Our view of ‘place’ and where it might take us

I want to like David Brooks’ article, but I think he’s right about neighbourhoods for the wrong reasons.

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: j.hitchin@renaisi.com

But if you don’t have the time for that, my five-point rebuttal of Brooks is:

  • Sometimes the neighbourhood is the unit for change, but sometimes the town is. Sometimes the individual is. I fear that for some of the issues he picks to highlight, the neighbourhood isn’t the right scale.

 

  • But as well as that particular scale challenge, the act of prioritising one scale at the exclusion of the others generally tends to get us into trouble. It doesn’t reflect our actual experiences and lives, which is far more relational between scales and identities.

 

  • Thirdly, I don’t think the piece acknowledges that my experience of the neighbourhood is different from his, and to yours. Talking about a neighbourhood in the way that he does, at times suggests something that doesn’t have much plurality in it. He too often talks about neighbourhood boundaries as if they are a fixed and real system to be tinkered with, rather than a fluid and imagined ecosystem.

 

  • People move around and between places all the time, because they often don’t see them as being innately useful. The neighbourhood as described in this way all too often doesn’t allow for a narrative of movement in our lives.

 

  • Finally, what I think neighbourhoods (and other imagined places) can do is missed in his analysis: they can be receptacles for our everyday interactions of cooperation and living together (see Richard Sennett’s work on this), our relationships and shared assets, and our aspirations and imagined futures. This place that he describes, is a little too present-tense for my tastes. It doesn’t use the benefits of the fact that place it is a collectively imagined and navigated construct.

 

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