Community and Regional Planning Program


First Advisor

Dr. Yunwoo Nam

Second Advisor

Dr. Zhenghong Tang

Third Advisor

Dan Piatkowski

Date of this Version



Ohnoutka, Kristen. (December 2021). Natural Asset Based Community Development in the Nebraska Community Foundation Network. School of Architecture: Community & Regional Planning.


Professional Project For the degree: Master of Community and Regional Planning Community and Regional Planning Program, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Committee Members: Dr. Yunwoo Nam, Chair ; Dr. Zhenghong Tang; Dan Piatkowski. Client: Jeff Yost, Nebraska Community Foundation. December 3rd, 2021

Copyright © 2021 Kristen Ohnoutka


As rural communities explore new ways to stimulate growth and development in their place, one of the biggest challenges they face is reinventing what rural community development is and has been. The conventional way of thinking goes communities must attract new businesses to attract new workers to grow a community’s population. However, population growth and industry attraction are not always equivalent to progress, especially not in rural communities. For decades, rural communities have withstood the boom and bust of industry and economy, whether it be agricultural, industrial, manufacturing, etc. These industries and more have demanded the extraction of rural communities’ assets, resources, and talents to be used and shipped elsewhere for the prosperity of other places. This has left many rural communities desolate and dependent upon outside forces for support. This extractive cycle not only drains rural communities of people and economic wealth but also impacts a place’s overall quality of life and natural landscape. The abundant natural resources found in rural areas have long been sources of industry and life. They often were the source of many communities’ founding and first enterprises. These natural resources are what make communities rural and contribute to their identity and culture. However, what is to happen to these places when the overdevelopment and commercialization of rural landscapes take over? The extractive cycle’s prevalence in rural communities has created two outcomes. The first is the morphing of rural communities into suburban or industrial places. The second is the complete abandonment of a rural community entirely due to the failure of said development. Ultimately, the extractive cycle robs rural communities of their rural identity and exploits the very source of what makes them rural – natural resources. This plan proposes a reinvention of this traditional community development practice in rural communities and hopes to help them remain rural while still progressing as a place. Natural Asset Based Community Development (NABCD) is a unique rural community development tool that reverses the extractive cycle by intentionally investing in environmental and natural assets that are already present in a community. Natural assets are the resources naturally found in a place’s physical environment. Such assets include water, soil, plants, and animals. These assets play a vital role in the economy and industry of a place and the quality of life potential of a place. NABCD proposes that communities view their natural assets as sources for new business opportunities, people and talent recruitment, unique recreational and tourist experiences, and more. This community development approach considers the environmental, social, and cultural value of natural assets and maximizes their use and impact in rural communities. Similar to workforce development, affordable housing, business and industry recruitment, and other common community development approaches, natural assets offer their own value to the community development equation. In this plan, two case studies will present how NABCD has been successfully applied in two communities – Norfolk, Nebraska, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Both of these communities have emphasized a natural asset in their place and invested significantly into the development of those assets. Norfolk, Nebraska in recent years, has taken significant steps toward reinvesting into their North Fork Riverfront, including a redesign that allows for white-water rafting, a reinvigorated community space in the park that abuts the river, and new commercial and residential opportunities along its banks. The results of this recent reinvestment have helped spur serious economic growth throughout the entire community. Local sales tax receipts from the years 2016 – 2021 (before the project to the present day) prove how the North Fork Riverfront Redevelopment project has sparked new energy in the downtown area, contributing to a significant increase in local spending and new business growth. 6 The next case study is a well-known, Midwest community practicing NABCD – Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This community had not always properly invested in the unique natural resources its place had to offer. However, once community leaders and the city bought into the idea of fixing up Falls Park, the city saw almost an immediate return on investment in population growth. 2020 US Census Bureau data will prove how population growth saw consistent increases over the decades as this project progressed as compared to a city of similar size in the Midwest – Lincoln, Nebraska. The outcomes of both of these cases present data-driven results that prove how NABCD can contribute to a community’s overall wealth and continued growth. These results, as well as NABCD recommendations, are presented in this plan for the Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF), a non-profit, statewide community development organization that works to help rural Nebraska communities achieve their dreams through philanthropy, grant assistance, and capacity building programs, to establish the NABCD framework. In its work as a non-profit community development organization, NCF assists more than 200 Nebraska community foundations from all across the state. They provide education and training opportunities, resources, policy assistance, gift planning guides, and a virtual library full of “real-life examples of the impressive work affiliated funds are doing across the state,” (, 2021). Through this support, community funds are empowered to raise local dollars for unrestricted community projects, including early childhood centers, activity centers, health and wellness facilities, as well as developing grant opportunities to support local community organizations. This place-based approach to community development is the foundation of NCF and what has made them so successful over the last 25 years. This has also made them a fitting partner to support this plan’s work and promote it throughout their network of Nebraska communities. Although NCF is focused on rural community development, currently, there is not a concentrated effort within its network to incorporate natural assets into that work. NCF’s leadership, however, recognizes the important role natural assets play in the future of Nebraska hometowns and their economic prosperity. Therefore, as the client of this professional project, NCF has initiated this plan as a first step toward incorporating natural assets into their community development work. This plan will provide NCF with a framework for NABCD, recommendations for implementation, and two case studies of communities that have successfully integrated this approach into their place. NCF intends to use this plan to assist in its future program and partnership development, as well as to guide future goal setting for the organization which prioritizes natural assets. Ultimately, this plan will assist NCF and its entire network of 270 Nebraska communities in seeing their natural environment as a highly valuable community asset to be invested in.