The power of language to tell the story of place

I was struck by @mcinroy’s blog last week on pre-distribution, and the role that it could play in tackling poverty and inequality, even in places where growth is difficult. For me, what we do about places that find growth difficult is a key issue for UK regeneration and economic development, and the focus for my PhD.

Currently, the UK has no plan, no strategy and no ideas about how policy should support places where economic growth can be difficult, and sometimes darn-near impossible, other than to say that they should try and grow.

There has been some murmuring about managed decline – or ‘smartdecline’ as I’ve also heard it described – and certainly there is a lot of interesting commentary on this from the shrinking cities debate which New Start commented on recently. I’ve also been reading some work this week on depopulation in Japan, which suggests that some regions are thinking beyond growth. This report suggests that ‘many institutional and social and environmental entrepreneurs are instead working towards achieving community stability and sustainability’.

What these examples show very clearly is that place-success is all too quickly and easily aligned with place-growth. A successful  and dynamic place is also a place whose economy grows.

But, what is a good place? Can a place be good, even if it doesn’t have economic growth? We can start to answer that question by taking a look at the type of language we typically use to describe places where economic growth is difficult:

Lags behind
Weak labour pools

Then in contrast – look at the language we use to describe the places we think are growing!

Driving forward
Central and core

Could the contrast be any sharper, and is it any wonder that regeneration and economic development initiatives often fail to have the desired impact? This type of language not only has the effect over time of problematising place and the people who live there, but it also undermines the very efforts being made to support and encourage new growth and regeneration.

While the economic realities of a place impact greatly on the people who live and work there, the words we use to describe a place may be just as powerful. I’d argue that the dominant discourse in spatial and economic planning has the power not only to blight communities, but also to trap our imaginations in a Weberian ‘iron cage’, which stifles debate and creativity about the nature of a ‘good place’.

I’ll be exploring the challenge and ideas surrounding discourse and place with an exciting group of likeminded professionals at a #popupseminar later in February. The #popupseminar is the brainchild of @salfordgareth and taking part will be @jennacondie @lovestoke @odobob @yasminah_b @annkol and @pbm_ab. You can find out more here.


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Mr G
Mr G
12 years ago

Hmmm – always thought provoking stuff on this this site. I think the language of growth is just window dressing, and that to use words like ‘dynamic’, ‘thrusting’ or whatever buzz word(s) sound the most impressive is a cultural norm. I’ve worked for ‘dynamic’ organisations, and they may be dynamic… but they’re not always interesting.

You asked (perhaps rhetorically), ‘Can a place be good, even if it doesn’t have economic growth?’ Doesn’t that depend on what you mean by good? I’ve visited small communities where there is little conventional economic growth – but instead a strong sense of community. What is lacking in ‘growth’ can be made up for in social capital – assuming the people in such a community are culturally adapted for that.

I live in a major city which could superficially be called successful, ‘driving forward’, etc. It’s also waspish, has little community spirit and resembles an ant hill. I’m not suggesting that it should abandon its current growth strategy and opt for decline – just that current priorities seem very skewed to me.

Nothing can grow infinitely anyway, as we are currently witnessing.

Sarah Longlands
Sarah Longlands
12 years ago

Thanks for your comments, particularly your points on how language is used as window dressing. Its interesting how the ideas of business marketing are now being used more and more in regeneration for ‘place marketing’. In many cases – its definitely more style than substance!

In terms of what we mean by a ‘good’ place, I think we all too often define ‘good’ as growing, whilst as you rightly point out, there are many places which grow in other ways, eg, their sense of community or their quality of life. I suppose what I’m really interested in is how the obsession with economic growth as an objective for place crowds out discussion and debate about the future of a place. We jump for growth as the answer when we don’t actually know the question.

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