Rebecca Madgin asks whether there is space for the feelings of lived experience in the Levelling up and Community Wealth Building agendas.

Dr Rebecca Madgin is Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow and Programme Director for the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Place-Based Research ProgrammeRebecca is an academic who works on the relationship between the emotional and economic value of place and has published widely on the role of heritage within placemaking and emotional attachments to urban heritage.

The SURF Conference, ‘From Slogans to Sound Strategy’, provided a sustained opportunity to engage with two current priorities: Community Wealth Building and Levelling Up. Hearing from a range of different speakers including poets, freelancers and those who work in local and national government provided an inclusivity which reflects the need for plural expertise when considering place-based policies and practices. The mix of speakers and topics ensured that both the mind and the heart were engaged at different times of the day. This was especially the case when Kevin P. Gilday and Hannah Clinch spoke as their visceral accounts of their lived and felt experiences of living and working in place provided a prism through which the rational language of the policies and practices heard throughout the day could be filtered and felt. And it is this, alongside the examples of local case studies from Dunoon and North Ayrshire, that left me with the strongest impression of the day. We hear so much about policies and practices but less so directly about the everyday experiences that are both shaped by and in turn shape the outcomes of these place-based policies and practices and even rarer is the chance to listen to people in their own words uninfluenced by the set questions from surveys and consultations. The power of poetry, film, postcard, bingo, art, history, and heritage, all showcased at the event, to convey the lived and felt experiences of place was evident and it made me reflect on the crucial role that creative practice can play within the understanding and nurturing of place.

As a result, the day left me asking what would our place-based slogans and strategies look like if we deeply incorporated the lived and felt experiences of place within our decision-making processes? By that I mean the ways that we feel in and about places and the felt relationships we have to and within place. Put differently, if we moved beyond seeing place solely as a geographic location or an administrative boundary or even a functional economic area to instead validate the emotional depth of place, to be able to sit with the conflicting stories and contested feelings about place and use this embedded, deep, and rich local knowledge of the existing relationships that people have with place to nurture rather than ‘make’ and ‘re-make’ geographic locations.

I heard several examples throughout the day which suggested that this could be the case and the two overarching themes, to varying degrees, do open the door to this. The Levelling Up White Paper has a focus on pride whereas Community Wealth Building provides a tantalising glimpse into how a sense of felt ownership of local places can translate into social value in ways that respect the environment and satisfy economic needs. However, in terms of next stages, or in the words of the event, to turn ‘slogans into sound strategies’ we need to ensure that these intimate, everyday, and embedded relationships with place and the unique local knowledge that comes out of these relationships are not just front and centre of slogans but have deep and wide roots within the ecology of place. It still feels, despite the fantastic work communicated at the event, that these lived and felt relationships are a missing but crucial piece of the place jigsaw.

I’d like to end with a feeling: ‘hope’. A hope that place-based policies and practices can evolve to enable people, in their own words using their own preferred mediums of communication whether that’s film, poetry or even through PowerPoint, to convey their relationships with place in ways that can centre their lived and felt experiences in ongoing strategies to nurture the future of their place.

If you would like to join SURF’s Community Wealth Building Network please email emma@surf-old.local