By Professor Catherine Clarke, Director of the IHR’s Centre for the History of People, Place and Community

Understanding our places – their past, present and possible futures – has never been more firmly on the political agenda than today. The so-called ‘Place Agenda’ is here to stay, encompassing debate and policy around regional development, local renewal, and sustainable regeneration. The rhetoric of ‘Levelling Up’ points to inequalities and regions missing out on their full potential, while the language of ‘left behind’ places speaks of uneven social and economic conditions, but also the complexities and nuances too often invisible to a metropolitan, Westminster perspective.

History and heritage have been crucial to many recent initiatives seeking to regenerate local places. The Levelling Up White Paper (2022) highlights ‘the £95m High Streets Heritage Action Zones programme which supports 67 places across England; the £15m Transforming Places through Heritage programme; and the £2bn Cultural Recovery Fund’, while outlining further plans for investment in ‘heritage buildings’ and ‘historic sites’, claiming that this will ‘in turn… support the visitor economy in these places, helping to drive regeneration and economic growth, and providing employment for local people’.

History has always helped us understand our places: their past and their potential. I write as Director of the Victoria County History of England: a project founded in 1899 with the aim of exploring and interpreting our shared histories through place at the very smallest scale – the individual parish. All history, to varying extents, is grounded in place and context. Now, history and heritage are proving crucial tools for policy and renewal – and, most especially, for understanding what makes places distinctive, and their unique identities and assets for future development.

This blog re-thinks what History – and the wider Humanities – can bring to these urgent priorities around place, identity and sustainable renewal. It will pose four key questions or provocations:

  • What vocabulary do we use when articulating the relationships between History and place – and why does that matter?
  • How can History – and the wider Humanities – open up new ways of imagining places?
  • What’s the role of local communities themselves in making history and researching the past of places?
  • Beyond a model of historical research as a ‘resource’ for place renewal – compliant and complicit with place policy – what might it disrupt, trouble or resist?

Talking History and Place

What words do we use to talk about histories of place? Perhaps most obvious, and longest established, are the terms ‘local history’ and ‘regional history’. But what happens when we introduce different terms into the conversation? How might they challenge and refocus place-based history in new ways? The recent AHRC research scoping project ‘Towns and the Cultural Economies of Recovery’, in which the IHR’s Centre for the History of People, Place and Community was a partner, highlighted the importance of the most granular thinking in place research, at the level of postcodes or neighbourhoods, identifying the value of terminology such as the ‘hyperlocal’ and ‘microplace’.

What might it mean to respond to the language of other place-centred practice in historical research? From the creative arts we could borrow the concept of the ‘site-specific’, described by Nick Kaye as ‘exchange between the work of art and the place in which its meanings are defined’: a nexus of reciprocity and mutual transformation. Re-thinking place-based historical research as ‘site-specific history’ has the potential to open up new kinds of dialogue and analysis, and new kinds of transformative interventions and provocations which research can make in place.

‘Local’ is a slippery and spiky word today. While ‘local’ is valorised in policy at all levels – used 1,153 times in the Levelling Up White Paper alone – it’s often treated with wariness in universities: a striking and bewildering disconnect. Perhaps we see here (flawed) responses to the REF emphasis on research reach and scale, or universities’ aspirations (especially in pre-1992 institutions) to ‘global’ status at the expense of local networks and priorities. But research into localities – including, and perhaps especially, in History – has the potential to achieve deep and transformative impacts. Now, more than ever, the research and expertise associated with Local History can pivot into a resource for envisioning and informing local futures.

Imagining Places

What is policy, but a form of story-telling? Protecting and conserving what’s distinctive and special about our places – as well as renewing them for the future – begins with shaping narratives about what they were, are and could be. History – and the wider Humanities – offer the creative and critical tools for making these stories, as well as for analysing and interrogating the narrative presented by policy-makers and planners. With our skills in creative methodologies and practice-based research, the Humanities have a unique role to play in bringing together different kinds of stakeholders and experts (from local residents to policy-makers) and creating new spaces for interaction and different kinds of conversation.

Making History, Making Places

The vital work of researching the history of places doesn’t just take place in the academy. In fact, some of the most vibrant, lively place-based History today is driven by community groups, local history societies and individuals who are passionate about their own places. Community-led and co-created History is represented in a wide range of exciting projects across the UK: from the ‘Know Your Place’ digital projects, beginning with Bristol and now covering the wider south-west region, to the Stove Project’s innovative ‘Atlas Pandemica’ initiative in Dumfries and Galloway, or often long-established local history societies still doing important and ground-breaking work today: the Woolhope Club in Herefordshire, for example, or research for excellent local journals like Minerva in Swansea. Even the venerable Victoria County History has always been powered by volunteers and local people working together to research their places: a crowdsourced History project long before that vocabulary came into usage. The growth of genealogical and family history has further expanded popular interest in local history – or ‘One-Place Studies’, as it’s often termed in this context. Local museums, libraries and archives also play a crucial part in this rich eco-system.

Co-designed and co-produced History is crucial for understanding the multi-layered and varied stories which make our places – and for ensuring that diverse pasts and potential futures are visible and integral to how we understand and imagine the local.

Disrupting Places

‘Culture-washing’ has long been recognised as a danger in redevelopment and regeneration: big business, profitable planning and gentrification made palatable with the veneer of cultural facilities or activities. But what about ‘heritage-washing’? As historians, how we can ensure that history isn’t just commodified as a tool for glossy regeneration? Historical research can resource place-making projects – but it also has the capacity to disrupt, challenge and resist. History can bring to light – or share more widely – overlooked stories, marginalised groups and missed details. It can ensure that diversity, complexity and even friction remain present in our places. It can also offer space to think critically and flexibly about research ‘impact’: not necessarily always as a straightforwardly affirming contribution to planning and policy, but sometimes as critical, subversive or challenging.

What Next?

Place, and the local, are once again at the heart of our cultural and political imagination. Understanding the past helps us understand our places, and explore pathways to thriving and resilient communities today and in the future. As historians, we’re uniquely placed to contribute to these conversations and initiatives – beginning with expanding our own lexicon, reflecting on our practices and collaborations, and interrogating the kinds of impacts and challenges our work can present.