In this post, John Hitchin explains how we group the work we do on place into five categories that help us to understand different attitudes to change in society.

“What’s the point of talking about place-based? Everything happens in a place, doesn’t it?”

I’ve heard some version of these questions quite a lot and I get it. It’s why I’ve written about what I think the value of the concept of place is in an earlier post.

In my view, there’s a different problem when talking about the role of place in the social sector, which is that people (funders, activists, civil servants) using the term place have different ideas of what kind of place-based change they value.

At Renaisi we group the work of changing a place into five categories, not to separate out the types of activity but to understand different attitudes to change:

  1. Regeneration
  2. Targeting
  3. Devolution
  4. Community
  5. System

While many organisations and funders would think that they straddle the categories we think that they may well deliver activity that can appear in many categories, but that their understanding of change only comes from one. You can do a lot of community focussed work, but still be from a devolution mindset, for example. Or you can employ lots of targeting but understand change as being about systems. I’d love to know what others think about this.

Five different ways to understand place-based change

Place as regeneration – this is a view of change as being about fixing a problem that has affected the economy of the whole place. “That place needs regenerating”. It negatively frames the place, and therefore judges the interventions around their value in fixing the problem. It is, as a result, focused a lot on economic value (Green Book methodologies and the What Works for Local Economic Growth sit neatly here). It can be big, developer led regeneration schemes like King’s Cross, but it can also be smaller approaches to regenerate the local high street of a small town through developer-led land deals. This perspective of change looks for a clear economic return on investment. It would see the community as a stakeholder to engage and the council as a facilitator. It is good at leveraging significant investment as a result of this approach to change.

Place as targeting – this is about seeing change as coming from evidence-based interventions that target resources on places that best fit their approach and work with the context of those areas. “That places lags behind in certain ways” . It can be deficit based, like regeneration, but is typically targeted on a specific social issue or challenge. Place is the way to contain targeting and manage or measure impact, and as a result this type of change may focus more on the programme than the place. It fits with the thinking of the What Works centres, like the Early Intervention Foundation, Education Endowment Fund and others, whereby approaches are tested, replicated and targeted.

Place as devolution – this is a view of change that would result from localising decision making, and potentially tax raising powers, to more local forms of government. “That place needs to take powers back from Whitehall”. It frames the place as being held captive by decision makers that are either malevolent or, more often, not close enough to understand the local realities to make good decisions in service of that place. In this understanding of place local government is crucial; sometimes that would mean municipalism and power in councils, and at other times creating new devolution structures like Metro Mayors and LEPs.

Place as the community – this is a view of change that sees local people as the real sources of knowledge, strength and ownership of a place, and any work must be done with them. “That place has an incredible community”. It is asset-based in its assumption, and creates geographies, ownership and decision making that are legible to local people. Community organising, community development and also the (now much maligned) Big Society approach fit within this understanding of place informed change. The Big Local programme is the biggest single expression of it in the UK, but there are pockets of it everywhere, often far from the eyes of government or foundations.

Place as a system – this is a view of how change emerges from systems of relationships between institutions such as public services, charities, and the community. Places are ways to geographically bound and define the system that emerges from those relationships. “That place needs to think about the whole system, not just the parts”. This has been written about most recently and extensively by Lankelly Chase with Collaborate. It also includes practice in places like Preston, where anchor institutions are working together on community wealth building, or how relationships of trust shift the commissioning of services. All of these activities see a system as being the way to understand the strengths and challenges of a place, and therefore as the way to understand how change emerges.

Why talk about place?

It’s true that everything happens in a place, but not everything uses place in the same way, and if we can understand – or categorise – the attitude towards change, place is really useful because it:

  1. resonates with everybody who lives or works there, which helps build a clear and understandable vision
  2. encourages consideration of people who are not in the room
  3. breaks down service silos and bureaucracies by posing different questions
  4. brings focus on sustaining relationships that engender long term resilience, support and, if you’re into that kind of thing, systems change.

And that’s why it’s worth talking about place.