According to Asset-Based Community Development theory, the “economy” and “physical environment” are two building blocks of communities. Economies, depending on their structures, can build local wealth or engender poverty. In a “local economy” community members themselves own a greater percent of businesses. More dollars stay in the community. The physical environment can encourage or hinder relationship-building and local economies, too, such as by the prevalence of the automobile, and affordability of housing.
Recently, I experienced how local economy and physical environment build community in Puerto Vallarta (PV), Mexico. PV is an international tourist destination on the Pacific coast; (it was a thriving Mexican village long before Americans discovered it thanks to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who had an affair there). Now, 50% of PV’s economy is dependent on tourism mostly from Mexico, the US, and Canada, and 50% of income comes from industry and agriculture.
Puerto Vallarta provides a feast for the senses, as these photos show, including the wailing voices of musicians and their twanging guitars, the rainbow of colorful artwork hanging from vendors’ stalls, the rich taste of chocolate mole, salsas, and seafood in artisan food shops, the locally-distilled tequila, the smell of flowers that shop owners lovingly plant in front of their stores, and the feeling of peso bills in my hands as I buy treasures to take home. How can one place be so filled with life, culture, and creativity?
PV's physical environment encourages Asset-Based Community Development because it fosters relationships, the "song of community." The beach area’s streets and sidewalks encourage face to face connection by encouraging people to walk (not drive), to explore, and to linger. Along the entire beachfront, over one mile in length, is a malecón, or pedestrian boardwalk, attracting thousands of pedestrians at any given time. There is no cost for admission, no dress code, and no car required. People young and old, rich and poor, foreign and local, meet there. In addition, there are three plazas along the malecón, more opportunities for gathering and for vendors to sell their handmade foods and crafts.
Storefronts throughout the town are small, conducive to local economies because of the low cost of entry. Almost anyone can afford to start a small shop, and this environment supports diverse shopping experiences such as massage shops, tax preparers, sausage makers, candy stores, and handicrafts. In addition, the small storefronts discourage the types of corporations that fill warehouses and also drive local businesses out-of-business. The malecón, the plazas, and the small-scale storefronts are all examples of how PV’s physical environment supports the local economy.
In PV, individuals' gifts and talents are the drivers of the local economy. Mexican culture is profoundly diverse and rich, and on the malecón, the 'asset' of Mexican cultural richness is regularly expressed through creative enterprises. Artists, sculptors, weavers, street performers, chefs, jewelers, and musicians make their living. A man sells purses he makes from the pull tabs on top of aluminum cans. Voladores perform by flinging themselves off a 40 foot pole and spinning upside down to re-enact an ancient ceremony. Two sand men play a chess game of sand pieces while pouring sand wine. Food is served in countless stalls. It is these locally created masterpieces that create the incredibly rich experiences that continues to draw tourists to PV.
I do not wish to so romanticize the local economy in PV that I fail to mention that global economic forces are inequitable. Developing nations like Mexico suffer from low wages. The GDP per capita in Mexico is only $18,900 (Wikipedia). Unfortunately wages in PV's tourism sector are low and seasonal. While a local economy certainly helps create parity and wealth in communities, global economies must also be structured to benefit all people, not just the wealthy.