What does it take to improve a place?

Renaisi has been helping people and places to thrive for more than 20 years.

We started life in Hackney Council, created to regenerate deprived neighbourhoods, and this has shaped us considerably over the years. We still work in Hackney and we still care about improving places as much as ever but the funding, economic, technological and social environment we now work in is vastly different to that of 1998.

There are two essential threads to our 2018 to 2022 strategy:

  1. we start with a question not an answer;
  2. and we want to work with a network of individuals and organisations who care about answering that question too.

The question ‘What does it take to improve a place?’ is far too big to have one answer or to be worked on by one organisation alone.

In that spirit of asking questions and sharing learning, we asked twenty brilliant practitioners to give us their answer for our twentieth anniversary. We were humbled by their willingness to answer it so thoughtfully and are delighted to share those perspectives on our anniversary page

The answers to the question are varied, but there are some shared approaches in how our authors went about answering it. You can read all the essays and watch the videos here.

Setting out a ‘big picture’ answer

  • Kirby Swales reflects on the experience of past approaches, and the need to be really clear about which places we think we want to improve, and in what ways and through what tools. Kirby shows that there is more evidence than we think about how to do this, but it is not always applied.
  • Matt Leach pulls together some of the fascinating and important insights from the first six years of the Big Local programme, underlining its radical potential to help us rethink what communities can do with trust, long term commitment and small amount of money.
  • Peter Holbrook brings together all of his experience, focussing on the need for long term and systemic change, which balances the physical capital, the economic realities and the people that make up communities.
  • Vidhya Alakeson describes the ways in which community businesses are both shaped by and shape the places in which they are based, using examples of real change to make her point.

Challenging some of the assumptions of the question

  • Matthew Humphries, in a fascinating essay based on his experience of a ten-year programme in his neighbourhood, talks about the often forgotten but essential role of learning in programmes of change. He also used one of my favourite lines in the collection, given how many authors played with the distinction of change and improvement as concepts: “Change happens whatever we do, so it is important to try to shape change so that it makes an improvement”
  • Bethia McNeil problematising the question, querying some of it’s challenging assumptions, but also suggests ways forward for us to think about the challenge in a much more collective and collaborative way than policy and funding has in the past.

Learning from the experiences of individual places

  • Philip Glanville has written a seriously impressive recent history of Hackney, with an optimistic look to the future.
  • Rowan Longhurst highlights the challenges and opportunities of improving the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
  • Simon Pitkeathley looks at Camden, and the role that business improvement districts have had as being catalysts for creative, ambitious and impactful projects
  • Steve Coles looks at the important focus on wellbeing in his organisations work with people with multiple and complex needs in a small patch of East London
  • Thomas Neumark, building on his wider experiences, explores the challenges of mixed communities in Clerkenwell. A classic London problem of very different levels of wealth living cheek-by-jowl: but does it ever mix?

Understanding the relationship between place and a public policy issue

  • Alex Smith, building on the work of the Cares Family, emphasises the essential role of neighbours and neighbourliness to both places and our own sense of connection and isolation.
  • Helen Walker highlights the power of language to shape our understanding of place and how we engage with it, underlined how excluded those who don’t speak English can be from their place.
  • Jess Studdert precisely walks us through the intrinsic connection between place and health, and the need to think in a radically different way about health funding and design.
  • Kirsty McHugh looks at the importance of employment, and how the often target oriented world of employment support can and should be part of the often more ineffable debates of place improvement.
  • Paul Anderson describes the challenges of the relationship between the BAME young people and the police, and how solving that could unleash positive change.
  • Steve Stillwell explores the issue of financial capability, and how it’s impact is local and very real for communities and places, but it needs a wider strategy to achieve it.

Approaches to resourcing change and improvement

  • Miriam Levin, from the Office of Civil Society describes the small stories of people and communities which are the building blocks of a change that government is trying to support
  • Moira Sinclair, chief executive of Paul Hamlyn Foundation, looks at their work as a funder and the importance of trust in their relationships with organisations that are trying to shape their communities.
  • Nick Temple demonstrates the clear need for long term thinking about how to meaningfully finance change, and the role of organisations like Social Investment Business in doing that.

What’s next?

We want to continue a conversation. We’re going to present the views of some of the people we work with in videos, and we’re going detail our thoughts on answering this question. But for now, I want to sincerely thank those who have contributed to this and invite you to share their insight widely: we think the question is too important to not.

Read all the essays and watch the videos here.

John Hitchin
John Hitchin