Book review: Caring for Place: Community Development in Rural England

reviewed by Frank Moulaert

27 Apr 2023, 9:06 a.m.

Caring for Place book cover

Patsy Healey, Caring for Place: Community Development in Rural England, New York and London: Routledge and RTPI, 2022; 224 pp. ISBN: 9780367632014, £34.99 (pbk)


In her opening sentence to the Preface of her new book, Patsy Healey quotes James Tully who tells us that ‘Every reflective and engaged citizen is a public philosopher … and every academic public philosopher is a fellow citizen working within the same broad dialogue with his or her specific skills’ (Tully, 2008: 4). Many academics – unfortunately not all of them – in the course of their career keep wondering which specific skills they really master and which ones they should privilege in their work. While many stay away from the dirty work of ‘practice’– unless it significantly adds to the university or to personal resources – Healey does the opposite. As a geographer, planner and a polyvalent citizen, she has made valuable use of her many skills in spatial research and down-to-earth, place-community involving planning practice.1

Her publications on spatial planning found theoretical inspiration in diverse disciplines such as geography, planning, sociology, political science, anthropology; but as, Healey let theory talk to planning and community development practice – a practice within which she adopted many roles: of observer, mediator, facilitator, planning technician, reporter, etc. Showing her solid affinity with the Pragmatic tradition in research and action, she preserved throughout her work the modest status of theory as a travel guide, protecting it from becoming the source of Utopian narratives.

This book confirms this position. More than any of her earlier publications, however, it is a personal witness report, a ‘reflective logbook’ of a community development and planning process in her own community of Wooler/Glendale. In the many roles she took in this process, she embodied the ethics of a ‘reflective practitioner’, working through an interactive process of analysis, action, and individual and collective (self)evaluation. One of the most appealing roles she took was that of reporter of local history.2

The book is organised as follows. The first chapter delves into the role of civil society in its many forms and the ways it is caring for ‘place futures’. Limiting her conceptual analysis of civil society, Healey focuses on actual agency and cooperation within very local initiatives that affect or could affect the future of people living in Wooler/Glendale. That is, The Glendale Gateway Trust (GGT), Coordinating for Age (C4A) – which over the years evolved into ‘Glendale connect’, and the Wooler Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group. She briefly presents these initiatives in Chapter 2 and further reflectively reconstructs them in Chapter 4 and especially Chapter 5. Chapter 3 is devoted to ‘Placing Wooler and Glendale: Where and what is “here”?’ Starting from the insight that Wooler and Glendale are hard to define using administrative and statistical criteria because people’s lived experience show different boundaries, that is, those of human relations, economic extent, community tensions, etc., Healey summarises the meaning of place as follows:

The symbols created through social political interactions may generate such a powerful conception of a place that the conception itself acquires the capacity to ‘act’, to become a subject in its own story. Such socio-physical understandings have been expanded in recent years by work in the fields of sociology, social anthropology, environmental psychology, art and architecture, community development, health, and planning – all emphasizing the significance of place and place attachment to people’s sense of well-being. (p.46)

Such a socio-psychological understanding of place as a place-community clarifies the ways Healey lays out the narrative of the Wooler–Glendale community development and her agency within it. In her reconstruction of ‘What are Wooler and Glendale as places’, she valorises peoples’ perceptions, stories and reflections, looking at the past and the future, the very local (the Parishes) and the out there: the ‘remote’ Berwick-upon-Tweed, the higher scale political and economic forces. She connects dimensions of local life with strategies and plans for the future, the agencies that matter or could matter. Without really using the term, she examines how the place is embedded in the macro-politics, economy, society, and how this embedment offers opportunities but also constraints. As to the latter, she stresses the difficulties of performing local development in an environment determined by a neoliberal economy and an austerity state.

Chapter 5 digs into the relationships between the three civil society initiatives she has been involved in and what she calls the ‘agency world’, that is, ‘the structures and practices of wider governance ecosystems, filled with internal multiplicities, connectivities and collisions’ (p. 82). Concretely speaking, this means multi-scalar formal state and government agencies that are in (continuous) flux. This flux means a major challenge for civil society initiatives, which have to renew their connections with state institutions on a regular basis.

[ …] we found ourselves struggling over the way resources were channelled, over modes of practice and over whose priorities should prevail. Notably, these struggles rarely led to an argument for yet further retreat of the state. Instead, they supported the need for formal government to be configured differently, both in organisation and in modes of practice. (p.112)

Indeed, engaging with the agency world means navigating, strategising and resisting power relations, which are analysed in Chapter 6. Healey examines the tensions in the relations between Wooler–Glendale civil society organisations and with political, as well economic, agencies. She refers to the tensions between the GGT and the local authorities on housing policy, the never ending need to challenge the national government policy and administration, but also the division between the Parish Council and GGT. In her hopeful perspective on the future of place-communities – although recognising the ordeal of neoliberal statism and market terror – and based on the Wooler–Glendale activism experience, she:

supports the claim made by those who see civil society initiative and place-based communities as important players in shaping future possibilities. The power available to us lies in our own energies, our commitment to the future well-being of our ‘place community’, and in our various abilities to mobilise to do things for our collective benefit. (p.138)3

In the 9th and last chapter of the book Healey dwells on the ‘Transformative potential of civil society initiative’. One can hardly consider Healey as a forecaster or scenario builder. Her way of looking at the future starts from the power of citizens active in civil society. ‘The collective power mobilised by civil society activism draws on the voluntary involvement of individual agency’ (p.189). Healey is very aware that such commitment will most of the time be in conflict with forces ‘flowing through the state and the market’. ‘While our activism has had some impact on the boundaries between formal government and civil society, we have little power to alter the economic changes affecting our area’ (p. 189). Still, based on her experience as an activist and analyst she believes in the power of the community to have a real impact on ‘Framing its Future’ (Chapter 7) and to extend community benefit and public value into the future of the Wooler–Glendale place community.

What I appreciate most in this book is how Patsy Healey valorises her experience as an academic, a planner and a committed citizen in three different initiatives of community development. Hybridising theory, research, empathy, caring, visioning and activism, the Wooler–Glendale community has stamped its feet in the mud of its vales and built up the potential to redress itself. Being maybe slightly naive in its analysis of power – overlooking for example, the behavioural impact of market ideology, the suffocating impact of the practice of the control state – this book and the protagonists it stages join the civil movement that still dreams of grand transformations but works within the scope of (ingenuous?) realism; positing that the combination of micro-initiatives of place-communities is probably the only hopeful way forward to overcome capitalism and ecological mass destruction. It is maybe for this reason that the author only listened with half an ear to the arguments of post-political authors and kept a careful distance from literature on utopia and commoning – or unwillingly put both together in one tub? – whereas both can tell us a lot about how socio-political experimenting offers fertile insights for badly needed socio-political transformation.



1. I had the privilege of working with and learning from Patsy in a social innovation driven community development project involving many European cities, SINGOCOM; see Moulaert et al. (2009).

2. I suggest that before reading the book you should enjoy Healey’s walking presentation (Glendale Local History Society, 2020).

3. A remarkable omission in the cited literature on power in planning is Albrechts (2003).



Albrechts L (2003) Planning and power: Towards an emancipatory planning approach. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 21(6): 905–924. Crossref | ISI | Google Scholar

Glendale Local History Society (2020) Imagining Wooler’s ancient Past. Available at: (accessed 4 September 2022). Google Scholar

Moulaert F, Martinelli F, Swyngedouw E, et al. (2009) Can Neighbourhoods Save the City?Abingdon and New York, NY: Routledge. Google Scholar

Tully J (2008) Public Philosophy in a New Key: Volume 1, Democracy and Civic Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar


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