Such a simple question eh? Who needs even 500 words to answer that? We may broadly agree that it’s a recipe of sorts; a few key ingredients with some optional extras that are dependent on your personal taste and flavour; 8oz of an aesthetic and clean physical environment, a large knob of aspirational work opportunity, a heaped tablespoon of community cohesion, equal amounts of social and cultural capital, a generous dollop of prosperity, creativity, diversity and integration. A few sprinkles of tolerance, hope and mutuality. Finish off with a dusting of aspiration. Bake for a minimum of 30 years (you can keep on adding those ingredients throughout the baking process for an even richer and larger portion of place, although if you do – please extend the bake time accordingly).

Place based initiatives have become the newest breed of zeitgeist’s in a hectic world of regeneration and inclusive economy zeitgeists.

A new place-based approach is launched almost every other week and there’s a great big appetite for talking about place, community, identity and those that have been left behind.

That’s a good thing, it’s a conversation we need to have. Despite decades of regeneration investment, devo policy, regional initiatives, enterprise partnerships and participatory budgeting efforts, the cool winds of a globalizing economy, combined with austerity, political uncertainty and manufacturing decline, have ensured that we remain living in an inherently unequal society, a society where your postcode of birth determines too much of what sort of life you’re likely to lead and how long you are likely to live it.

An obvious starting point for discussions of place would be the physical space; the environment we need to ensure our wellbeing and contentment: An aesthetic that is clean, safe, comfortable, creative, accessible and evolving.

I’ve spent many years doing my bit to drive opportunity and renewal into communities that have long experienced the impacts of de-industrialisation or decline and for whom large chunks of their populous struggle to find identity, pride in their place, opportunity, aspiration, and all too often – hope. Despite the halcyon days of multiple Single Regeneration Budgets and New Deals for Communities, it feels as if little lasting change is maintained. Even the newest, tallest, shiniest steel obelisk can quickly lose its lustre without an accompanying maintenance budget.

For decades regeneration has been obsessed with the physical. ‘Let them shop at a new retail development’ is the modern-day equivalent of letting them eat cake. The physicality of our environments is terrifically important, but it is not enough.

If it were simple or easy, our communities would surely be in better shape than many currently are? There is no lack of effort to re-imagine and kick start recovery in our most deprived areas. Places, communities, towns, cities and neighbourhoods do not exist in isolation from the society and the world which we have built, and therefore we can’t really solve the challenges of place nor community, without wider thought about how our economy or our society and the power systems within it, are both structured and constructed.

The question therefore, is more what it takes to improve our country / economy / world. Suddenly even the prospect of 30,000 words feels far too few. And one thing is certain, no individual, however many words at their disposal, has all the answers or ideas to really resolve the size and scale of the ever-shifting challenges.

To really improve a place, we need to think beyond the physical – we need to enter the realms of economic activity, democratic participation, community cohesion, integration and innovation.

But places are not just about how we interact with the physicality around us. Places are more than climate, buildings and views. Places are where we develop aspects of our identity; where we learn, where we work, where we socialise and where we dream and where we forge relationships with others. Curating a place that supports everyone to achieve their ambitions and potential requires much more consideration than how a place is simply designed and constructed.

To really improve a place, we need much greater emphasis on and consideration of the non-physical structures that exist – those that determine social mobility, diversity, personal development, integration, connectivity and the factors that can inspire imagination and new ideas to emerge from within. These factors are inherently a blend of social, political, environmental and technological circumstances and constructions. To improve a place, we must get to grips with these issues too. These are economic more than physical.

In recent months there has been much discussion about the ‘Cleveland model’ which has been adopted and re-imagined within a UK context to become the Preston model.

The Preston model makes no reference to the physical environment and instead looks to identify and utilise the economic levers of spend to improve their place.

The Preston model utilises the economic activity of ‘anchor’ institutions such as the council, the university and the NHS to drive local spend into local businesses with the goal of increasing flows of cash into the pockets of local people, who in turn spend their money with other local businesses. The ambition is, one hand, a laudable attempt to retain wealth within a community and to create a sustainable economic Nirvana. On the other is not a million miles away from Trump’s economic blue print to make America great again.

Of course, neither physical improvements, nor creating additional economic flows can be guaranteed to make sustainable improvements to a place. Places are multi-faceted, complex things and require more than injections of cash and new aesthetics. Place is based on interdependent and inter-connected determinants.

And that leads me onto my final thought: People. People make a place; their collectivism, their cultural identities, their dominant rules and social norms. People are perhaps the most critical factor in place making, regeneration, creation of sentiments such as pride, hope, collectivism and unity.

How we curate our society and what we prioritise when we do so is the ultimate way in which we influence and shape place. Regeneration, localism, social mobility or devolution or cannot be taken in isolation. Place is fundamentally dependent upon and entwined within our education, health, industrial, environmental, economic and planning processes and policies.

If we are to talk of our aspirations and ambitions for place, then we need to do so through a lens of community development as much as through physical upgrades.

And yet for decades the actual regeneration of place has been moved people out – rather than up. Gentrification has been the familiar outcome for too many people who have been promised physical regeneration. This does not improve a place but tends to transform, redevelop and disrupt – at least for the existing residents.

If we accept that people are inherent to place, then to improve a place requires us to work with communities rather than to displace them. If we want to create more integrated, aspirational and more entrepreneurial places then we need to think about how we do community development much more than regeneration.

This approach requires investment into young people, early years education, parenting, training, support for commercial and social start-ups, community engagement. It means taking a holistic approach to place rather than a physical one. It means curating a society which is agile, responsive, meritocratic and empowered. One that has clearly defined, accessible routes for community voice, participation and innovation. Places and communities that are more self-determining, not just subject to the consequences of national decision making. And it will cost money, possibly lots of money, but the prize is a big and valuable one. Harmonious, prosperous, ambitious communities do not suck up the same resources required to treat depression, intervene in gang violence or resolve vandalism or obesity. Harmonious, prosperous, ambitious communities drive and create new wealth and resource into the places where they live, work and exist.

And so, my conclusion is the only way to really improve place is to improve society. To improve society means tackling intergenerational, geographic, and social inequalities. It means improving efforts around social norms of citizen and business responsibility. It means greater community empowerment; providing authentic reasons for citizens to involve themselves in civic, cultural and political life. And it means understanding the complex yet interdependency between our physical environment and the catalysts and barriers that affect both human and community behaviours.

About the author:

Peter is the Chief Executive of Social Enterprise UK, the national body for social enterprises. Prior to SEUK, Peter was chief executive of Sunlight Development Trust. During his time there Peter became one of the country’s most well-respected social entrepreneurs, responsible for the regeneration of some of the UK’s most deprived communities.

SEUK lead the sector through research, support, advocacy and practical programmes to build the demand for social enterprises. Renaisi is a proud member of SEUK, and works with them on some research and evaluation projects.

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@peteholbrook