Place-Based Policy and the Communities Agenda: Taking Stock, Moving Forward

Neil Bradford, of the University of Western Ontario and the Canadian Policy Research Network, engaged in a conversation with Paul Born of Tamarack. They discussed the current state of research and learning about place-based community building initiatives.

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Neil Bradford

Neil Bradford is currently Associate Professor of Political Science at Huron University College, University of Western Ontario. He is the author of Conmmissioning Ideas: Canadian National Policy Innovation in Comparative Perspective (Oxford, 1999), and of numerous chapters and articles in the fields of political economy, public policy, and regional economic development. He is a Research Partner in the Ontario Network on Regional Innovation Systems and holds a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) grant to study economic innovation and community politics in Canadian city-regions. Prior to his academic appointment, he was a policy advisor to the Ontario government, serving the Ministry of Labour and the Premier’s Council.

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Place-Based Policy and the Communities Agenda

What do we know?

We know that:

  • No one actor (individual or organization) from any one sector can successfully tackle the complex issues confronting us.

    These issues are converging in urban areas, where some 80 percent of us live and work. They cut across traditional policy categories or silos to focus on social inclusion and economic innovation.

    Place matters to quality outcomes. To resolve these complex issues we must tap into local knowledge, mobilize local networks, and tailor solutions to particular contexts.

    A new generation of community development projects has emerged, based on sophisticated understandings of collaboration and networks.
  • Community action on its own is not sufficient to make progress: public policy is also important. Especially key are innovative forms of policy that combine foundational and enabling supports to people and places.

    We need both universal social policies for everyone, and targeted interventions to distressed localities. This involves federal and provincial – as well as local – government.
  • Canada has not been at the forefront of these new understandings. We have lagged behind Europe and the US. However, there has been a remarkably burst of experimentation over the last few years. We are now uniquely positioned to learn from the promising synthesis of local and national trajectories from Europe and America.

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What do we still need to know?

We need to know more about how to “scale up” from local experiments to provincial and federal policy processes. This is critical because of the concern that place-based policy can leave communities isolated, without the needed foundational support.

We also need to know more about the role and contributions of municipal government to place-based policy. Much of the debate in Canada has happened at the macro level.

  • Municipalities are on the front lines, closest to the citizens, and their need to join up different partners places municipal representatives in often-unfamiliar roles.

    We need to better understand the complexity – the constraints as well as the opportunities – of this kind of government engagement.

One potential constraint is the need to know more about appropriate accountability and evaluation frameworks suited to this “joined-up” governance.

We also need to know more about how to effectively build inclusive local collaborations.

  • This is especially important with regards to ethno-cultural differences.

    It also pertains to tensions between economic actors, such as business, labour, and anti-poverty organizations.
  • We need to find shared spaces and integrating issues to help local champions bring these diverse groups together.

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What is emerging?

What issues and ideas are on the horizon, emerging as central for this movement within Canada?

  • There is a growing concern about the capacity of the third sector to sustain a meaningful role in place-based policy and community development. While the sector is universally recognized as a critical partner in these processes, this attention is not matched by investments in the sector’s capacity for researching, networking, representation, and advocacy. This situation is not viable, and could threaten the whole agenda.
  • With the shift from Liberal to Conservative government in Canada, there is a need to position the place-based communities agenda to speak to the Conservative model of “open federalism.” (It was well-positioned to speak to the Liberal’s New Deal vision of “multi-level governance.”) Will the Conservative talk of “fiscal balance” extend to support for community development through municipalities and third-sector organizations?
  • The environment is another key issue, and must be front and centre in the communities agenda moving forward. How can we use our knowledge, networks, and capacities to fully engage with the environmental agenda? Sustainable countries depend on sustainable cities.

    The urban-rural divide is particularly key in Canada: what can the place-based approach deliver in terms of community building in both distressed city neighbourhoods and struggling remote or rural communities? What positive synergies exist between these different kinds of places that can be developed further?

We need to consider new governance arrangements for sharing knowledge and experience about social innovations – what think tanks in the United Kingdom are calling a “Social Silicon Valley.”

  • We need ways of tracking innovations to meet social needs across a host of priorities, such as poverty, the environment, child development, budgeting, and so on. In a sprawling, decentralized federation like Canada, we need to think this issue through, and develop an institutional locus for such shared learning.

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Resources and Links

Works by Neil Bradford

Urban Nexus: Place-Based Public Policy (June 22, 2005) – In the final issue of Urban Nexus, produced for the CPRN, Neil gathered a host of resources analyzing various aspects of place-based policy. With links and summaries for each document, this is a great jumping-off point for further reading. To access the archived newsletter, click here.

Why Cities Matter: Policy Research Perspectives for Canada – In this report, Neil takes stock of current knowledge about the problems and prospects of our cities. His primary goal is the clarification of major issues, differing perspectives, and central debates in a rapidly evolving and complex field of policy inquiry and action. He seeks to provide a baseline for further public discussion by situating the choices facing Canadian cities today in their historical context, and in relation to contemporary intellectual debates about how cities work, and how they might work better. To read this paper, click here.

Cities and Communities that Work: Innovative Practices, Enabling Policies – This paper from Neil reviews the literature on cities and communities, examines a number of Canadian and international case studies, and draws conclusions on policies and practices to help make our cities work. This is the second of three papers Neil has written on place-based policy. To read it, click here.

Place-Based Public Policy: Towards a New Urban and Community Agenda for Canada – In the third and final paper in this series, Neil examines the Canadian setting, finding that a growing recognition of the significance of “place quality” has not yet been translated into a coherent policy framework or consistent government action. He proposes four key elements to a robust place-based framework, and provides case studies of innovations in Europe and the United States and emerging community-driven collaborations in Canadian cities. He concludes with proposals for new intergovernmental and democratic accountability relationships to support place-based policy. To view this report, click here.

Cities: Needs, Challenges, Opportunities – Neil and his colleague Judith Maxwell took part in a Tamarack tele-learning session to discuss the issues facing Canadian cities, the importance of place, and repositioning Canada for urban excellence. To read more, click here.

Additional Resources

Remaking Neighbourhood Renewal: Towards Creative Neighbourhood Renewal Policies for Britain – This ANC paper by Duncan Maclennan presents a study of the Blair government’s “joined-up” approach, and provides a history of neighbourhood renewal work in Britain over the last decades. To read this paper, click here.

Cities: A Challenge for National and Global Economies – The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released this synthesis paper in 2006. The paper reports on the many challenges facing cities in the global economy and provides recommendations for tailoring policies to cities’ unique needs in order for cities to thrive. To read this report, click here.

The Social Role of Local Government – This paper from the Caledon Institute, produced as a part of the Vibrant Communities initiative, explores the new and evolving social role of local government. To read the paper, click here.

Sustainable Calgary – This organization is an excellent example of a multisectoral green collaboration, working with a place-based focus to encourage and support community level actions and initiatives that move Calgary towards a sustainable future. The group defines sustainable development as the process of working towards the long-term health and vitality of the city and its citizens with regard to ecological, social, cultural, and economic processes. To read more, click here.

New Rural Economy Project – Bill Reimer’s work on the New Rural Economy is an excellent example of policy development on the rural side of the rural/urban gap. The Project’s goal is to build capacity in rural communities. It is a collaborative effort bringing together rural people, researchers, policy analysts, and the business community. To read more, click here.

Regent Park Plan – Regent Park, in Toronto, has developed an extensive community revitalization plan. Their unique, decentralized but place-based process includes the use of community animators who can engage the culturally diverse residents. Visit the Regent Park Plan website here.

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