News and Comment

Your place or mine?

Friday 22 November 2013

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This article was published on the Utility Week website.

A ‘site’ to a developer is a ‘place’ to locals. Utilities ignore people’s emotional attachments to areas earmarked for development at their peril.

Crane

Any major infrastructure project changes the environment in which people live, and their response to this change inevitably involves emotional as well as rational aspects. Academic experts describe the way in which people understand and value the places where they live as “place attachments”. These attachments are based on the lived experience in the area, going beyond the physical properties of a place to incorporate the way in which people use, describe and value space.

Strong attachment bonds form a basis for identity. In short, “where we are” informs “who we are”. When development proposals imply a marked change to the physical environment, that change can disrupt the attachment individuals feel towards a place and present a threat to their identity. This emotional effect often contributes to the climate of opposition towards developers; particularly where “natural” places are seen as threatened by “industrialisation” from infrastructure proposals.

As technical specialists, we often refer to “sites” for infrastructure – locations defined by objective. Take a simple field, for example. As a site, we might describe its physical dimensions, any land contamination or status in planning policy. Where opposition develops, that field can be seen as a backyard, an idealised space that must be defended by local people against unwanted change from outside.

This type of opposition is often presumed to arise from selfishness, parochialism and ignorance, with locals dismissed as Nimbys. In reality, the same field can exist as a place for local people (and others who may have formed a relationship to it), defined by its uniqueness, use over time for recreational activities, qualities such as attractiveness and the emotive attachments formed to it.

By treating the places in which we develop infrastructure as sites rather than places, consultation and engagement programmes fail to engage with local communities on a meaningful level, valuing expert input over local knowledge. In the worst case scenario this approach leads to a debate happening entirely in the context of a backyard to be defended, rather than a place that can potentially develop in tandem with the proposals. To move from conflicting “site” and “backyard” perspectives, developers need to create a shared narrative in which meanings are explored and developments have the opportunity to become a valued part of the place.

The pre-application consultation regime introduced by the Planning Act 2008 has been a game-changer in consenting for major infrastructure. Where extensive engagement with local people used to be a “nice to have”, it is now a necessity. The challenge for developers is to use pre-application consultation to build relationships with affected communities that go beyond the adversarial, working from the premise that better engagement really can lead to better developments.
We do not need to replace existing practice, rather to supplement it using tools that clearly demonstrate added value. The box sets out a variety of tools that can be used to explore place attachments with communities. These are not the only options, and they need to be integrated within a wider dialogue process engaging all stakeholders.

In any engagement or consultation, you need to think about some of the details. Detailed qualitative information can be valuable, but it is important to think about who you involve, and the effect this will have on the rigour  and generalise-ability of the results. What a place-based understanding tells us more than anything is that there can be multiple, conflicting perceptions of any one location – ignore this multiplicity at your peril.

Timing is also important. Engagement has to happen while there is scope for change to proposals to offer genuine value to communities and not just developers. By making infrastructure decisions about placing, rather than siting, we can move away from the oppositional “backyard” to a more collaborative process that  benefits us all.

Any major infrastructure project changes the environment in which people live, and their response to this change inevitably involves emotional as well as rational aspects. Academic experts describe the way in which people understand and value the places where they live as “place attachments”. These attachments are based on the lived experience in the area, going beyond the physical properties of a place to incorporate the way in which people use, describe and value space.

Tools

Maps

Collaborative mapping: participants describe the local area, agreeing on common understandings, exploring differences and creating a map of the locality that reflects shared meanings.
Cognitive/emotion mapping: asking participants to create drawings of their locality (or to annotate maps), identify salient features and emotional responses to them.

Photographs and images

Collecting visual data: asking participants to take photographs or video of places which participants then describe for the researcher – either individually or in groups.
Photo-elicitation: using images of places (often created by participants) to prompt individual or group-based exploration through discussions of place descriptions and attachments.

Interviews

Free association: an approach to eliciting narratives (place meanings) that are richly contextual and allow participants to set the terms of the discussion.
Comparisons and descriptions: elicit descriptions/definitions of the place by asking people to compare it to other places or simply describe it to a visitor.
Quantitative scales: Standardised scales (that is, a series of questionnaire survey statements) designed to capture a particular idea – such as intensity of place attachment or varieties of relations to a place.
It is increasingly possible to translate any of these approaches to the digital environment: for example, using social media to collect visual data or open source maps.