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Understanding change in place-based approaches

In July, Local Trust held the first in our series of research seminars aimed at academics. We want to help develop research into community-led change and to do that we’re bringing academics from different disciplines and universities together, alongside third sector and public sector researchers and analysts to explore relevant topics.

This first seminar was developed with the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Place Programme, based at the University of Glasgow. It explored how we can effectively understand and capture ‘change’ in a place-based approach.

How do we meaningfully evaluate programmes like Big Local when the changes achieved are sometimes both intangible and extremely important? How do we factor in feelings, emotions – people’s sense of security, safety and belonging?

This points to an old problem in evaluation and in research – in which what’s measured is what matters. This problem flattens out complexity, context and the multiple causes of change in any given social phenomenon.

How we capture, and measure, the complex human experience of change is a real challenge for place-based programmes – indeed for any evaluation of an initiative that involves human behaviour in some way. We risk missing what’s perhaps the most important thing: how people experience the world.

Place is … a repository of emotions, experiences, meanings, and memories. Places are where life courses are shaped, social networks are formed, and the sites of lived and felt experiences.”

AHRC Place-based Research Programme Report, 2023 

What did the seminar cover?

At the seminar, our panel of speakers demonstrated why this is so important. As Rebecca Madgin pointed out, the meaning of place is intertwined with feelings for most of us – think about how you remember the place where you grew up. Everyone has a place where they feel comfortable, and a place where they feel uncomfortable.

Lois Orton, a Communities in Control researcher, discussed how Big Local areas already exist within systems and networks, and the need to reflect and embrace complexity and be alert to non-linearity: things ebb and flow.

But, fundamentally, how do we achieve this?

The ‘Map’ acronym

Appropriately for a place-based programme, the AHRC have come up with the ‘Map’ acronym.

  • M is for meaning: as we’ve discussed, what place means to someone is an emotional and ‘felt’ experience.
  • A is for approach: this could be creative approaches, such as arts or digital mapping – but what is key is that people feel comfortable with the method used.
  • P is for process: this is partly about inclusivity. Marisa De Andrade discussed the ways in which an arts-based method can enable the researcher to meet someone in their own ‘knowledge realm’.

The role of arts-based approaches was discussed further by speakers and attendees. Poetry might capture how people feel about where they live more powerfully than any traditional dataset can. And visual arts are a form of expression open to those who may have limited literacy, or who find it difficult to put their emotions into words.

But art can be challenging to interpret. There is some legitimate critique to be made of an arts-based approach. Some of us may feel unqualified to interpret art, but is it wrong for those of us with relative power in the evaluation process to feel uneasy here?

A context of power

This all plays out in a context of power – whose knowledge counts, whose paradigm is privileged? We work in a context where we need to convince those in power that community-led change is effective and worthwhile, and often we have to work within their paradigm – which often focuses on the tangible, the measurable, the value-able.

Marisa de Andrade challenged the idea that we need to approach policy-makers with a view to changing their minds; her contention is that they know the usual way of doing things isn’t working and so there’s space to support them in new ways of thinking.

But approaches need to be implemented with rigour: as Maria O’Beirne pointed out, it’s legitimate to critique all research methods, we need to make sure that our data, and the processes that generate them, stand up to scrutiny and the test of time.

Upcoming seminars

These ideas and provocations raised many questions – not all of which the seminar had time to answer, so no doubt the debate will continue. We plan to run further seminars which discuss and hopefully contribute to developing ideas and concepts in community-led change. Get in touch to learn more at

With thanks to our speakers:

  • Rebecca Madgin, Professor of Urban Studies, University of Glasgow 
  • Marisa De Andrade, Senior Lecturer in Health Science & Society, Edinburgh University 
  • Lois Orton, Senior Research Fellow, University of Sheffield  
  • Maria O’Beirne, Senior Analyst, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities 

This blog is published alongside a short paper reflecting Maria O’Beirne’s presentation at the seminar.

About the author
Lucy Terry

Lucy is a senior researcher at Local Trust.