As strategic partners of Spring Impact, we have been pleased to coordinate an international study of place-based approaches to early childhood development this year with support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The term ‘place-based’ was new to us, but it soon became clear how this way of thinking and doing underpins much of our work.

Place-based approaches shift the focus of development practice from projects and programs to place, meaning a particular sub-national geographic area such as a county, district, or municipality. The logic underlying these approaches is that wellbeing is closely tied to geography, and that improving the situation for people living there requires adaptive, responsive, and cooperative action by a diverse array of actors. Instead of prescribing a particular set of activities to address a complex social need or problem, place-based approaches compel a wide range of people from different sectors and sections of the community to ask, ‘How can we work together to make this a better place?’

This logic links social impact to locally-driven action. If wellbeing is closely tied to geography, and improving the situation for people living there requires adaptive and responsive action, then no one is better positioned to drive that action than the people most closely connected to that place. While many approaches to social and economic development value local participation and empowerment, place-based approaches frame local leadership, information, and decision-making as absolutely crucial to success.

This resonates strongly with our experience in social development settings. For example:

Stronger Communities for Children

The Stronger Communities for Children (SCfC) initiative strengthens capacity in remote Aboriginal communities to give children the best start in life. Working closely with our partners at Ninti One, and funded by the Australian Government, we have aimed to ensure that local people have a real say in decisions made about service delivery. In 2017, Community Works conducted a literature review on Collective Impact that informed the strategic framework used by Ninti One to design and implement SCfC. Since then, Steve Fisher has worked closely with local communities to plan, monitor, evaluate, and learn from the initiative. Their guide for measuring local change can be viewed here.  Listen to community board members discuss their experiences with SCfC here.

Mental Health Friendly Cities  

Community Works has supported the Mental Health Friendly Cities initiative since its inception as a key partner of citiesRISE, a global platform for transforming mental health policy and practice. The initiative focuses on urban municipalities as drivers of change, places where cross-sectoral cooperation to integrate measures for improving mental health can lead broader systems change. Mental Health Friendly Cities facilitate and leverage leadership by young people to change the narrative around mental health, improve access to support, foster social cohesion and create environments that are conducive to wellbeing. Coordinated action at the local level and sharing of knowledge across cities are crucial factors in identifying proven solutions and accelerating their uptake.

Grant Activity Reviews

In partnership with Ninti One, Community Works has been reviewing a government-funded program for socio-economic development in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. These reviews are ‘place-based’ in the sense that evaluation teams take a holistic, cross-sectoral approach to understanding the impact of the program in specific remote areas, and determining strategies for improvement that build on local strengths and target the needs and aspirations of local people. Part of Community Works’ role in this work has been to prepare briefing reports that equip evaluation teams with rich contextual information about each place they visit, including local history, demographics, health and education data, culture, and topical issues that should be factored into the review process.

In each of the examples above, we work with our partners to take an in-depth, holistic look into particular places and how they function, in order to empower local people to drive programs and services that produce social benefits for the whole population. 

At Community Works, we understand that strong, healthy and empowered communities are basic building blocks for development. In our experience, place-based approaches are especially powerful when working with First Nations and other communities whose identities and belief systems are closely tied to land. From this cultural standpoint, place-based thinking is highly intuitive.

As national and international development agencies and funding bodies become more interested in place-based approaches, we see great potential for improving the alignment of large-scale initiatives with local agendas, value systems and ways of thinking. Investing in a place-based approach means supporting strong relationships between people working together for positive social change. It means strengthening information flows from communities to service providers to governments and back again. It means trusting the people most closely connected to a place to drive local decision-making, because they are the ones best positioned to lead progress toward a shared vision. For national and international agencies, it means playing a supporting role rather than the lead.

For all of these reasons, Community Works sees place-based thinking as both highly compatible with self-determination and highly pragmatic when it comes to achieving better outcomes for disadvantaged populations.  We look forward to contributing to the emerging evidence base on these approaches, and continuing to work with our partners to support best practice.

Click here to read our report ‘Scaling up place-based strategies to strengthen community early childhood systems’