized development, and conservation
  • % of land in public ownership
  • % of land in parks (municipal, county, state, and federal)
Well maintained, adequate built environment (roads, utilities, buildings, parks, communication system, and public transportation)
  • Distance to, and presence of 'bridge' transportation to, specific centers: Medical (nearest hospital), Educational (College, Community College main branch), Political (county seat), and Population (nearest urban area)
  • % of population with access to sewer and water systems
  • % of population with Internet and high-speed internet access
  • Number of dangerous or toxic waste clean up sites

Community Capacity

A diverse population of residents and organizations are engaged, work together, and trust each other
  • Composite index score for the extent and diversity of individual civic involvement (volunteering + voting + board membership + task force membership + public office scores) by gender, age, community tenure, income, and race
  • Number of community newspapers, neighborhood associations, churches, community service programs, health or youth centers, recreasional programs, clinics, and mentoring programs per capita
  • Density and impact of trust within networks among community organizations in and outside community
  • People in the community are perceived to (be): willing to help their neighbors, close-knit, trustworthy, generally get along with each other, and share the same values
Leaders are able to effectively engage in the democratic process and produce and implement quality plans for the community
  • Leadership self-efficacy
  • Consensus and collaboration based leadership style
  • Number of community needs assesments and other data used by leaders
  • Presence of Community Vision or Strategic Plan
Adequate and diverse internal and external resources exist, are actively developed, and wisely used to meet the needs of the community
  • Finance expenditure per capita
  • Volunteer hours per capita
  • % of community budget from local taxes, grant, state, and federal fund sources
  • Number of public meeting spaces
  • Number of grant, state, and federal fund applications
  • Resident satisfaction with government


Grasso, Marco and Luciano Canova. 2008. An Assessment of the Quality of Life in the European Union based on the Social Indicators Approach. Social Indicators Research 87: 1-25.

Authored by Mindy Crandall and Lena Etuk, Oregon State University Extension Service (2008)