Is place-based thinking or working the only valid use of place in policy making or delivery of services? Read more in this blog by John Hitchin.

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There is justifiable interest among trusts, foundations, charities and service delivery organisations in ‘place-based’ working and in encouraging local ownership of solutions when looking at social problems.

We define place-based work as rooted in a geography, locally funded and locally designed. The context of that place is crucial, and services could not – or should not – be copied wholesale to another geography.

At Renaisi we’re an advocate of place-based working for a number of reasons:

  1. Merely replicating policy and interventions into different places doesn’t work
  2. Place is a mechanism to bring people and organisations together
  3. Individuals within a place should be involved and not done to

Our interest in the concept of place has been running for over twenty years, during which time we’ve worked on neighbourhood regeneration in London, done lots of work with local authorities, supported the establishment of the Big Local programme and more recently an evaluation of the DCMS and Lottery Funded Place Based Social Action in twenty places across England.

But we’re not sure that being place-based, is the only valid use of place in policy making or delivery of services. In fact, we think that it can be bad for individuals within or using a place if what goes on it that area is defined by that geographic area, and it can exclude key organisations.

Places are, instead, fluid and inter-dependent with the people and organisations that work in or with them.

What do we mean when we say place?

In policy making, place is the understood geographic boundary for a social problem. That problem is experienced in a geographic area, but we at Renaisi – use place to mean the boundary of a geography that is defined by or useful to the people experiencing the issue.

For example, if you’re experiencing a housing problem place might be the estate you live on, if it’s a safety problem it might expand to a few streets. For the challenge of supporting young people to enjoy healthy childhoods, the place might be a whole town, but the local social action and support interventions may work across two wards. So place is when geography interacts with groups of people and a problem that is meaningful to those groups.

We think that there are three fundamentally different perspectives of place, which cannot be reconciled:

  1. Community: There is place as seen by the people who live within it and experience what happens there.
  2. Services: There is place as seen by the people who are delivering a structured service there – whether that’s a business, the public sector, or the voluntary sector.
  3. Investors: There is place as seen by those with money and who want to change things, such as government or philanthropists.

There are also numerous views within each of these three broad perspectives.

Place informed

Place informed working is a way of thinking that understands the differing experiences and perspectives of all the stakeholders within a place, while accepting that the place is constantly changing. It allows those who are not based in a place to contribute to and collaborate with that place.

The distinction is that place-based for us means that an organisation or community is of a place, and a part of it, whereas place-informed is for those who are not of that place, and may work in multiple places, but are trying to work positively in the place and with the context of the place.

Place-based   Place-informed
Of a geography that is defined   In a geography that is defined
Long term and evolving to needs   Shorter term and responsive to context  
Works within and shapes the place   Works with and supports the place  
Builds from local assets and relationships   Brings in external insight and expertise  

We believe that place is a really powerful concept to consider if you are interested in strengthening communities and improving lives but it’s not the only one. Like all concepts it can be misused so next month we’ll be sharing our thoughts on the ambivalence of place.

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