Beyond the buzz: what is a place-based initiative?


Ben Hartridge | Researcher | @benhartridge

Public and private funders have been building, and backing, place-based approaches for the last ten years. But while grant-makers and grantees are busily buzzing the term to each other in tenders, bids, roundtables and meetings, there’s little consensus on what, precisely, they mean. The discourse on place-based approaches is in need of a vital dose of clarity. I recently delved into the literature to see if I could find any.

Pretty quickly, I decided to simplify matters and focus on answering just two questions. First of all, what does ‘place-based approach’ actually mean? Second, what different kinds of place-based approach are there?


Place-based approaches cover a multitude of virtues 

A place-based approach is a strategic approach to spending money and other resource in pursuit of a goal. It provides a framework for planning, organising, managing and delivering different activities to realise a specified set of objectives. So we can ask the questions we’d ask of any strategy. What are the objectives? Why have they been chosen? How will the strategy, when implemented, achieve them? How will the activities specified in the strategy contribute independently and collectively? Unsurprisingly, a place-based approach emphasises the role of place in its answer to these general strategic questions.

To show how activities and objectives can be selected on the basis of place let’s look at two place-based approaches to complex social problems in the city of Detroit.

The Good Neighborhoods/Good Schools initiative led by the Skillman Foundation aims to increase the number of young people in the city who are “safe, healthy, well-educated and prepared for adulthood”. It does this by supporting programmes to raise young people’s individual efficacy directly, to improve local schools and to achieve beneficial changes to local policies and systems.

The Woodward Corridor Initiative involves a complex set of philanthropic, governmental, non-profit and community partners who make investments in “housing, jobs, schools and businesses” that aim to make parts of the city more regionally competitive.


This pair of examples from a single city illustrates the diverse objectives and activities that can be part of a place-based approach. The approach is popular, in part, because it can anchor a multifaceted strategy addressing complex social issues. But the corollary is that the ‘place-based approach’ label covers a huge range of quite different initiatives. So I think it’s helpful – for those designing and participating in place-based initiatives – to be specific about the different types of place-based approaches we’ve seen to date, and the choices that determine how one approach differs from others.


But what is a place?

But before we attempt to categorise place-based approaches, a glaring question needs to be addressed: What does ‘place’ mean? This is the point at which mystery and confusion really start to descend. This is the point at which people start saying things like

“[a] place could be little more than a specific geography – a location, a dwelling, a spot. More often, places are about feelings.” [i]

That’s true. Places do have vital social meanings, but philanthropic and government funding must make concrete choices. A place is a limited area and therefore defined by its boundaries – including some, and excluding others, hopefully for well thought through and sensible reasons. In practice, places that are used to structure strategic funding initiatives are nearly always defined by administrative boundaries.These don’t always map well against what local people define as their community.

We at the Dartington Service Design Lab are beginning to consider place-based initiatives not in terms of geographical boundaries, but in terms of systems. The second blog in this series will set out the Lab’s early thinking for the future of place-based approaches.


Three key questions to ask

Once a place has been decided, there are three key questions arising from the literature which funders and partners must address:

  • How will you identify the objectives for the place?

  • Which element of the place’s infrastructure will you prioritise?

  • Where do you want the benefit to accrue?


Firstly, a recent review by IVAR of place-based approaches commissioned by Lankelly Chase highlights a difference in how objectives are identified. It contrasts holistic, broad-based initiatives with those that are issue-led. Approaches in the latter category aim towards objectives defined by the funding organisation or seek to test particular activities in the chosen place (e.g. implementing an evidence-based programme). Holistic approaches begin by engaging individuals and agencies within the community. Then, the objectives and activities are decided collectively with local stakeholders.


Secondly, the decisions that then shape a place-based approach are partly determined by how the funder sees the city, state or region in which the work takes place. Neil Bradford has observed the potential of a place-based approach to bridge two perspectives on a geographical area. First is the urban perspective, which focuses on physical infrastructure and the formal powers and resources available to municipalities. Second is the community perspective, which prioritises social infrastructure such as civic participation and social networks.

A place-based approach that adopts a more urban perspective will likely emphasise economic outcomes in its set of objectives and view. For example, investments in transport infrastructure might be key activities in its strategy. In contrast, an approach to place from the community perspective might fund programmes to increase residents’ capacity for civic participation in order to address issues like social isolation.


Finally, place-based approaches vary in where its funders, or leaders, think the benefits will accrue. The crucial distinction is between people – the residents of the community at the beginning of the project – and place – the area’s physical and social infrastructure. In a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Julia Griggs and colleagues presented a handy matrix that facilitates comparison between different place-based approaches.


Place-based approaches that fall into each of the five categories are characterised as follows.

  1. Focus exclusively on local infrastructure

  2. Focus on local infrastructure with view to improving lives of (present/future) residents

  3. Focus on individual residents to improve their neighbourhood

  4. Focus exclusively on individual welfare/capacity

  5. Simultaneous focus on people and place, and the synergies between the two



Clarifying the Conversation 

Place-based approaches are strategies for change – thinking about them in this way helps clarify the questions we should ask to test their coherence. I’ve presented an initial three here but it’s just a start – there are many further questions we should ask.

[i] Place-based approaches bring a whole range of people together – community activists, funders, delivery organisations, and evaluators. For these collaborations to work, we need to build a shared understanding of the key concepts that underpin place-based approaches – and develop a common language so we can test how robust and coherent these are.

[i] For example: How does work in a place relate to the wider system outside? And what role should a funder play in (supporting) the implementation of a place-based approach?

[i] I’ve taken this example from Alex Smith’s recent essay, ‘What does it take to improve a place?’, which you can access here.


Reading list

Kubisch et al. (2010), Voices From the Field III

Taylor, M., Buckley, E. and Hennessy, C. (2017), Historical review of place-based approaches, commissioned by Lankelly Chase from the Institute of Voluntary Action Research (IVAR)

Burns, T. and Brown, P. (2012), Lessons from a National Scan of Comprehensive Place-Based Philanthropic Initiatives

Moore, T.G. and Fry, R. (2011). Place-based approaches to child and family services: A literature review. Parkville, Victoria: Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health