Identity, Communities, Regeneration

Sense of place in local government 

Janet Sillett LGiU

Place Matters

Covent Garden market Old and new London: a narrative of its history, its people and its places


My 'place of clear water',

the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass

and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney's Anahorish is where he lived as a small child, his 'place of clear water’, and in his poem linked to Ireland’s distant past and its landscape.

Place matters. Well of course it does. For Heaney particularly (he wrote on the Sense of Place in a famous essay) and for many other poets including Walter Scott who holds a special place in Scottish hearts and took inspiration from the landscape for many poems and novels including Lady of the Lake set in the trossachs.

But not just for poets and artists. Patrick Geddes is revered in scotland and is one of the world's best known town planners who said of his holistic philosophy "…planning to increase the well-being of people at all levels, from the humblest to the highest".

"Places are products of relations and interactions, both from within a place and more widely." (Making Sense of Place, Convery, Corsane and Davis) 

What is a sense of place sounds like an easy question but, of course, it is hugely complex. There can’t ever be a single sense of space: it changes over time; it depends on what an individual brings to it and how a community perceives it. Because places are the result of relationships and interactions between people over time and they are inherently dynamic. 

A place that works could be seen as one where the people who live there have a sense of affinity with it, and one where the past, the present and the future are connected: so that its history is part of what makes it special and the people who have lived there for a long time, but where it welcomes new people and communities, and embraces change. People can feel a sense of place about where they live physically, but also to a wider place such as a city or to their local community or even to organisations within it. People have attachments to their home, their neighbourhood and perhaps to their city, town, village and even to their region. As places globally become more like each other, preserving a sense of distinctiveness can be important. 

"Place is a physical setting and social context. Place is rich in meaning although what a place means, and to whom, and for what reason, is highly contested and frequently challenged." (Why Place? Claire Bynner, LGiU Scotland blog ).

Why does place matter to local government? 

This paper looks at what makes a place a place, what makes some places work and others not, how councils chart the story of their places and respond to the changes that inevitably happen. 

Manchester City Council's project on a sense of place put the theory of place into practice. Between 2005 and 2007 Manchester carried out a programme of community engagement to explore the sense of place. The information they collected was used to define sense of place and this was then used as a tool for community engagement.

"If we ask questions in the same old way, we will get the same old answers. If we ask them in a different way, then we should start to get different responses. Community engagement can be hard. What may work in one area with certain people may not work as well with a different set of people. There are no absolutes and no one answer to every situation. Sense of Place can also be a tool for engaging within organisations, to challenge assumptions we make as well as a tool to engage with communities and individuals. This Sense of Place framework is designed to help people on the community engagement journey. Sense of Place will change for people over time and not everyone's Sense of Place is the same. However, what will stay the same is the need for Manchester City Council and service providers to understand the city, how it changes and evolves and how people and communities change".

Place really does matter to councils.

Collective action and place-based approaches

Increasingly public services are considering place-based initiatives to respond to complex challenges – around, for instance, health inequalities or social cohesion. We can see this particularly in Scotland where the focus of attention seems to be shifting from strategic partnership working to neighbourhoods, community and place-based approaches (incorporating joint working of course) and is reflected in the Communities Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.

In February 2017, Collaborate and Lankelly Chase published the findings from a year of action research in Coventry, Oldham and Essex in the report Building Collaborative Places: Infrastructure for System Change (PDF document).

The report sets out an argument for investing in inclusive and collaborative systems which involve all the players in a local area (from citizen to third sector, health service, police and local authorities). The report also publishes a framework of nine building blocks which can be used by local areas to benchmark and improve their existing approach to collaborative working.

This report calls for local investment in shared infrastructure or ‘hard wiring’. The report refers to shared strategies, governance, and approaches to workforce development which enable organisations and individuals to work together. Local authorities have a clear role in establishing and embedding this infrastructure and the authors point to practical examples and very different approaches taken by Coventry, Oldham and Essex.

In a collaborative system, the place strategy would set out a shared cross-sector social and economic vision for the place, based on a shared understanding of local challenges. In traditional public services, there is often a range of overlapping, and at times contradictory, strategies and plans for separate organisations. In some cases, there is a single plan for the place, but this often sits above, and is disconnected from, separate organisational strategies and delivery plans. This vision for place, needs to be based on a shared understanding of local challenges and co-produced with the local people and communities.

This LGiU briefing goes into more detail about the report.

There has been increasing interest in this collective approach to solving highly complex issues – 'collective impact' – where there is commitment of a group of organisations and people from different sectors to a common agenda, with a degree of centralised infrastructure. John Kania and Mark Kramer's work at the University of Stamford was particularly influential. They claim that this is a unique form of collaboration:

"Collaboration is nothing new. The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinctly different. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants."

Collective impact as promoted by Kania and Kramer is, of course, a radical version of a place-based approach. There are many examples in the UK of something similar but which don't adopt all the elements they say are necessary for collective impact. This type of approach does, however, often share some common characteristics, such as being  designed locally to meet specific conditions, involving organisations from a diverse range of sectors in collaborative decision-making processes and having shared ownership of the issues and challenges. 

A place based approach to reducing poverty is a good example. The Scottish Community Empowerment Act 2015 embedded a place based approach with the statutory requirement that each community planning partnership (CPP) divides the area of the local authority into smaller areas described as 'localities', underpinned by a commitment to reducing inequality and taking greater account of the needs of those localities experiencing poorer outcomes. How much more effective the statutory underpinning will be is too early to judge but it does show the Scottish government's commitment to focusing on place and locality as a key way of tackling highly complex and challenging issues.

Poverty, place and inequality, a report by the RTPI published in 2016, argues that place-based approaches are key to tackling poverty and inequality: 'people-based' approaches on their own are not enough to reduce poverty and inequality. Alongside conventional approaches to reducing poverty, which focus on welfare reform, "we need to harness the potential of places to increase opportunity and realise people’s potential". 

The paper shows the impact of 'place' on poverty and aims to develop an understanding of how better built environments and stronger place-based initiatives can support and promote employment, educational achievement, better health and improved social mobility. The authors stress that in an era of localism and devolution, increasing equality and opportunity should be a core part of local, city and sub-regional plans and strategies. 

The RTPI argues that there has actually been a decline of place-based initiatives in England, "through the demise of area-based policies and funding to tackle deprivation, and the focus is instead on so called 'people-based' factors which on their own are unlikely to be enough to reduce poverty and inequality, in part because they ignore the importance of place and the local environment". The paper says that many local authorities across the UK do not make any significant reference to issues of poverty, social exclusion and inequality within their local plans. Similarly, many city devolution deals fail to reference these issues. Whether this is still the case is not known (or indeed if the findings do accurately reflect how place is taken into account by local authorities when addressing issues around poverty and inequality) but it is interesting that this was an issue that the RTPI felt was crucial and needed highlighting.

How effective are place based approaches?

What Works Scotland Research Associate Claire Bynner in a LGiU blog believes it is not that surprising that place is a popular policy concept: it offers a holistic or 'whole place' approach that crosses policy sectors and silos. "It sounds tangible, immediate and local. It's something an individual can identify with – a place to live, a place of work, and a place to care about and protect. At the same time place can easily become a catchall for a range of potentially inconsistent policy agendas. The downside of a place-based approach is the risk that it becomes weakly-specified, poorly-evidenced and a receptacle for odds and ends". The challenge to policy makers, designers, planners and politicians is to be clear what they mean by a sense of place and how it shapes their ideas and delivery.

Evaluating a place based approach is a serious challenge – with the difficulties of judging progress where the objectives are often long-term and where there are perhaps many organisations and stakeholders involved; measurement is not going to be easy.

Of course, place based approaches aren't new. Local authorities are inherently place based – they are, after all, custodians of their place – but others such as the NHS are now looking at how closely place relates to the health and wellbeing of individuals and groups in local areas. Partnership working is fundamental to place based approaches.

Residents have better lives when they live in strong and supportive communities. Many communities face serious challenges of unemployment, poverty, poor housing, and community relations – place based approaches that focus on improving the physical nature of places but also the wellbeing of the residents, individually and collectively are critical in turning places around and forming new ones. However, there needs to be a clear evidence base for change and proper evaluation of results.

Making sense of a sense of place: planning and place

Building Better Places  Photo Credit:  Luke Hayfield Photography via  Compfight  cc
"A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provide meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes one city or town different from another, but sense of place is also what makes our physical surroundings worth caring about." (The Distinctive City, Edward T. McMahon)

A sense of place is a way of describing what is special about a setting that people recognise as being distinctive to that place. The implication is that this 'specialness' is also desirable: living beside a piggery might create a strong sense of place, but not one that the general population aspires to.

What is the role of planning?

The Healthy Active by Design project commissioned by the Heart Foundation (Australia) describes the attributes of places that are regarded as having a strong sense of place:

Access and connections: places are easy to access from surrounding transport and nearby attractions as well as connected to the wider area, especially for people walking

Uses and activities: a range of uses and activities occurring day and night throughout the year

Comfort and image: safe, clean and comfortable places that are attractive and appealing and that celebrate their own character and sense of history

Sociability: places that promote co-operation and neighbourliness, and that are welcoming and non-exclusionary.

Why does cultivating a sense of place matter?

Creating a sense of place can facilitate a range of planning-related outcomes, such as:

Encouraging economic vitality: the LGiU briefing on the report Cities Alive: Towards a Walking World(published by Arup) highlights the potential economic gains of paying attention to a sense of place when designing urban areas. Designing spaces that allow for markets and other fairs and events into places, as well as enabling convenient and direct access by cycling, walking and public transport to destinations such as shops, can help to revitalise local economies. It can also position areas to tackle one of the biggest impediments to creating a desirable sense of place – space allocated to vehicles.

Enhancing wellbeing: for example, researchers have found that the risk of developing depression for city residents can be reduced by designing green space, active space and social space into cities. There are opportunities to create a sense of place through planning environments that address these three elements.

Fostering engagement and a sense of belonging: A good sense of place can foster a positive emotional attachment to a neighbourhood and community. This can translate into better participation in community life, including planning consultation and engagement. A partnership of agencies in Scotland has published the Place Standard (also see the LGiU Scotland briefing on the standard), which is a simple question and answer tool to help evaluate the quality of a place. This includes a question on identity and belonging; housing organisations need to demonstrate that they are using the standard to engage local people as a criteria for receiving government funding.

Enabling physical health: the planning characteristics set about above tend to create places that encourage the use of physically active transport modes – cycling, walking and public transport.

The English planning system and sense of place

Planning has traditionally had a strong role to preserve or protect places with a recognised sense of place, most typically natural environments via designation as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

More recently the importance of design in creating built environments that exude a sense of place has also been recognised in planning policy and practice. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that:

"It is important to plan positively for the achievement of high quality and inclusive design for all development, including individual buildings, public and private spaces and wider area development schemes."

Local and neighbourhood plans should include policies that aim to establish a strong sense of place by:

"using streetscapes and buildings to create attractive and comfortable places to live, work and visit."

National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG) suggests that LPAs and developers use design codes to encourage a ‘sense of place’. New development should exploit natural features and locally distinctive elements. NPPG acknowledges the links between cultivating a sense of place and other planning objectives, noting for example that:

"The likelihood of people choosing to walk somewhere is influenced not only by distance but also by the quality of the walking experience."

With the focus on increasing the number of houses being built – especially around public transport nodes, on brownfield land and in new garden cities – planners in England will have multiple opportunities to focus on achieving a sense of place in large-scale planning projects (as well as influencing the fine-grain of existing areas via smaller development).

Recent experience suggests that elected members and planners will need to show strong leadership to steer development in this direction. Given the usual strength of local feeling against development, it may seem counterintuitive to look to communities as potential allies. But the Director of Create Streets, Nick Boys Smith, says that by trusting the views of local people on the quality of design in their area, planners (and elected members) could accelerate consensus around what the sense of place is for a local area, and how new development could exemplify and reinforce those characteristics. Speaking at a National Planning Summit (paywall), Boys Smith argued that using technological tools at a whole population level can give planners:

"an accurate view of the kind of places where people feel good or bad. The desire for stuff that feels as if it comes from your area is incredibly strong."

Why aren’t developers tapping into this research more? The developer and commentator, Chris Brown, says that there is an urgent need to improve the quality of design. But developers are failing to help create better places because (£paywall)"as an industry we don’t recognise the need for urban design skills, and so don’t pay for them."

He worries that local authorities who are deciding to take on a developer role will also fail to incorporate sufficient design expertise.

Having said all that, what will be most persuasive is proof of the economic benefits of achieving a sense of place. There is accumulating evidence that creating places where all people can walk safely and pleasantly to local destinations, services or facilities, and to public transport that connects them conveniently to other parts of their town or city is a good indicator of an attractive (and equitable) sense of place. According to a recent report on global development trends by the company Brickfields Consulting, it will also be a"competitive advantage for cities that aim to create a good quality of life and long-term value."

Interpreting and cultivating a sense of place faces further questions on the near horizon. How will augmented reality (AR) and new technologies, for example driverless vehicles, influence how people experience a place? Already there are predictions that AR will soon enable people to use an existing environment as the backdrop to creating or ‘recreating’ experiences, such as historical re-enactments. How these multiple layers co-exist in the same physical space is a new challenge for planners and elected members in the context of creating places in which people feel they belong.

Past Present Future: heritage and a sense of place

The Tenement Museum, New York  (Wikimedia Commons)

The arts, culture and heritage are crucial in reinforcing or enhancing the unique and underlying identity and character of a place experienced by the people who live there – they reflect and shape the story of that place.

"A place that works could be seen as one where the people who live there have a sense of affinity with it, and one where the past, the present and the future are connected: so that its history is part of what makes it special and the people who have lived there for a long time, but where it welcomes new people and communities, and embraces change". (Janet Sillett Place Matters briefing).

The Royal Society of Arts (RSA), supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, published Networked Heritage in November 2016. The report identifies that while heritage gives places their unique character, "it will only create a strong identity if local people understand their heritage and know how to maximise its potential to shape distinct and cherished places for the future".

Over two years the RSA investigated the links between place, distinctiveness, identity and value at the local scale:

“We already know that heritage assets and heritage activities play a fundamental role in reshaping our landscapes, cityscapes and identities. Our research explains how citizens, organisations, businesses and different tiers of government can use the potential of heritage to sustain distinct local identities and support places to thrive and prosper.

“The challenge is to raise our sights from protecting and preserving history – which, although it is vital, can tether heritage to the past – and open up instead to the possibility of heritage being at the heart of the conversation about a place’s future. Heritage in contemporary, inclusive usage has come to mean anything created in the past that helps us, collectively or individually, to understand the present, and create a (better) future. It is a fluid and living concept, and always in the process of being created”.

In societies that are increasingly globalised and where there are very mobile communities, such as large cities, having a clear sense of place gives some solidity to what can be a confusing picture. Places can seem more alike and less distinctive. The arts and cultural heritage can help to capture the identity of individual places – neighbourhoods, villages, towns, cities and countries.

Inspiring Ireland is a growing project to make Ireland’s digital cultural heritage available to everyone, and to provide rich themes and narratives to contextualise that heritage. With three themes – Sense of Place, Sense of Identity, Sense of Freedom – these initial exhibitions provided a window into Ireland’s rich social and cultural heritage. Many of the images in the National Gallery of Ireland and Crawford Gallery, Cork, provide glimpses of everyday life, whether of rural poverty, festivals such as St Patrick’s Day, Skellig Night or folk patterns, urban vistas of Dublin or Cork, or images of Dublin quays. Sir John Lavery’s painting of ‘St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg’, a lake known to Dante during his writing of The Divine Comedy, reminds us that the most remote districts in Ireland were already part of a world system before the modern era. Emigration, however, was also bound up with that global order, and images of parting and exile capture experiences that touched virtually every family in Ireland. Yeats’ famous poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ was a response to such leave-takings, prompted by the chance hearing of a toy-fountain in a shop window as he walked along the Strand in London.

Galleries and museums contribute to what makes a place a place and are shaped by the place itself. They can be places where local people meet up, as well as visitors. They can involve communities in their exhibitions and events. The New York Tenement Museum and 19 Princelet Street in London, described below, reflect people’s lived experiences in the areas around the museums (and in the buildings the museums are housed in). They can illustrate how places change and how what local people bring to them represent a host of different perspectives, as do visitors from further away.

Artists very often are inspired by particular places and want to show their distinctiveness. As Mason, Whitehead and Graham say in Making Sense of Place (ed Convery, Corsane, Davis, Newcastle University) they can produce artworks which over time and through their "reproduction, association and circulation" may become "iconic in the vernacular sense – that is, both embedded within, and productive of, a sense of place. Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North being a clear example".

There is, of course, evidence on how heritage enhances sense of place, such as Historic England’s ‘Heritage Counts’, which focused on the role of the historic environment in shaping what individuals think and feel about where they live – their sense of place.

Their research findings showed:

> Adults who live in areas of higher levels of historic environment are likely to have a stronger sense of place.

> Young people and adults who are more interested in the historic environment are likely to have a stronger sense of place.

> Young people and adults who cite a local building or monument as special are likely to have a stronger sense of place.

The research highlighted the importance of the historic environment for all – regardless of socio-economic factors or whether there had been any recent investment in the historic environment.

Social cohesion

Our museums and galleries can strengthen the sense of identity of the people who live there, but they can also help to explain the dynamics of changing communities.

The Tenement Museum in New York's Lower East Side is a tenement on 97 Orchard Street and tells its story. Built in 1863, this tenement apartment building was home to nearly 7000 working class immigrants. "They faced challenges we understand today: making a new life, working for a better future, starting a family with limited means".

The museum’s mission statement highlights to me why capturing this particular sense of place – over the decades since it was built – is so important to identify places with the people who inhabited them:

"In recognizing the importance of this seemingly ordinary building, the Tenement Museum has re-imagined the role that museums can play in our lives. The Tenement Museum preserves and interprets the history of immigration through the personal experiences of the generations of newcomers who settled in and built lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood; forges emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhances appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity".

London’s Museum of Immigration and Diversity is so like the Tenement Museum in its history and aims. The museum is in the East End of London, bringing back echoes of new immigrants arriving at the docks.

"Built in 1719 this brick dwelling house became the home of the Ogier family, who had escaped from persecution in France. They entered the silk weaving trade and prospered mightily.

"At 19 Princelet Street the attic windows were altered to let in more light for weavers to work, but later occupants of the house followed other trades and professions, including Mrs Mary Ellen Hawkins who used it as an industrial school, and Isaiah Woodcock who was a carver and gilder.

‘This building – it is quite the most amazing found object..’
Kinsi Abdulleh, artist from Somalia

"The Irish came, and later the Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe. In the garden where the Ogier children once played, in 1869 the Jews erected a synagogue. Underneath the synagogue, they created a place where people came together, and – much later – prepared to fight together, against intolerance and fascism.

'And 100 years later, up in the third floor attics, in 1969 a recluse, David Rodinsky, locked his door and … disappeared.

"Founded as the first museum of immigration and diversity in Europe, 19 Princelet Street attracts visitors from around the globe to discover stories of the centuries of newcomers who have shaped Spitalfields, London and Britain.

‘…reflects our past and raises questions about our future’
Monica Ali

"19 Princelet Street is a place of debate, dialogue, and connectedness.

where old and new are neighbours’
Hasib Abdul, aged 11

"Rather than a traditional museum exhibit of objects and documents, the museum chose to display artwork about migration, created by local school children. The classes had been asked to imagine themselves as earlier immigrants; the exhibit displayed their work performing Yiddish folk songs, writing letters from the perspective of Irish immigrants, and making collages about the dreams of the newly arrived. The students’ work also involved telling their own stories – I listened to a recording of a child from Somalia explaining why he/she left his/her country, and read students’ opinions on what they liked about the neighborhood of Spitalfields today.

"When thinking about an iconic archway on Brick Lane, one girl mused, “It made me feel like people from Bangladesh were welcome in London.” This statement would have resonated on any day, but I happened to be visiting the Museum on June 23rd, the day of the British referendum vote to decide whether or not to leave the European Union. Reading about this student’s sense of belonging in London, in a basement where people used to meet to discuss whether they belonged, gave me a rising sense of hope, and an almost visceral reinforcement from the strength of an open and inclusive community."

Post by Kathryn Lloyd, Education Manager for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum


Stories about place, fictional and from people’s lives, are, of course, another key way of illustrating a strong sense of identity with places. Stories that centre around the people and communities that live there and have lived there in the past:

"On a really, really good day you can see straight across to Helensburgh and watch the tugs going up and down. My husband used to work on the MOD boats, the black and yellow boats that go up and down here. Many’s a time I used to open the window and wave a dish towel out when he would toot the horn and let me know he was on his way where ever he was. I was born in the East End. I was born that Terrace Road in the East End 74 years ago and I went to school in the East End with my brother. My parents were blitzed from the East End and we wouldn’t change schools. We still walked to school, still knew the people in the area. Everybody would stop and talk to us. I love this place with a passion. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I am staying where I am. They’ll take me out of here feet first. It’s as simple as that or they’ll have to knock the building down with me in it."

Alice talking to Understanding Glasgow, Glasgow Indicators project.

The culture of place

"Whether it's the place we call home or somewhere we’re irresistibly drawn back to time and time again, places can get under our skin. Our towns, counties and cities have their own compelling and richly varied cultures. There are shared and sometimes contested values, local traditions, behaviours and drivers for change. Culture evokes memory and identity. It affects how we feel about where we live and work and what's possible. It can be a set of stories describing how we do things around here, bringing out the best in us – things like our history and heritage - but also preventing us from moving forward".

Dawn Reeves Under the skin: stories that explore the culture of place

Dawn Reeves curated a series of short pieces  for Grant Thornton following initial conversations with  local authority chief executives, leaders and others about unlocking the potential of place. They are personal views that "get under the surface, draw out peculiarities and illustrate distinctive ways forward".

The booklet represents the start of a conversation about how we understand culture of place: how does culture impact on our ability to facilitate and support vibrant economies? 

Dawn reminds us why this is important:

"What underpins a successful economy is more than the standard financial indicators of any place. A vibrant economy requires a balanced scorecard approach that, alongside economic indicators, also takes into account inclusion and equality, health and wellbeing, resilience and sustainability and a sense of community, trust and belonging. As place-shapers, local authorities have a key role to play in influencing these elements and the devolution agenda highlights this".

 The stories indicate that leaders need to help communities make sense of a complex world, the past, present and possible futures:

"We need to be authentic and clear about what our places are like and to go with the best of what's in our DNA. Being clear about what we want to see, particularly in terms of cultural attributes, comes into sharp focus if we want to deliver a vibrant economy that works for everyone. Our stories speak to the need to create an environment that gives people permission to care, to be innovative, to take action themselves, to adapt and experiment. Socio-economic situations often drive the culture. Therefore, the wider economic factors that impact culture need to be understood and influenced. The uniqueness of these also needs to lead to a recognition that one place will never be like another – you can't aspire to be the next Manchester or London – whatever ever local leaders do, or however positive the culture, but you can build on your local unique strengths".


"I have to make sense of the place, our past, present and our shared future. How I do that is through telling the story. So, we are currently bidding to host the Great Exhibition of the North 2018 – a prestigious programme designed to showcase the best creative, cultural and design sectors. Sheffield has made it to the last four. At a panel meeting to discuss the bid, I was asked directly: "What's the story here?" I replied, “Once upon a time there was a proud place, famous for innovation, for collaboration and for making things. But as years rolled by we forgot. Now we remember that we are still good at that, and we want to remind others.”

John Mothersole, Chief Executive, Sheffield City Council

"Our culture of place is just as much about the character of local people as it is about our unique assets and we place a great deal of emphasis on relationships; lived experience and where people feel there is energy to take things on. Alongside our data and intelligence from analytical work we focus on what people tell us. The dialogue about local needs and what we'll collectively do about them feels very natural. Jargon doesn’t work, nor does labelling. In Sefton we find our own way of describing things; a way that makes sense to us and our local people. At a recent strategic."

Charlotte Bailey, Executive Director, Sefton Borough Council

"Here, in my city, is a real sense of community built on the diversity of people; the essence of Coventry is about people and we aren't vanilla – it is a city of characters and personality. It’s big enough to have all the stuff a city needs to be successful, but small enough to feel friendly. We brew craft beers, create art, dance, music and it’s a place where alternative and mainstream culture comes together in a cool vibe. And now Coventry is growing in confidence about its assets and personality. We are capitalising on the energy and movement stemming from our city of culture bid and celebrating the strengths in our asset, including our universities, cathedrals and people. We are tackling the challenge of making reform of public services real with much more joined up working across public services to support community aspirations and we’re taking the opportunity to build on Coventry’s digital strengths. That’s all down to the people who live and work here. We don’t do enough to shout about our assets and achievements – it’s not in our nature to show off here."

Lisa Commane, Director of Customer Services and Transformation, Coventry City Council

In practice: how can councils strengthen the sense of place through arts and heritage strategies?

Councils can support policies and strategies that strengthen the role of heritage in enhancing cultural identity with places.

The American Planning Association in How Arts and Cultural Strategies Create, Reinforce, and Enhance Sense of Place makes some suggestions:

"Putting together artistic and cultural inventories that allow a community to begin to understand the historic, cultural, economic, and social context of a community — an essential foundation for developing and building sense of place. And by collaborating in doing so with artists, galleries and museums and schools and colleges. Reserving and enhancing the local identity, uniqueness, and arts and culture assets of a community require that local decision-making, planning processes, policies, and regulations reflect and support community character. Encouraging arts and cultural programmes that illustrate the historical and cultural context of a community provide opportunities for participation in community life, for example, through festivals, events and performances, interactive classes and workshops.

"Preserving and enhancing the local identity, uniqueness, and arts and culture assets of a community require that local decision making, planning processes, policies, and regulations reflect and support this community character. Local government programs, policies, and regulations that incorporate the underlying philosophy or identity of a community can provide a framework for decision making, encourage development that is place based, and reinforce the cultural goals and vision of a community. This framework supports the work of civic leaders and community advocates and can help bring new allies, talent, and ideas into the planning process".

The paper points out, however, that traditional cultural inventories conducted by local government often overlook non traditional cultural resources, venues, and activities. Cultural inventories typically focus on cataloguing the variety of arts and cultural organisations within a community, analysing aspects of the natural environment (such as natural and archaeological resources), and describing traditional arts and cultural sites such as theatres, galleries, and other performance or exhibition venues. By expanding the scope of a traditional cultural inventory, councils can explore more effectively the wealth of artistic, cultural, and creative opportunities at the local and regional levels.

The Boston Indicators Project — a partnership among the Boston Foundation, the City of Boston, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council — explores, measures, and assesses the values, resources, and assets of the city and its residents within the context of civic vitality, cultural life and the arts, the economy, education, the environment, health, housing, public safety, technology, and transportation. 

The project relies on the interaction and participation of a broad range of stakeholders (from schoolchildren and engaged residents to academic and community based experts to public officials and policy makers) to achieve its goals and objectives. In an effort to better understand how Boston’s growing ethnically and culturally diverse population — which comprises more than 50 nationalities and ethnicities and more than 100 languages and dialects — is expressing its presence in the city and the region, the project and the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians developed the Greater Boston Cultural Resources Survey. This survey was designed to “assess movement along a continuum of cultural expressions, as groups develop resources to transact their own businesses, move toward reflecting themselves to the larger community, and grow in ways that begin to reshape the cultural landscape of the city.” The survey invites residents to share “insider” information about the city’s cultural and ethnic heritage, commercial establishments, traditions, resources, and amenities. It asks respondents to share their knowledge about a variety of community activities, places, spaces, events, and resources.

Another example comes from Arlington County, Virginia, which is committed to "encouraging excellence in the design of public buildings, parks, streets and infrastructure". The county "recognizes that public art, along with architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, graphic design, and historic preservation, is one of several tools the County can use" to create "strong, meaningful connections between people and places". 

Since 2000, the Arlington County Board has supported public art as a tool for promoting “design excellence” and a “high-quality public realm.” In September 2000 and December 2004, the county board adopted a public art policy and public art master plan, respectively. The public art policy established the board’s commitment to public art, while the plan outlined a strategy for commissioning art projects and provided details on priorities, locations, and themes for those projects. The plan also established goals to integrate art with architectural, landscape, and infrastructure design of capital projects; to coordinate the efforts of various county departments, commissions, and residents to identify and implement public art projects; and to focus staff time and financial resources on projects with the strongest placemaking impact.

The Glasgow Indicators project echoes some of the thinking behind the American Planning Institute’s project – though the Glasgow project has a specific objective of developing health and well-being or ‘progress’ indicators. The project was developed by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) with support from a range of partners, including Glasgow City Council, Glasgow’s Community Planning Team, and the University of Glasgow.

Glasgow Indicators uses cultural tools to capture the voices of Glasgow’s residents – the films section of Understanding Glasgow includes films that describe attitudes to travel, that highlight views on health issues in the city and a series of films in which Glaswegians tell their stories in their own words. It also includes the Miniature Glasgow film, in which Glasgow is imagined as a community of 100 people in order to describe the city’s demography, health and economic context. This approach has been extended to compare Glasgow to Gothenburg in a miniature cities film. The Sense of Place sub theme (quoted from above) links the overall theme to the sense of identity with ‘their place’ of Glasgow’s people – with their experience of the places they live in and associate with and their memories of the past.

The RSA in Networked Heritage identifies that while heritage gives places their unique character, it will only create a strong identity if local people understand their heritage and know how to maximise its potential to shape distinct and cherished places for the future. The research inquiry sought to address: "what role could heritage play in successful place shaping, what role does it currently play and how could we close the gap between potential and reality":

"As we have said, each place emerged as markedly different, but there was a consistent inconsistency in how far notions of identity held by local people were considered as critical to place shaping strategy. Emotional, spiritual and even familial connections to the past are sometimes championed, sometimes tolerated and sometimes simply dismissed as nostalgia. Strategy is something orchestrated at distance then communicated to communities through consultation. A number of places may well have strategies, but it is questionable how many of those strategies have place".

The RSA recommended that civic and community leaders:

Start with people: bring heritage into people’s daily lives. Adopt the tools and channels people are already using to celebrate and engage with heritage in the everyday places that people live, work and play. Get people in to heritage buildings and spaces through hosting projects, events and exhibits far beyond the usual programme.

Recognise that heritage is what people choose to make it: use assets in new ways and identify new assets. New skills and partnerships are needed among heritage organisations to overcome the engagement and participation gap, which follows familiar lines of class and ethnicity. 

Go beyond yesterday’s battles: make an offer, not an ask. Join together in making tough decisions around heritage priorities. Encourage creative industries, civic entrepreneurs and social innovators to see heritage as an asset that can deliver their objectives.

We know that funding the arts and culture has become increasingly difficult for local authorities. However, what is being discussed here is not necessarily about money. It is about councils thinking more strategically about the role of heritage in shaping communities and in bringing people together. And how working collaboratively with those communities and partners can transform how heritage can be effectively supported.

The RSA puts it succinctly:

"For civic leaders, there is a need to understand heritage, to encourage its inclusion in strategic development and to acknowledge its pivotal role in place-shaping and sustainable growth. All must be able to give a coherent account of heritage in a particular place, to understand the health of heritage, identify where it can be better supported and respond to those requirements. Equally, all must be open to radical approaches to funding, commissioning and co-investment, to new business models, procurement, application and reporting processes, and to emerging models of community-led practice, shared custody and stewardship. The more heritage is valued and expressed in all of its forms, and the greater the connectivity between civic and heritage leaders and the wider social and economic landscape, the stronger the relationship between a place and its strategy. Place-shaping therefore represents a significant opportunity for heritage".

Regeneration: sense of place, participation and identity

Chicago housing renewal  1999 Wikipedia

Sense of place is critical to regeneration. How can regeneration work if a sense of place and identity are not seen as fundamental factors?

A fundamental question is why some places fail and some thrive – and why some regeneration projects are successful and some clearly aren't? Why do some interventions work well and others do not? Not an easy question to answer – there can’t, of course, be one definitive answer, but there are characteristics shared by many areas that are doing well after redevelopment

Successful regeneration 

Regeneration has often in the past focused on the physical aspects of schemes and not taken enough into account those that are about relationships and identity. The people who live there – new residents and existing ones – and businesses need to relate to the project. Michael Clark in 'Making Sense of Place' puts it like this: 

"Successful places are more likely to evoke pride, feelings of ownership and identity, positive aspirations and commitment and behaviour that favours localised business and protects the physical structure of the place from casual or intentional damage". 

Clearly projects that work need great design and effective management, but according to Clark they need more than that if they are to have ‘true meaning'. 

They need a sense of ownership – not easy in a "rigorously planned and corporate dominated, artificially expensive and constrained property market" where "access to land and buildings is outside most people's grasp, or is at the margins". Clark suggests that ‘ownership’ in this context "can range from identification with and taking responsibility for a place, perhaps through its cultural or historical associations to direct action that meet individual needs such as allotments, community activity and mutual self-help". (Making Sense of Place, ed. Convery, Corsane, Davis, Newcaste University, 2012) 

Many commentators on contemporary regeneration have suggested that distinctive communities drive economic growth. And that whereas regeneration inevitably means change it does not have to mean the destruction of the sense of place the community brings to it. Successful places and effective regeneration schemes evoke a sense of pride and feelings of ownership and identity. Is success or failure (and outcomes in between) partly dependent on how far the residents, visitors and businesses feel a sense of ownership – to the public spaces for example? 

So what makes for a successful regeneration project? How should such interventions be pursued and managed? The Guardian, supported by Lendlease, held a roundtable discussion of business leaders and experts to consider how current and future schemes might succeed. The main points they raised? Everyone agreed regeneration takes time – usually a great deal of it. They stressed the need for a clear, shared vision outlined at the beginning of the process – "In Manchester you had a level of political stability over time and a deeply experienced town hall," said Jason Prior, regeneration consultant at Prior Associates. "They had a plan, a direction, a goal – even if you have to be flexible in how you deliver it." They accepted ‘construction isn’t everything’ – every good regeneration project requires foresight for the spaces in between buildings and how people use them. Prior added: "We’re not always thinking enough about the quality of the public realm, and how to look after it. There is no stronger indication of success or failure of a scheme than the quality of the streetscape, the parks, the play spaces.” 

Pam Alexander, chair of the Covent Garden Market Authority, also believes regeneration schemes should be adaptable enough to give residents a genuine voice. She cites the localism model of Portuguese capital Lisbon, where each parish council is involved in “participatory” budgeting. 

“Individual neighbourhoods are given real money and real power to make decisions about what bits of community infrastructure they want, rather than have it done to them,” she explained. “Empowerment is important.” 

The development director at housing association L&Q, Andy Rowland, said developers should be willing to compromise, and a good regeneration project should allow the existing community “to take it on and grow into it…You have to be prepared in the early stages, and for many years afterwards, for people to occupy spaces that aren’t necessarily going to deliver high value.” For example, while most of the panel hailed King’s Cross in London as a successful regeneration scheme, Rowland said the area hadn’t benefited from much affordable housing. “I have a bit of a concern that it’s too antiseptic. What has it done for people on low incomes on the Caledonian Road?” 

One of the major concerns shared by many members of the panel was whether enough regeneration projects were fostering a healthy variety of uses. Some feared the huge demand for housing and pressure to maximise profit through high-density residential schemes has led to a lack of shops, offices, community facilities, and spaces for arts and leisure activities that make places liveable. “I walk around some new developments and it’s very mono, very residential,” said Jonathan Emery, managing director of property at Lendlease. “The use of retail and other things is just devastatingly appalling. We want to see that diversity of use, that animation of a place – the mixture of night-time and daytime use, the mixture of retail, office and community infrastructure.” Rowland thought Hackney Wick and Fish Island in east London is an excellent example of people being able to live Subscriber only briefing from and work in close proximity. He would have liked to see more regeneration schemes protect or create spaces for artists, entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized businesses. “I think it’s incumbent on developers to provide affordable work spaces – properly low-cost work spaces,” he said. “It’s what provides an area with its dynamism.” 

The panel discussed the concerns around some development sites and how unpopular they have been with residents in some major schemes, with some facing campaigns against them. Consultation can be seen as tokenistic. They conclude with this – planners, architects, builders and local authority bosses all have a shared interest in getting regeneration right. But the stakes are highest for the people who live, work and make use of a redeveloped neighbourhood. It is they who will shape its future and determine whether it thrives. “If you create a meaningful sense of place then people will look after it and take ownership of it, and that will lead to long-term success,” said Adrian Griffiths, board director at architectural practice Chapman Taylor. “If the developments going up now get demolished in 30 years time, then we will have failed.” 

The points they raise are clearly key but it is noticeable though that the panel consisted entirely of ‘experts’ and professionals – if residents’ views are so important why were they not part of the panel itself?

Preventing cloned places 

What makes a place unique? And how can that uniqueness be retained as places grow, change and are developed? 

World Cities culture forum examined how cities could retain their sense of place and of distinctiveness:

 "Urban regeneration is nearly always considered a good thing – but not every project results in more distinctive, authentic places. Some projects have produced generic, uninspired results. As improvements in transport and communications bring nations closer together, globalisation is leading to the homogenisation of many world cities. We now see the same chain stores and restaurants, notable buildings by the same international architects, and policy transfers that take scant notice of local context (such as the proliferating imitations of New York's High Line)" 

The article believes that culture can be an important factor in helping places retain their unique qualities in the face of globalisation. The RSA’s research on this echoed the World Cities forum’s conclusions:

 "Over two years the RSA investigated the links between place, distinctiveness, identity and value at the local scale. We already know that heritage assets and heritage activities play a fundamental role in reshaping our landscapes, cityscapes and identities. Our research explains how citizens, organisations, businesses and different tiers of government can use the potential of heritage to sustain distinct local identities and support places to thrive and prosper". 

The World Cities forum also emphasised the importance of a a participatory approach: "as opposed to high profile, ‘star architect’ or design-led strategies that can easily disenfranchise the local population while garnering headlines. By definition, public space belongs to locals and should reflect them in some way; citizens make meaning in and of their city by investing in their public space". 

They give examples from Bogotá and Shanghai that show the value of approaching public space management in collaboration with communities. Bogotá’s policy on graffiti, founded on the principle that non-mainstream groups can appropriate their city through culture, was "truly participatory in nature", consulting with graffiti artists. It led to a clearer recognition of graffiti as a valuable artistic and cultural practice and has led to some highly distinctive streetscapes (an example of participation, even if some UK cities would be reluctant to follow this particular example). 

"Shanghai’s most successful culture-led regeneration project, Tianzifang, is another exemplar of bottom-up change. Concerted actions by a local community helped safeguard the area’s architectural heritage and produce a tangible manifestation of the city’s individual identity". The writer of the paper claims that culture-led regeneration projects can also tackle the aesthetic expression of inequality: "Socio-spatial disadvantage is not only evident in basic services and infrastructure, but also in the material fabric of the city: think of the stigma attached to certain types of social housing architecture. Poor aesthetics in deprived neighbourhoods can create a vicious circle, reinforcing negative images and stereotypes. Madrid and Stockholm’s case studies directly respond to this aesthetic stigma. Madrid’s art-led, public spaces improvement strategy targeted peripheral districts most in need of attention, and was designed to shape a more positive local identity for these areas. 

"Stockholm’s One Percent Rule scheme commissions art for Stockholm’s peripheral districts and inner-city regeneration areas, consulting citizens throughout the process." 

Participatory regeneration 

Involving residents closely with regeneration schemes may be essential but it is not easy. There can be conflicts between what residents feel and know about where they live and what planners and designers (experts generally) understand. How can councils support participation successfully? 

“Efforts to regenerate the area have frequently stalled as local residents and the council have disagreed over the nature of the place it is now and the place they would like it to become”. (L Crookes, Understanding local communities: bridging the gap between official and local understandings of place) 

Research by Foundations into four schemes reflects how difficult it is to involve residents effectively: 

“Residents wanted to be consulted if this could be shown to make a difference in the decision-making process, but many people did not believe this was the case. Often, residents were of the view that their suggestions were not acted upon, their queries were not answered, and there was no follow-up to what they said within the regeneration process. Residents often felt that their problems had been taken over by regeneration professionals, and that they themselves were exploited in the process, expected to contribute without return. Many residents of disadvantaged areas were found to be unaware of regeneration activities and impacts, unsatisfied with representative arrangements within regeneration programmes, and sceptical about the ability of regeneration to tackle community priorities. Residents were often ill-informed about regeneration activities and had no idea of the likely time-scales for activities and their effects. Hierarchical involvement in regeneration partnerships through the use of community representatives had not worked in the sense that residents did not feel they had had their say and were well aware that they were not permitted to exercise control over regeneration budgets.”  Social cohesion and urban inclusion for disadvantaged neighbourhoods, Foundations. 

A short paper clearly can't adequately cover the complex and often challenging issues of identity and place in regeneration, but there are some pointers to some of the key factors. Perhaps the critical one here is how crucial it is to ensure residents (and local businesses where relevant) are listened to (as in all consultations). This is even more essential in poorer areas where there is going to be possibly the most disruption and change. 

Residents need to be able to share how they feel about where they live and how it is proposed changing it – too often local people feel their views and understanding of an area have been usurped by professionals. There wouldn’t necessarily be agreement about change and priorities – and residents will disagree among themselves sometimes, but a project will be stronger if the council, developers and planners take into account how the identity of a place has been shaped – by its people, its heritage, its natural and built landscape and by how it has changed over time. 

As Edward T. McMahon articulates it here: 

"Planners spend most of their time focusing on numbers – the number of units per acre, the number of cars per hour, the number of floors per building. In the future, they will need to spend more time thinking about the values, customs, characteristics and quirks that make a place worth caring about". 

Sense of place and identity are not incidental factors in making regeneration work – they are often essential. The people who live and work in a place undergoing regeneration have to have some sense of ownership for the scheme to be successful in the future. Retaining distinctiveness is part of that sense of identity with a place. McMahon quotes author Wallace Stegner: "If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are", echoing his view that we all need points of reference and orientation. "A community’s unique identity provides that orientation, while also adding economic and social value. To foster distinctiveness, cities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are both uplifting and memorable and that foster a sense of belonging and stewardship by residents". 

The main lesson here for local government? That it is people that have the main role in regeneration – that councillors, architects, developers, planners need an ongoing dialogue with residents and businesses. Of course that can be extremely difficult but without it schemes will not be sustainable. To conclude with a challenging thought:

"The term regeneration doesn't serve communities well. In the word regeneration, the 're’ implies that you are starting over so, in other words, you are destroying something. What about just ‘generation’ – making something better that’s already there? When you knock something down you remove what it had, which in most cases relied on an extant community or is just a feeling of some kind of sense of place." 

Nick Perry, The Hackney Society


Photo Credit: shaire productions via Compfight cc

Is there a common thread running through the places and themes in this paper that can help to define what we mean by a sense of place?

There are certainly expressions that come up again and again – 'a sense of belonging', distinct identity, feeling 'connected', the challenges of changing communities, embracing the past, present and the future. And the understanding that place is more than just the physical, the buildings, parks, streetscapes – it can be about local groups, culture, events, friends, services.

And where sense of place is lacking – cloned cities, isolation and loneliness, feeling 'unsafe', lacking connection and a voice.

If a council doesn't understand what places mean to those who live there, and also who visit and work there, then how can it provide the services people need and value, regenerate an area without alienating the people who identify with it? 

These are complex relationships and processes – grasping how people as individuals, groups and communities define themselves and their places. It requires genuine engagement and dialogue and can be extremely uncomfortable sometimes. It is essential to successful urban design and regeneration but is also important to much more – service delivery, sustainability, social cohesion, health and wellbeing, education, community support.

There are a collection of characteristics that are unique to that place - what makes a town or a city different from another one can be the key to why some places work and some do not. 

Place really does matter to councils, councillors and communities.

"It is possible to avoid doing almost anything. But it is not possible to avoid being somewhere. When immersed in the most absorbing augmented or virtual reality simulator or simply with the benefit of a vivid imagination, you may project yourself elsewhere in space and time. But the truth is that you have to be present somewhere, in the here and now. At this very basic level, locality matters. We live in localities and they live in us".

Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of Kensington and Chelsea RLBC (Municipal Journal October 2017)


A debate put on by the RSA where a panel discuss how culture-led city regeneration can enhance economic competitiveness, community cohesion and a sense of place. Munira Mirza, Brian Gambles, Loretta Lees and Anna Minton debate how cities can ensure transformational change is community-driven, allowing for greater local ownership and participation.