The key principles we draw upon when working on place-based approaches are:

  • engaging with traditional custodians, Elders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • being citizen-led
  • being inclusive
  • being asset based and strengths focussed
  • committing to place
  • taking care to do no harm

The principles of place-based approaches are shown in a wheel. They are being citizen-led, being inclusive, being asset based and strengths focussed, committing to place, taking care to do no harm, engaging with traditional custodians, elders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

QCOSS recognises the Traditional Custodians of country on whose land we work and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We are committed to walking alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a journey to build stronger relationships, understanding and recognition of the history, cultures and diversity that make up Australia’s First Nations peoples. QCOSS endorses the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which calls on the Australian Government to:

  • establish a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution, and;
  • establish a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about Indigenous history.

Collaborating with Traditional Owners and Elders of the place is a key aspect of working in the Australian context. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and knowledge are marginalised and ignored in mainstream Australia, which is unacceptable given their unique status as First Nations people of Australia. Furthermore, while their communities have many strengths in their Indigenous knowledge, cultural heritage, and deep understandings of place, country, family and community in Australia, they are often over-represented in the social disadvantages and inequity that place-based approaches seek to address. It is for these reasons that partnering with Traditional Custodians, Elders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is essential when developing place-based approaches.

Case studies

Relationships with Traditional Custodians in place, part of the Strengthening our place project (Capricornia)

How the Butchulla people are re-visioning an ancient rite of passage, part of the Strengthening our place project (Fraser Coast)

Citizen and/or community led processes and outcomes are fundamental to place-based approaches. This principle is shaped from learnings around participatory and deliberative democracy. Being citizen-led is essential to creating positive community change because:

  • people have the right to inform, influence and challenge the systems and policies that impact their lives
  • community-led responses lead to better outcomes. People are the experts in their own lives, including knowing what adversely affects them and how things could be improved. Solutions generated locally are relevant to the people, context and community
  • working alongside people to create the community they want builds personal and community agency and capacity that supports long-term change.

By citizens, we mean all people who live in our community regardless of formal immigration or citizenship status. We define it broadly, in the sense of social citizenship, wherein all people in a community have an intrinsic right to full civic participation, empowerment, and belonging. (19)

Citizen-led principles seek to rebalance power around how decisions are made in a place, demand that there transparency and a mandate from citizens for decision-making. This requires working with, not in or for, communities, building relationships with the people who live and work in the place, and allowing them to step into leadership. Rather than framing community members as service users or clients, this approach considers all people (whether a service user, service provider, or leaders) as members of the community actively working to improve the community, each contributing their skills, knowledge, and relative access to resources and power. It draws on the theories of pluralistic leadership, in which there can be many leaders at different times and in different ways, or servant-leadership, where leaders prioritise the movement and citizens they represent.

When building citizen-led structures and processes, QCOSS also draws on learnings from participatory leadership and the Art of Hosting. This framework provides tools for powerful conversations and asserts that people do and will give their energy and lend their resources to what matters most to them; in work as in life. Participatory leadership offers processes that invite people to step in and step up to take charge of the challenges which face them.

Jargon alert

Participatory and deliberative democracy encourages more involved forms of citizen participation in political systems and processes. Rather than simply voting for a representative and leaving decision-making to them, participatory democracy is about involving and empowering citizens to engage in decision-making and governance processes.

Pluralistic leadership is the idea that everybody has the capacity to lead at different times and in different ways. No-one has a monopoly on leadership, regardless of background, education or formal title – instead, as Paul Schmitz said, ”everybody leads.” Leadership is a quality that people take on at different times when part of a movement for change.

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Participatory leadership and the Art of Hosting is a framework for facilitating and hosting conversations that encourages equal participation in processes and creating opportunities for open and meaningful dialogue. The tools and processes invite people to step in and take charge of the challenges facing them, therefore making them ideal tools for facilitating place-based approaches. It supports people to work together and design new ways of working to achieve outcomes.


A core principle underpinning work on a place-based approach is being socially inclusive and valuing the lived experience of people. This principle is closely related to being citizen-led, and requires an awareness of privilege, power and exclusion.

Social exclusion occurs where, “people, families or groups are somehow shut out of, or become remote or disengaged from, normal participation in some or all of the economic, social, cultural, civic and political activities and relationships available to a majority of people in a society of which they are part, [resulting] in a loss of status, power, self-esteem and future expectations”. (20) Social inclusion is defined as the opportunity for people to learn, work, connect with others and have a voice. (21)

Being socially inclusive is the act of bringing those who are excluded back into civic participation through a process of active, intentional engagement, and rebalancing of power. People with lived experience expertise are regularly excluded from mainstream society or processes. The people most severely impacted by the challenges conditional to their place are often least empowered to influence or respond to those challenges. The term ‘nothing about us without us’ encapsulates the thinking that counters this and emphasises that people are the experts in their own lives and have the right to have a say in what happens to and for them. They are more likely to know what is needed to improve their lives and improve the systems and institutions they use and are likely to be motivated to improve their community due to having ‘skin in the game’. People excluded from mainstream conversations come from a range of experiences:

  • First Nations people
  • people from a culturally and linguistically diverse background
  • people with disability, mental health issues or other chronic or severe health issues
  • people experiencing poverty, unemployment, underemployment and unstable housing
  • people experiencing violence or recovering from trauma
  • people with lower literacy or low educational attainment
  • young people and older people
  • one parent families
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities
  • people living in rural and remote communities.

They may be excluded for a range of reasons: racism, prejudice and stigma, barriers to communication and mobility, lack of suitable employment, limited access to services, health care, housing, and so on. These risk factors all contribute to their difficulty participating fully in civic life.

Intentional and culturally sensitive engagement is necessary to effectively include the diverse groups that make up a community. This involves consulting and engaging with diverse parts of the community and actively working with people with lived experience or context experts to develop initiatives and make decisions. It involves including them in the conversation and making room for them at decision-making tables. Valuing existing expertise within the community ensures that the voice of lived experience is embedded in projects, policies and initiatives, and builds sustainability for the long-term.

Building capacity of context experts can be important to ensure they are effectively supported and can continue to advocate for themselves and their issues, and build sustainability of place-based approaches. This can include training in public speaking, media training, hosting community conversations meeting and engagement frameworks.

Jargon alert

Lived experience / context expertise is the kind of knowledge someone has by having a particular life experience. ‘Context expertise’ stands in contrast to academic or ‘content expertise’. For example, a context expert might have experience living in a social housing estate; a content expert may have conducted research into the mental health impacts of living in a social housing estate. Lived expertise is as valuable as other types of expertise, but factors such as stigma, trauma and/or chronic adversity resulting from the lived experience and unbalanced power, can limit people being able to share this expertise and influence policy decisions.If you are looking to include people with lived experience, it is important to remember that people can only speak from their own experience. It can be useful to include a number of different people with a similar experience to avoid tokenism. Looking at multiple stories and discerning themes can be a useful way of reducing reliance on a single story and has the added benefit of providing support and empowerment to the context experts. It is also important to remember that while people may all have experience with a particular issue, they may not have the same perspective or be coming from the same level of disadvantage, and therefore cannot speak for all experiences. For example, someone may be a carer of someone with a disability, and therefore have great insight into the needs of carers and the needs of people with disability. But as they do not have a disability themselves, they cannot speak on behalf of people with disability.

Place-based approaches harness the knowledge, skills of people and resources preexisting in the place. They require a focus on assets and opportunities, respect for existing structures, and valuing of and building upon the existing knowledge and efforts. Being asset based does not mean shying away from talking about inequality and disadvantage. Rather, it is about recognising the skills and values of people in place. People deserve to be valued for their strengths, not defined by their problems and experiences of disadvantage.

Being asset based and strengths focussed requires changing the narrative and asking ourselves, ‘what is the story we are telling about communities? Do we assume they are helpless and incapable of knowing what works?’ In our experience, community members have lots of ideas about what might improve their lives and communities. In some cases, communities already have enough resources. In other cases, the resources they need are not the ones that people insist on giving them.

Being asset based is about moving beyond ‘needs’ based thinking. Kretzman described the difference in perspective that comes from taking an asset-based approach rather than a needs-based one. (22) In a needs-based approach, usually the work starts by mapping all the needs, issues and deficits in an area; the community is then labelled as needy and deficient. The people in community internalise this portrayal and start to see themselves as deficient and their community as unsafe and toxic. They experience shame or become scared of their fellow community members, and relationships deteriorate. Funding that comes into the community starts to go to professional helpers and external services, for externally designed and narrowly defined programs. Increasingly, the best way to get funding in the community is to emphasise the community’s problems and ‘how bad things are here’. (23)

An asset-based approach would instead start by asking community members themselves, ‘what are your strengths? What do you like best about this place? What do you do well?’ It would involve searching out and emphasising local institutions, existing networks, programs and services, and organisations, and building on existing work – not coming over the top or replicating work. It would require valuing the positive aspects of a place and building on them. While still acknowledging the challenges some communities face, being asset based may mean drawing more on the language of possibility and opportunity, rather than the language of needs and deficits.

The key planning questions of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) are:

  • ‘What do community members do best for themselves and others?’
  • ‘What do community members need help from organisations and programs to do?’ We broaden this question to ask: ‘What do community need from systems?’
  • ‘What do organisations and programs do best for community members?’

The principle of committing to place is about committing to developing a relationship with place over a long period of time. It is about valuing the local, empowering projects and initiatives that occur in place, and amplifying work-in-place. It means taking the time to genuinely understand the needs of communities in place and building on relationships and assets. The phrase ‘think global, act local’ is at the core of this work.

Underlying place-based approaches is the dynamic and unique nature of communities, and a recognition that current models of system design and governance have failed in their ability to respond to community need and possibilities. At their core, place-based approaches must adapt and respond to community-in-place, remaining flexible and allowing for change in scope (if necessary) as the place-based approach evolves. They must be committed to the long-term vision that emerges in place rather than a particular set of activities.

The ways place-based approaches can commit to place include: deep listening and long-term engagement with the community; building community leadership, community resilience and community connections; supporting projects on-the-ground to be emergent and developmental rather than predetermined with rigid outcomes; and supporting greater devolved decision-making and administrative freedom (24).

It also means being clear about resourcing in place and, wherever possible, working towards long-term resourcing. It can be difficult with funding cycles for any one person or organisation to commit to place in the long term, and it is difficult for any single organisation to have strong connections to all people and to many different regions. This is why effective coalitions and partnerships with other organisations and individuals is essential to implementing a place-based approach.

Do no harm is a principle in medical ethics, and forms part of the Hippocratic Oath used by medical practitioners for thousands of years. It has also been used in aid contexts to understand the impact of aid on conflict. (25) It applies to working in community and place.

This principle recognises that all initiatives in a community have an impact, even where they are sensitively designed to work alongside existing structures and build on existing strengths. Despite best intentions, working in communities can have unintended and damaging impacts. Communities can be sensitive ecosystems. This is particularly so in communities facing complex issues, and where there may have been multiple failed attempts at collaborative working. Poorly planned and rushed initiatives can deepen divisions within a community or result in apathy where initiatives over promise and under deliver.

Everything you do has an effect. Think carefully about your approach and mandate to be in community before beginning work. Focussing on doing no harm does not mean inaction. Rather it means all of the unintended consequences of an action must be carefully considered, and the initiative must demonstrate that, on a whole, it will do more good than harm within the situation.

It also emphasises the need for integrated learning and reflection. When you are working in place and in an environment of complexity, each action you take affects the system in which you are working. It is critical that you are taking an action learning approach as you go, noticing your impact (positive and negative), and amending the approach in response.