We have had several runs at the idea of place based reform in the network meetings. Frank Oberklaid, a paediatrician, a person trained to treat children one case at a time, noted that a disproportionate of his patients come from selected neighbourhoods in Melbourne. Why, he asked, treat the child when more might be achieved by treating the place?

Place in the Heaney poem has meaning. It is part of who we are. It says something about us.

In the last session, I shared the evidence on context, citing my doctoral student Amelia Kohm’s work on why good people do bad things, and why bad people do good things. If I could cajole her into a single answer to this question she would say context. If I asked her to carry on talking she would cite Sampson and Earles work showing that levels of collective efficacy (a form of trust) in a community explained crime rates; or Putnam’s work showing how social capital in communities and schools explains differences in educational outcomes and performance in the job market. Amelia’s answers would say good and bad behaviour isn’t about the individual, it is about things around the individual.

Which brings us to John Hitchin’s work on place. He starts with a Seamus Heaney poem. Let's take a few of the stanzas:

  • Beyond maps and atlases
  • Woven into itself, like a nest
  • Me in place, and the place in me.

We get two dimensions of a possible definition of place from the poem alone.

1. Place in the Heaney poem has meaning. It is part of who we are. It says something about us.

2. Place goes beyond maps and atlases -although alas a lot of placed based work focuses on geography alone, usually the boundary of a local authority, or a CCG, or an area of high economic deprivation. If we think about place that has meaning for us, we might think about a collection of streets or a neighbourhood or an apartment block. The boundary we set around places that have meaning to us is fluid.

(For the same reason, when we describe ourselves, we might refer to several places, especially those of us who have changed in economic class or have moved from North to South or from one country to another).

Placed based work changes the context around the individual, often without any direct contact with the individuals who may benefit.

John’s work helpfully sets out the different functions of place based work, to regenerate economically, the devolve power to citizens, to target high risk populations….

Consistent with the way we learn, I want to dig down another layer below these categories and ask ‘what is the mechanism involved in placed based work?’. What explains how the focus on place leads to a change in outcomes for the individual?

The answer brings us back to Amelia’s work, but with a bit more precision. Placed based work changes the context around the individual, often without any direct contact with the individuals who may benefit. So, placed work can:

  • Shift power, putting more into the hands of citizens
  • Alter flows of money so that it circulates more times in a place before departing to be spent elsewhere
  • Increase the opportunity for connection in a community
  • Give citizens more reasons to have pride in their place.

Many more examples can be added to this list. What binds them together is the idea that they contribute to a context that sits around the individual, a context that is amenable to change, and that once changed will leads to some improvement in the lives of people who live in that place. But that leave the agency of the individual intact. The citizens decides if and how they will change.