In the below article, featured in an AXA publication on Building Societal Resilience: The Role of Inclusion in a Fragmented World, Dr Malu Villela Garcia, an AXA Fellow at the University of Bristol Business School, explores how “Place-based” approaches can help tackle regional differences and support communities to build sustainable societal resilience.
Recent shocks have resulted in uneven economic and social effects between and within countries. Already challenged or “left-behind” regions, even in richer countries, are testing their societal resilience. “Place-based” approaches create the empowerment and agency needed to build sustainable societal resilience. By involving the community both to generate solutions and contribute to execution, place-based approaches leverage local talent and expertise, along with expert advice and public and private sector involvement.
In the United Kingdom, “leveling up” — a government-led ambition to boost productivity, living standards, infrastructure, community pride, and empowerment in areas where they are lacking – has become a constant in political debate. While the noise is not necessarily matched by the action or spending commitment, the discussion has drawn attention to the challenges of “left-behind” regions across the UK, often in post-industrial towns and fading coastal areas, and even in poorer neighbourhoods of richer cities like London and Bristol.
Broadly, left-behind regions are defined by poor socioeconomic outcomes and multiple deprivations (in skills and education levels especially), lacking investment and the cultural and social facilities that build a sense of engaged community and societal resilience. Healthy life expectancy is also strongly affected by levels of deprivation — according to recent Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures, girls born in the most deprived areas of England are expected to have almost 20 fewer years of good health than those born in the wealthiest areas. Boys will have almost 19 years less.
Their challenges demonstrate how nation-based economic analysis can provide a misleading picture of a country’s well-being, where a country can appear to be relatively prosperous but with wealth concentrated only in particular cities and regions. The decline in certain regions, sustained and gradual, has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. In early January 2022, a parliamentary study found that residents of left-behind communities in England were 46% more likely to die from COVID-19, generally worked longer hours for less pay, and had shorter, less healthy lives than those living elsewhere.
The question is how to build the societal resilience of left-behind regions by tackling social, economic, and environmental inequalities. One way of thinking has focused on the idea that “connectivity” — meaning the connection to good digital infrastructure (something often lacking in left-behind regions) and key services (such as transportation links) — is the solution. Certainly, this is important and necessary, but alone, it is insufficient to build deep societal resilience.
Systemic crises, such as COVID-19 or the cost-of-living crisis, as well as highlighting problems, are an opportunity to examine how local economies and networks can be rethought and regenerated to build resilience. While many communities struggle, others have developed more resilient communities with inclusive, collaborative, and sustainable values through smaller, “place-based” projects that forge an identity and a sense of pride. Place-based approaches consider the complex mix of environmental and social factors in a particular area, or place, by engaging and empowering local people and communities as the main sources of knowledge on the issues at stake and leveraging their potential to drive change. They usually involve processes of collaboration between community actors and local institutions (e.g., anchor organizations, public authorities, universities, local businesses etc.) and are concerned with setting up democratic systems of governance in which communities can gain ownership over the future of their place.
At its core, resilience is about the ability to recover from shocks and to prepare for future shocks. Markus Keck (University of Augsburg) and Patrick Sakdapolrak (University of Vienna) define resilience as having three dimensions: coping capacity to overcome adversities; adaptive capacity to learn from adversities for the future; and transformative capacity to craft institutions and welfare measures to build societal resilience for future shocks. Thus, resilience is a dynamic and adaptive process.
For left-behind communities, building resilience is not a technical process but a political one. This is where a place-based approach is valuable.
Looking at communities where this approach has been taken offers lessons and inspiration to local stakeholders — whether they are residents, local government, organizations, or businesses — to pursue innovative ways of building inclusion, sustainability, and thus more resilient futures.
A place-based approach — the challenges
So, how to use a place-based approach to build societal resilience in left-behind communities? It is important to inspire at the grassroots level so communities can pursue disruptive ways of shifting local economies toward inclusion and sustainability. This means both strengthening existing groups and enabling the formation of new ones aimed at representation of the diversity of the community and their issues. It could involve experimenting with different ways in which they can perform a central role in the local economy, such as through the community wealth-building model where councils commission local organizations to provide local services, thus using their procurement power to keep wealth within communities. It could also involve bringing communities to the forefront of decisions around planning, development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability, such as through processes of co-production and co-design, where solutions are designed in close collaboration with community members.
Social memory is also important to allow learning exchange about what has and hasn’t worked in the past — the best practices, successes and failures, and problems that remain. This is the inbuilt memory of community groups in a particular place which comprises of the knowledge, experience and wisdom accumulated over a period of time on the different attempts, solutions, and decisions involving their issues of concern.
Then there is the relational aspect — how to create channels of cooperation and collaboration between the different actors from different sectors. The private sector and the public sector will bring their different skills and processes, as will experts from academia, civil society and elsewhere. Most crucial is that the community always has agency and is not dominated by other actors, since the impact of the changes will be felt most by them. A place-based approach is about creating a non-hierarchical process that works towards common goals. Therefore, particular care needs to be paid to governance and power relations throughout.
Place-based approaches in practice
Looking at place-based approaches in practice shows the challenges and the potential for building resilience in left-behind communities. The Rhondda Valley in South Wales was once an area at the heart of the coal mining industry. It has had to contend not only with decades of economic deprivation in the wake of that industry’s decline, but also a significant legacy of environmental degradation thanks to residues of pollutants from the industry still present, affecting rivers and forests.
At the center of a local project is ecological sustainability, an important aspect of resilience in a time of climate change, which addresses the legacy of the coal industry’s past pollution of the valley while creating a new sense of pride. The aim is to create a future where sustainable development provides income, jobs, and social and cultural activity while also protecting and conserving nature by making use of hundreds of hectares of publicly owned land on the Welsh Government Woodland Estate.
In its progress, the project has shown adaptive capacity — an ability to cope with the constraints and limitations presented to their original dream. The dream involving an ambition for community ownership of the land foundered in negotiation with the public body. Instead, a co-production process between the community and the public body was proposed. A series of workshops led by a community social enterprise formed a long-term vision of the forest as a combination of nature reserve and a sustainable forestry enterprise to create jobs and sustainable energy, with the social enterprise leading on training and employing local residents.
The process is ongoing, but the public body has signed an agreement with the community as a pilot and precedent to evaluate social value in commissioning contracts. This is promising: forestry experts from a government body could have easily drowned out community voices had the project been managed differently.
One promising piece of the resilience puzzle
Place-based projects are just one method of building societal resilience in left-behind areas. Larger government-led policies such as political devolution and decentralization and infrastructure development, in particular digital infrastructure, and transport, all have a part to play. But the signs indicate that the crises of our age have sharpened appetites for community-led collective action. To address the needs of left-behind communities, they must be taken seriously as truly locally led processes with much potential to forge grassroots societal resilience and give voice to marginalized communities.
Dr Malu Villela Garcia, AXA Fellow, University of Bristol Business School.
Image by Daniel Funes Fuentes via Unsplash.
Learn more about the research project of Dr Maria Lucia Villela Garcia.