Article / Policy Innovation, Urban Development
Published: 06.09.2023

Back in 2020, New Zealand’s Housing Minister Megan Woods announced a new measure to curb one of the country’s most severe issues: homelessness. (Among other high-income countries, New Zealand has the highest rate of rough sleepers, with almost 1% of the population suffering from a housing emergency.) “Every New Zealander has a right to a warm, safe and secure place to call home,” Woods declared, “and we know that a one-size-fits-all approach is not enough to tackle the housing crisis.” What she sought to do was not a mere provision of accommodation or material support – a fundamentally essential antidote to housing insecurity – but to develop solutions from troubled areas, for troubled areas, with folks who are directly affected by the issue. She called for place-based approaches.

Previously, New Zealand pledged to invest NZ$100 million in an emergency housing package. However, such policy intervention did not address local socio-economic conditions that rendered people unhoused. “[The] Central Government alone does not have all the answers, and that addressing housing challenges in each place may require a different mix of Central Government and local solutions,” explained Woods.  

In this article, we will take you on a journey to see how we could imagine a new relationship between the State and the locality, one that opens up possibilities for meaningful collaboration and right solutions, designed specifically for local context.

Place-based approaches – why do we need them now?

In a conventional policy-making cycle, everything is decided by a clique of technocrats; those with authority, far removed from the reality on the ground. Not only solutions are picked by only a handful of officials, narratives about what we should consider as “major problems,” “minor issues,” “emergency,” or “knowledge” also fall under their control. Outcomes from such a process are usually blanket policies that are treated as a panacea, and a rigid, singular worldview of social issues. 

However, as noted by Woods, such a top-down approach is proven to be ineffective. Policy beneficiaries are perpetually positioned at the receiving ends of the policy cycle process. As there is no window for them to shape policies according to their hopes and concerns, people often see the policymaking process as an external issue, and the government a distant polity above one’s reach. 

Moreover, technocrats’ understanding of social dynamics and issues at the local level often mismatch with community members’ lived experiences and knowledge, especially when deprivation looks different in different areas. For instance, within 6 “homelessness hotspots” in New Zealand, each area experiences different ranges of social issues (e.g. population growth, housing affordability, and rental market trends), and thus demands variations of support.  To give an example, it is reported that “[the city of] Rotorua has a higher number of adults without children in […] motel accommodation, whereas Hamilton has a high number of families.” The statistics suggest that Rotorua requires more support in motel accommodation, while families in Hamilton may need other housing alternatives.  Therefore, a “perfect,” all-encompassing solution that works for all people does not exist when needs and concerns vary across areas

What are place-based approaches?

Out of the gap that yawns between policymaker’s good faith and local people’s needs emerge place-based approaches. To counter a top-down, hierarchical convention of policymaking, place-based approaches rest on the following principles:

1. Long-term and tailored solutions 

The government is required to see the lens through the eyes of the beneficiaries. They must listen to their needs, understand the interlocking of local issues in its full depth, and embrace insights and the fruits of knowledge of the community. Such output lays an important foundation for an infrastructure that seeks to accommodate local circumstances holistically and in the long run.

2. Collaborative relationships between stakeholders (e.g. governments, intermediaries, concerned communities) 

Instead of putting the reins in the hands of the authority, the government works with the locality – by handing over control to, or sharing decision-making power with, the community. In this way, we will not only have willing participants, but also gain more partners who stand on an equal footing. Another role of the government is that of an enabler; they provide support necessary to community-based leadership, assisting local participants in realising their full potential and reaching their goals.

What to do next?

The Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), a seasoned actor in Australia’s place-based projects, notes that place-based approaches come with plurality. There is not a single way to do it, and the process does not have to flow in a linear fashion, as place-based approaches evolve according to current circumstances and unique characteristics of the locality. However, their experiences have showed that it is possible to initiate and solidify cross-sector collaboration by first answering the following questions:

1. Do the community need place-based responses to their problems? And what kind of support do they need?

In places where communities develop political willingness but lack basic factors to instigate change (e.g. connections, required resources), the government can step up and take the role of a partner :

In 2012, the Department of Education and Training entered into partnership with  the Colman Foundation to develop the “Our Place” model, or an integration of school/early childhood centres with adult education services. The curriculum and programs were designed with local needs in mind. It nodded to the role of school as the community’s heartbeat, and used the school’s indispensability as the springboard for life-long education. This results in a long-term positive impact, such as improved education outcomes for all levels of learners and increased youth participation in enrichment activities. 

Some communities already tackle complex challenges, but they need someone to help them enhance their capacity. In this situation where people are already in control of their initiatives, the government can help enable community mobilisation instead:

In 2010, the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC) established a natural resource management (NRM) and cultural heritage enterprise. The government provided assistance in strategizing and establishing a legal entity, whereas the GLaWAC assumed leadership, and oversaw the implementation of action plans. 

2. How ready are us?

2.1 Are our partners ready for mobilising change?

2.2 Do we have necessary materials for change, or is it possible to develop them along the way? (e.g. resources, leadership, connections and mindsets)

2.3 Do we have what it takes to support our partners? 

3. What is our shared vision for change? (This includes clearly defined outcomes, action plans, and measures of progress and impact.)

4. How can we implement the approaches together?

4.1 Who are our stakeholders? (e.g. intermediaries, the private sector, local custodians)

4.2 What are the roles and scope of responsibilities?

5. What do we learn from this collaboration? Do we have a system to keep track of our progress and assess the impact of our work? 

6. How can we ensure honest and affirming communication between partners? 

Before we move forwards…

Nevertheless, place-based approaches are not a walk on the bed roses, and the non-linear nature of collaborative efforts can make them a messy hassle to wrestle with! In “Historical Review of Place-based Approaches,” Professor Marilyn Taylor and Eliza Buckly suggest that challenges are awaiting for those who opt for place-based approaches.

1. Relationship-building is the key to everything.

TayLor and Buckly observe that one of the common mistakes well-wishers make is “parachuting in” the community, instead of gradually but firmly developing relationships and trust with their partners, or making sense of what is really going on in the community.

“[L]earning from the US (Burns and Brown, 2012) suggests that the sensitivity and skill with which a funder uses local knowledge is the most important aspect of best practice – more important than using learning from other places and settings.”

2. We need to manage our expectations of community leadership.

In some cases, the community might not have answers to every question. By putting the pressure of leadership and power-sharing on community members without assessing their readiness and willingness, we might project our unnecessary expectations onto them, and that can be detrimental to our partners, as well. 

3. It takes time.

Time is perhaps one of the most fundamental essences of place-based approaches; however, the rush to make change and bureaucratic constraints might make us forget that we are dealing with long-term problem-solving, which ultimately demands time. TayLor and Buckly notes that at least “a year zero” for development and design and a phased process are required in order to ensure participation and shared understanding of the work among partners. 

Our Works
Explore our people-centered approach for policy design
Learn more about public policy
Design Policies for The People
Back to Top