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Place-based approaches to policy are crucial

12 December 2022 at 4:32 pm
Susie Moloney
As natural disasters continue in the wake of climate change, place-based initiatives are crucial to emergency services delivery. 

Susie Moloney | 12 December 2022 at 4:32 pm

Haydie Gooder


Place-based approaches to policy are crucial
12 December 2022 at 4:32 pm

As natural disasters continue in the wake of climate change, place-based initiatives are crucial to emergency services delivery. 


The night Greater Shepparton Lighthouse Project set up its COVID-19 support Facebook page during an outbreak in Shepparton, it received over 300 requests for support. Community-driven collective Lighthouse was able to fulfil those requests and many more, leveraging its deep relationships with local families, schools and businesses to provide food relief, social connection and wellbeing support, and disseminate information and resources.

This story is not unique. COVID hit marginalised people and communities harder than others. For those communities experiencing complex and interrelated inequities, long-term place-based approaches such as Lighthouse’s have been a crucial source of support and long-term resilience building, with similar initiatives emerging across Victoria, Australia and internationally over recent years. 

Place-based approaches are a way for communities, local organisations, service providers and government (and other funders) to work together. They are long-term, community-led approaches to tackling complex social, economic and environmental disadvantage and inequity. Place-based approaches recognise that each community has its unique strengths and challenges, and reject ‘one size fits all’ solutions in favour of tailored and targeted investments and interventions.

So what allows place-based initiatives to act so quickly to genuinely meet community needs in times of crisis, such as COVID-19 or the recent flooding? Recently, Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places, our hub for place-based action, research and advocacy, was commissioned by the Victorian government to investigate what makes some place-based approaches so effective. Our team, alongside partners RMIT University, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the University of Queensland, explored existing literature and practice, identifying a handful of features common across those effective place-based initiatives.

In the case of Lighthouse, key to its success have been the trusting relationships it has developed over years of working within the Greater Shepparton community and the strong cross-sectoral relationships it shares with other local organisations, including government and philanthropic funders.

One Lighthouse team member told the research team, “any success we’ve had has been based on really clearly understanding what people need. We have made it our goal to unflinchingly serve what we hear people say they need…and when you do that, the response [trust] is then very strong [from the community].”

Lighthouse’s swift response to the COVID crisis was also made possible by their ‘whatever it takes’ approach, trusted long-term partnerships with government, funders, and a strong volunteer base. Their connections with community allow them to respond quickly to whatever is needed on any given day, whether it’s advocating to a real estate agent on behalf of a family that needs a house, paying for a car repair so a family can get their kids to school, or referring a person to a domestic violence service. Flexible funding allows Lighthouse’s work to be driven by people’s most pressing needs and the community’s agenda, rather than being constrained by delivering pre-determined projects.

Our research team also observed agile responses to COVID conditions in other place-based initiatives. First Nations-led Morwell initiative, The Gathering Place, provided contact-free outreach support and essential services such as food via Foodbank to community members they knew were in need and outside the reach of other services. 

Food insecurity also became a critical issue for residents at Flemington Housing Estate during the pandemic; a situation exacerbated by the estate’s hard lockdown. Place-based initiative, Flemington Works, drew on strong and trusted relationships with local communities, helping establish a catering enterprise, Mamma’s Kitchen, which employed 14 women from Flemington and Ascot Vale Housing Estates to prepare and personally deliver 10,000 culturally-appropriate meals to 250 households. 

Lighthouse shares some features with other effective place-based approaches across Victoria, such as The Gathering Place and Flemington Works, including listening to the diversity of local voices and acting on and advocating for what matters to locals, nurturing relationships of trust, taking a strengths-based approach and constantly learning, reflecting, and evaluating to improve their practices. The importance of recognising Aboriginal self-determination is also key here.

The research identifies systemic enablers which support this work; among them, trust from government and other funders that communities know best what goals to pursue, and a recognition that meaningful change takes time and long-term agile funding.

Jesuit Social Services’ Dropping off the Edge research, including our most recent report published in November 2021, identifies Western Sydney as experiencing some of the highest levels of disadvantage in New South Wales. Jesuit Social Services’ place-based Western Sydney program also operates with trust, relationships and flexibility at the forefront. The team says this way of working enabled them to pivot quickly when the pandemic hit, providing a food relief program and running several successful pop-up vaccination clinics which delivered thousands of doses in an under-vaccinated community.

Our observations of place-based work as a way to strengthen resilience are supported by the Dusseldorp Foundation’s 2020 Place-based resilience report, which profiles a number of place-based initiatives in different states, arguing their rapid and demand-driven response to the emergence of the COVID crisis was made possible by the place-based principles that guide their work.

The promise and impact of place-based approaches rely on ongoing commitment from different levels of government and other stakeholders, adequate and flexible funding arrangements, and a culture of continuous learning that places communities in the driver’s seat. Place-based approaches are not only key during times of crisis but necessary to delivering systemic change within communities that effectively responds to their needs.

Victoria is currently the only state with an official government framework recognising the importance of place-based approaches. This is a good start, but given the enormous potential to address inequities and build community resilience in the face of ongoing, interrelated challenges – such as COVID recovery, the recent floods, energy transitions and climate change – we need coordinated whole-of-government commitment to enable place-based approaches that allow individuals and communities to flourish.

Susie Moloney  |  @ProBonoNews

Dr Susie Moloney is executive director of Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places and prior to this, was an associate professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning in the School of Global Urban and Social Studies and the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University.

Haydie Gooder  |  @ProBonoNews

Dr Haydie Gooder is research and partnerships manager of Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places and has worked for many years in interdisciplinary teams on research projects addressing social justice issues.


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