What is Place-Based thinking?
And what does it mean for your business, program or sector?
Place-based thinking is both a concept and a practice. It is a way of thinking and working that can focus the efforts and resources of a range of sectors or specialties on common objectives and common outcomes.
It doesn't even have to be about a specific physical locale. Place-based thinking is just as powerful when the place you are focused on is your team, department or corporation.
In the words of current policy-speak, it is the most effective way of achieving "horizontality", because it can overcome our tendency to fragment complex issues into small pieces that fit within the scope of a particular department or program. Or, to borrow from another phrase, we tend to come at complex issues with our particular hammer, hoping that every problem is a nail. But you can't build a house with just a hammer.
Communities and people are complex, with multitudes of variables, decisions, resources and needs affecting each other all the time. We have built complex systems around us, but tend to try to use simple solutions to fix problems. The reality is that complex problems require complex solutions: multi-faceted approaches that are responsive to local conditions, needs and opportunities, or as the British say, "joined-up" thinking.
One of the best ways to coordinate those complex approaches, responses and solutions is to focus efforts on specific places. This puts all the pieces of the problem back into context, so you can see the big picture again, and decide whether it's a hammer or a screwdriver that's needed.
That's what place-based thinking is, and the evidence from around the world is, it works. It makes better policy, better programs, and better outcomes than conventional "hit it with a hammer" approaches to working with human communities.
So why doesn’t it happen? Why do we continue to see programs in one area conflicting with or undermining programs in other areas? Or in simpler terms, why are our streets dug up to put in new infrastructure six months after the new road was put in?
Modern approaches to policy and programs tend to operate within defined specialties. You can see this in the way universities, hospitals, governments and businesses are structured, where each specialty, department or sector has its own internal structure, often with little or no interaction with other sectors or departments except through defined management channels.
You can also see this in the way cities are structured. The main effect of the introduction of modern “Euclidean” urban planning has been wholesale segregation of human and economic functions into zones – shopping over here, industry over there, multi-family housing over there and “regular” family housing over there. The roads and utilities that tie all those zones together are also categorized - residential streets to collectors to arterials to highways. Even the financial industry prefers clear-cut differentiation of uses, and their financing mechanisms often penalize more integrated, and thus more complex and more human, design.
These kinds of system structures lend themselves well to professional management practices, which value rationalization and “efficiency” above all else. The problem is, we humans, our ecologies and our lives aren’t actually divisible into pieces that fit neatly into categories. Frankly, from a professional bureaucratic management perspective, humans and communities are irrational, always coming up with new ways to foil carefully designed business flow charts and processes. Which is why when we humans interact with bureaucracies, whether big business or big government, it is often a less than satisfying experience for all involved.
Place-based policy making is an attempt to put all the pieces back together. It recognizes that communities and the people who live there are complex entities, and conventional single-specialty approaches to working with, investing in or rebuilding those communities tend to go wrong because they do not, and to some extent can not, account for the complexities of the systems they are trying to work in.
Even when a common approach to policy issues or services is chosen, responses still tend to get fragmented because separate Departments tend to bring their own specialized perspectives - their hammers - to the problem, and thus their own, distinct perspectives on solutions - treat everything like a nail.
In the worse cases, the outcomes of one approach can conflict or even undermine the outcomes of another, parallel program, resulting in a lot of time, money and effort for little or no gain.
This system is negatively reinforced because far too often the measures we use to assess the outcomes of programs or investments are self-referential, based on what the program or service was designed to do, not the original policy or business problem.
So if the program was designed to spend $1 million on “community revitalization” activities, success is measured by how many projects matching the description of being about “revitalization” were actually funded. And guess what? Groups and agencies are really good at making what they do look like what funders want to see because that's the only way to get funding, even if it's not for what the group really needs to be doing.
Often called “silos” or "stove pipes" because of the top-down but segregated verticality of this method, governments and businesses have spent much of the past decade trying to inject some horizontality into their systems so that the outcomes of all that activity and investment can actually reinforce each other, actually address the policy or business issue that drove the process in the first place.
That’s where place-based approaches come in. The managerial approach to delivering services often exists in a rationalized abstraction of both the policy issue and the communities in which the issue actually exists. Place-based approaches presume that what happens on the ground is what matters, and that programs, services and funding all need to work to meet the actual, real challenges of particular places.
When it works, what happens is that the different departments actually work together before any policies or programs are designed, and, as much as possible, try to align their programs so that they mutually reinforce each other to achieve commonly defined and understood outcomes. The outcomes are measured against the original policy objectives, not just the outputs of the programs or services, and programs are flexible enough to respond to unforeseen opportunities, and revised based on what works and what doesn’t.
That’s the theory, but the core of place-based policy making isn’t the what, it’s the how.
The above approach can still be a silo if it remains top-down. If the policy issue is identified in a vacuum, then chances are the resulting policies and programs will remain in that rarefied space and not really work to address life in the community.
The way to do place-based policy making is to get out into the community and find out what is really going on. There's a number of ways to do this, mostly depending on whether it's the community leading the process or the business, government or agency. Regardless, the goal is to assemble multi-disciplinary teams from any and all relevant sectors (ideally including residents of the communities you intend to work in), and give them the mandate to work together and with the residents of the target community to help them help us understand what needs to be done.
One of the most fascinating moments in place-based work is when that team gets together for the first time. You'll see people from one discipline talking to and working with people whose respective fields of work were barely imagined by other team members. The point being, those other people are also doing things in the same community, often at the same time. It's this joining up of perspectives that gets everyone on the same page - the much hoped for horizontality.
A good place for this team to start is collecting and, if necessary, developing good data that tells you what is going on in that place, and what has or will have changed as a result of your actions and investments. Statisticians generally reject neighbourhood-level data as being meaningless because the sample sizes are too small for statistical analyses of national or regional trends. But good quantitative and qualitative measures of a neighbourhood are essential for helping to paint a picture of what is going on in that neighbourhood. Even better if that data is formatted into a few solid indicators that reflect the policy issues and desired outcomes of the work.
The next step, however, is the critical one. This team has to get out into the community and talk to the people who live there. That’s who all this work is for, whether it be rebuilding a road, improving health care and social services, community safety, a new grocery store or a new library.
Of course, that’s actually the hard part, because as you’ve probably noticed, there’s been no mention of policy or program development, no requests for proposals or funding applications. In other words, nothing for the rationalized bureaucratic system to do. Worse yet, the professional experts who have been trained to abstract issues down to component pieces are suddenly confronted with data and experiences and ideas that just don’t fit with their accepted truths and practices.
One of the fears the experts often bring to this sort of process, especially from governments, is that community expectations will be raised that can't be delivered on. Well, those expectations, hopes and dreams were already out there, but weren't being listened to or dealt with in constructive ways. Place-based thinking means that you implement a process that than helps people understand how systems work, how decisions get made and why some decisions make more sense than others. Then those expectations have some context, and generally get tempered, become more practical and realistic, and more importantly, supported by the community as a wh0le rather than a vocal few. I would add that community expectations of governments and businesses are no more unrealistic than business or government expectations and assessments of communities, at least not when each are living in their respective vacuums. Getting to know each other helps everyone understand what can and should be done.
Place-based thinking helps both communities and policy experts to learn and understand how complex systems work and what they can do to change things. The decisions that get made might not be the ones that policy experts would have made on their own, but they tend to be decisions that communities accept and support.
And you don’t just do this once then go away and write a report. Expectations are raised by all involved, and the process itself demands accountability for actions and decisions for years to come. Which perhaps also helps explain why place-based approaches to policy and program development are the exceptions rather than the rule, and why so many of our current policies and programs turn into exercises in frustration, disappointment and cynicism for all involved.
Some places are getting it right, particularly in the UK and Europe, and have become quite sophisticated at changing how their policies are developed and implemented with, through and often by local communities. In the UK, special parliamentary powers were established to ensure joined-up approaches to investing in eleven target cities, which is sometimes what it takes to overcome the inertia built into the system.
Unfortunately, Canada lags well behind even the United States in adopting more place-based approaches. Some Canadian cities are moving ahead, most notably Vancouver, with its Neighbourhood Integration Service Teams that, for the past 15 years have brought a multi-disciplinary approach to municipal service delivery in all of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Saskatoon has probably the best neighbourhood-level data of any Canadian city, and a solid Local Area Planning process that helps everyone understand what is going on and what needs to happen in core neighbourhoods.
Below are some links to other examples of good practice, as well as analysis of why place matters to the public and private sectors.
Some businesses are beginning to experiment with this more holistic approach to providing goods and services, whether they call it place-making or not, though even place-bases sensibilities seem to be making a comeback. Hilton Hotels new "Denizen Hotels" brands are reintroducing an affinity for local vs. nowhere: "Born modern, with global appeal and a local accent Denizen Hotels will become a cultural epicentre at each of its destinations, cultivating community within its walls. Eclectic, social and humbly authentic, each property within the brand will be smart in design, cultural in character and sensitive in service delivery". Not sure what all that means, but clearly someone out there thinks that responding to place makes business sense.
In a related vein, there is growing attention to the de-specialization of the ubiquitous shopping mall, specifically, the reintroduction of mixed uses into once powerful "power centers". "Malls built over the last few decades are being refurbished into so-called lifestyle centers, a term created by developers to describe what may be the world’s oldest location for retail commerce: an urban mixed-use community. More and more, the nation’s "dead malls"... are being turned inside out. Buildings are taking a new form as vibrant, walkable neighborhood centers that are tied into the street grids of surrounding neighborhoods and by connections to public transit and bike and walking paths. Some envision these new spaces as a major force toward the re-urbanization of the United States".
Loblaws, a huge supermarket chain based in Canada, has also gradually (re)built a whole new kind of shopping experience. Not only can you buy your milk and bread, not to mention do your banking, buy your children’s clothes and basic household furnishings and even book a trip in one place, but you can eat your dinner, work out at the gym, take an evening class in cooking, book-keeping or computers, and even visit your dentist and doctor, all in the same structure. Loblaws has, in effect, rebuilt the village of old under one huge roof. You may scoff at the commercialization of it all, but there is no doubt that Loblaws and others are tapping into a desire for a more human (and perhaps more convenient) way of living.
One last point. “Place” is generally conceived of as a physical locality like a neighbourhood, and most of the literature on place-making is focused on infrastructure like roads and housing, or social and economic development programs. However, an individual is a sort of place as well, and particularly in the health sector, the idea of working with the whole person in the context of their whole lives, rather than just as a patient, is another form of place-based thinking. It is this kind of joined up approach that holds the most promise for dealing with some of our seemingly most intractable problems, like homelessness, reversing neighbourhood decline, and building communities that are healthy, complete places to live rather than just places to sleep between commutes to work.
Healthier people, healthier communities, healthier regions and healthier nations - that's what place-based thinking can do for you. It isn't easy only because we have so much invested in doing things the wrong way. But place-based thinking is how most of us think about ourselves, our families, our communities. Wouldn't it be nice if the rest of the systems we live in thought that way too?
© copyright 2009 Russell Mawby Places Group Corp.
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Canadian examples of place-based policy making.
|City of Vancouver Neighbourhood Integration Service Teams|
|Action for Neighbourhood Change - Place and Policy|
|Canadian Policy Research Networks - Place-based Public Policy|
|City of Saskatoon Local Area Planning program|
|Ottawa Neighbourhood Study|