People, Place and Surroundings

In this post, Professor Patsy Healey FBA discusses the complex nature of ‘place’ and how a better understanding of this can support more nuanced place policy. 

In the UK, our public policy inheritance reflects a paradox. On the one hand, our cultural traditions are deeply imbued with a strong sense of place, expressed in our concern for the qualities of our diverse cities, towns and villages, and our varied landscapes. On the other, our government arrangements are dominated by a centrally-driven and sectoral policy organisation. The academic planning literature has much to say on the tensions this creates within planning systems in the UK and Europe, and more generally for efforts at sub-national levels to focus policy programmes around integrated conceptions of towns, cities, neighbourhoods etc[1]. Whereas the experience of place and place qualities draws together the many dimensions through which we live our lives as we move around our surroundings, a sectoral organisation splits these dimensions up into functional services. All too often, place qualities are treated in government practices as just another service to deliver, which makes it difficult to develop holistic conceptions of how different services, as they are realised in particular situations, impact on people’s experience of their surroundings and the places they value. These difficulties are compounded when an over-centralised organisation misses an appreciation of the diversity of geographies through which we live our lives. One consequence is that a place-focused politics pops up in all kinds of governance arenas, trying to find expression and to get leverage for attention to issues and connections which a sectoral focus tends to ignore[2].

The search for developing a stronger place focus in public policy is one of the reasons behind the argument for more devolution in the UK, whether to devolved nations, regions, cities and towns, or villages and neighbourhoods. But devolution does not of itself bring a stronger policy focus on place and place qualities[3]. It also matters how places and place qualities are conceived. This means thinking about how we humans relate to our surroundings and each other. There is a strong movement in the social sciences and the humanities to move beyond notions of a dichotomous relation between humans and nature, towards a more co-constitutive conception. Such a perspective emphasises that people are continually influenced by their surroundings as they move within them, draw on the possibilities they offer and seek to change them[4]. And these surroundings are not individually owned, but shared with all kinds of others, as a form of continually evolving ‘common pool resource’ (Ostrom 1990).

How do our surroundings relate to the way ‘places’ are recognised and given meaning? As I and others have argued elsewhere, places are not bits of a two-dimensional material jigsaw, to be fitted together neatly to make a larger territorial map. Nor are they segments of a Russian doll, one nested within the other. They are better understood as loosely-structured assemblages of things and meanings, landscapes and vistas, possibilities and memories, emotional attachments and moral values[5]. Much of the time, we hardly notice what surrounds us, in the sense of bringing them forward into attention. They are just part of where we happen to be and move around in. Place-ness, the recognition of a place, results from our calling into attention the character and qualities of these surroundings[6]. In other words, places are brought into being through the way they are experienced and brought into conscious attention as we move within, around and beyond them, giving them meaning in the flow of the complex relations of our daily lives[7]. In this way, powerful ‘place attachments’ of very many kinds get formed and may find expression in place politics[8].

A focus on ‘place’ in public policy then means drawing together policy domains considered separately by many forms of government organisation (economic activity, transport, health, education, housing, environmental quality, social welfare) as they impact on surroundings which people, individually and in groups, care about in diverse ways. This involves political effort to build a constituency or ‘public’ to frame and carry forward debates about the qualities and meanings of particular places[9]. It is only in this way that place conceptions can get sufficient leverage to challenge the embedded power of our inheritance of sectoralised policy organisation, professional practices and interest group struggles. In other words, political communities have to be built within the public sphere through which a distinctive sense of place can develop which can shape collective action programmes.  And it also matters that such a place-focus is arrived at through engaging with the complexity of the many ways in which people with a stake in the surroundings experience and value what is being called into recognition as a ‘place’[10].

[Scroll down for endnotes and references]

Patsy Healey FBA
Patsy Healey is Professor Emeritus in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University, UK. She is a specialist in planning theory and the practice of planning and urban regeneration policies. Patsy was elected to the Fellowship of the British Academy in 2009.

[1] See Healey et al. 1988 for an account of the practices of the planning system in the 1980s, Tewdwr-Jones 2012, and also the later literatures on strategic spatial planning, urban regeneration and rural development.

[2] See Owens and Cowell 2010, Parker and Sweet 2015, Healey 1997/2006.

[3] In an interesting study of city region policy development in the Central Lowlands of Scotland, Vigar (2009) shows that policy integration and direction was achieved much more successfully in the Glasgow/Clydeside area than in the Edinburgh area, as such an approach had a much longer history in the former region.

[4] See Ingold (2011) for an expanded discussion of the ontology underlying this perspective.

[5] Here I use the concept of assemblages in the multi-dimensional sense advocated by geographer McFarlane (2011).

[6] In other words, places do not exist objectively ‘out there’, though once called to attention the concept can have powerful consequences.

[7] Here, I draw on a relational perspective on socio-spatial dynamics (see Massey 2005, Amin and Thrift 2000, and, in the planning literature Graham and Healey 1999, Healey 2004). This focuses attention not just on our immediate surroundings but on the way webs of relations connect us to multiple other times and places.

[8] See Lewicka 2011 for a comprehensive review of the place attachment literature. This covers work in many disciplines, though coloured by an environmental psychology interest.

[9] This draws on Dewey’s conception of publics, see Dewey 1927/1991

[10] This opens up discussion of how place ‘visions’ and ‘frames’ get formed, about who has a ‘stake’, and about the significance of the civil sphere in political life.


Amin, A., D. Massey, and N. Thrift. (2000). Cities for the Many not the Few. Bristol, The Policy Press.

Dewey, J. (1927/1991). The public and its problems. Athens, Ohio, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press.

Graham, S. and P. Healey (1999). “Relational concepts in time and space: issues for planning theory and practice.” European Planning Studies 7(5): 623-646.

Healey, P. (1997/2006). Collaborative planning: shaping places in fragmented societies. London, Macmillan.

Healey, P. (2004). “The treatment of space and place in the new strategic spatial planning in Europe.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28(1): 45-67.

Healey, P. (2007). Urban Complexity and Spatial Strategies: towards a relational planning for our times. London, Routledge.

Healey, P. (2010). Making better places: the planning project in the twentyfirst century. London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Healey, P., P. McNamara, M.Elson and J.Doak. (1988). Land Use Planning and the Mediation of Urban Change. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Ingold, T. (2011). Being Alive: essays in movement, knowledge and description. London, Routledge.

Lewicka, Maria (2011) “Place attachment: how far have we come in the last 40 years” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31(3):207-230

Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London, Sage.

McFarlane, C (2011) Learning the City: Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Owens, S. and R. Cowell (2011). Land and Limits: Interpreting sustainability in the planning process: 2nd edition. London, Routledge.

Paasi, A. (2001). “Europe as a spcial process and discourse: considerations of place, boundaries and identity.” European urban and regional studies 8(1): 7-28.

Parker, Gavin and Emma Street (2015) “Planning at the neighbourhood scale: localism, dialogic politics, and the modulation of community action” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy Vol 33.

Tewdwr-Jones, M. (2012). Spatial Planning and Governance: Understanding UK Planning. London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Thrift, N. (1996). Spatial Formations. London, Sage.

Vigar, G. (2009). “Towards an integrated spatial planning.” European Planning Studies 17(11): 1571-1590.

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