The concept of “place” has become an important touchstone for advocates of transformational social change. A series of government initiatives all fall under the rubric of place-based models. Those include:
- Promise Neighborhoods, Sustainable Communities, and Hope VI;
- community-based projects such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Los Angeles Urban Leagues’ Neighborhoods@Work;
- and philanthropic efforts like Annie E. Casey’s Making Connections and The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities
As a 2010 White House memo to agency heads notes:
“Effective place-based policies can influence how rural and metropolitan areas develop, how well they function as places to live, work, operate a business, preserve heritage, and more. Such policies also leverage investments by focusing resources in targeted places and drawing on the compounding effect of cooperative effort.”
To be sure, there are great advantages to focusing coordinated efforts in one geographical location.
For the last few years the FrameWorks Institute has examined communications strategies in conjunction with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s community development work in the Mississippi Delta. The central question, similar to many urban and rural placed-based projects, is:
“How can local leaders and advocates in Mississippi advance a unified public discourse to improve the educational system, family economic stability, and race relations in the region?”
One of the key findings is that people have a hard time understanding the role that systems and processes play in explaining problems, as well as contributing to solutions. One of the most common explanations for this cognitive impairment is that people tend to default to individual-level attributions of responsibility – particularly when social problems are “hard to think.”
To this way of thinking, place-based inequities are more a function of individual and group failings as opposed to higher order structural impediments. Moreover, FrameWorks’ research demonstrates that ordinary people – in contrast to experts – have a hard time making sense of the causal mechanism that drive systems, structures, and processes.
So how do we redirect public thinking about place-based projects?
One pathway pivots off of a relatively new model in the field of urban planning. Innovative planners have begun to talk about the idea of “complete streets” as a paradigm for transformational community change. One definition of complete streets is:
“[They are] more than efficient routes connecting points of origin and destination. They are multi-use environments, accommodating multiple transportation modes on the roadways, and multiple uses on their sidewalks, in ways that promote vibrancy in neighborhoods.”
At the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, we have broadened the concept to refer to the interaction between the physical environment and the socio-cultural environment. Put differently, transformational place-based change is about the dynamic relationship between the physical and social ecologies. It is how norms, values, structures and processes work in a symbiotic way to produce community outcomes.
In this telling, for example, educational outcomes are determined by more than just curricula, teacher training, or parent involvement; they are also influenced by land use strategies, sustainable physical structures, and sensible transit lines.
Place-based initiatives allow for an understanding of social change that obviates how various communities are connected. Not only do they create the opportunity to see a common fate, but they also shift the attribution of responsibility away from specific individuals and groups (e.g., the racialization of social problems) and makes it easier to think about how “place” advantages and disadvantages community residents.