The New York Times columnist, David Brooks’ comment pieces and books are frequently interesting and challenging: he makes me think. But in a recent piece about an issue incredibly close to Renaisi’s heart, the neighbourhood, I’m afraid that despite some lovely sections, he’s missed the mark.
He argues that neighbourhoods are the unit of change in society.
Neighbourhoods matter greatly, and I think he’s right to bring them firmly into questions of social change. I fear, however, that he has not learnt the lessons of so much practice in the US and the UK in prioritising them in the way that he has.
I am using his article as a hook for my thinking on this. The essay, “You can’t get there from here”, is my view of what the concept of place can and can’t do. It is the start of a new stream of work and practice at Renaisi. If you’re interested in exploring this challenge and opportunity of place with us, then please get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org
But if you don’t have the time for that, my five-point rebuttal of Brooks is:
Despite the above five points, there are some really nice elements to the piece. This is a favourite, and I would say that we need more bounded rationality in our approach to understanding the impact of social programmes, that neighbourhoods (and other scales) can provide:
Thinking in neighborhood terms means radical transformation in how change is done. It means escaping the tyranny of randomized controlled experiments in which one donor funds one program that tries to isolate one leverage point to have “impact.”
Place has been used at different times and in different locations to drive public policy, and in the UK it feels highly central to many conversations again.
But if we don’t think hard about the concept, we are at risk of missing another opportunity to actually change power dynamics, to enable more local work, to redesign how services are delivered and to rethink how money should be spent.
Many important organisations, such as Local Trust, Power to Change and Locality are driving these questions in the community sector, and local government has been grappling with these challenges for a long time. At Renaisi, we believe it is important for their success, and for the work of many other organisations, to ensure that place (or the neighbourhood) is seen as important to everyone. To do that we must have a bigger, and clearer, idea of what the concept of place can and can’t do.
Please read my essay, “You can’t get there from here”, and let me know what you think.
John Hitchin, Chief Executive of Renaisi