Knowing the place

People walking and riding motorbikes along a dirt road surrounded by lush vegetation in Africa

This blog is part of the Footprint Evaluation Initiative, a collaboration that aims to embed consideration of environmental sustainability in all evaluations and monitoring systems.

Most interventions occur at a place; projects are often at one or more places such as communities or districts; strategies find their application at places, as do policies, often through programs.

A place is where the action is, where projects, plans, strategies, policies, or other types of interventions are put in motion.

At those places human and natural systems will always couple because human systems draw from, deposit to, and rely upon natural systems; and because natural systems everywhere are affected by human actions.

So, for sustainability-inclusive evaluation, place is an evaluand's physical and social site or sites. Understanding place means understanding the operative social and human systems and nexus – where and how human and natural systems couple at these places.

What is "place"?

Places are not just points on a map. They are locales of natural and social attributes as understood by the many interests in a place.

Social attributes are facets of a place shaped by human influence and actions, including its culture, economic activities, traditions, governance structures, population dynamics, and issues surrounding equity, race, gender, and legal systems.

Natural attributes pertain to the environment and landscape of a place, encompassing features such as climate, terrain, ecosystems, the variety of life forms present (biodiversity), the character of physical properties such as soils, and whether the area is land-based (terrestrial) or water-based (marine) or atmospheric.

And nexus is where the coupling of these systems shapes important social and natural attributes. Sustainability-inclusive evaluation focuses on the nexus connections where these often complex couplings occur and generate outcomes in human and natural systems. Nexus is where the sustainability-inclusive evaluator begins the hunt for values and whether the coupling of humans with natural systems is extractive, harmful, neutral (no harm) or restorative. This assessment is central to sustainability-inclusive evaluation.

Some of these outcomes will be part of the intent of the intervention itself, some not. Still, all are affected by the intervention and should be recognized and incorporated into the evaluation. However, sustainability-inclusive evaluators must be careful to avoid "breaking the bank" and instead should focus on a limited number of key natural system outcomes. Ideally, these will contribute to users of the evaluation recognizing the importance of considering coupled human and natural systems (conceptual use of the evaluation).

An intervention doesn't define a place, nor is the value of place determined by underlying human system processes, such as results-based accountability. Instead, interventions occur at and cause effects to natural and human systems within a place and are affected by the systems at a place.

This means that place needs to be understood as more than a simple 'context' for the intervention where influencing factors can be found. The connections between human and natural systems, and how these are affected by and affect the intervention provide the human and natural landscape for the intervention and evaluations of this.

How can we understand place?

So, if place is more than just the intervention setting, how do we explore and understand place when conducting an evaluation?

Recognize that places have boundaries distinct from human system boundaries

When conducting sustainability-inclusive evaluations, it's crucial to recognize the differing temporal and spatial scales of human and natural systems.

Temporal scales refer to the duration over which processes or events occur. In human systems, this might be short-term, like the span of a project or a political term. Natural systems could range from events over a season, like annual migrations, to processes spanning decades or centuries, such as forest growth or glacier retreat.

Spatial scales refer to the physical space or area of interest. Human-defined spatial scales often align with societal constructs and consider areas like neighborhoods, cities, or nations. On the other hand, natural scales might consider the expanse of a river or watershed, a mountain range, or an entire coastal area.

Human and natural systems can couple even if they are physically far apart. This is particularly true with elements like air and water, which can carry effects across large expanses, come into play. For example, the aftermath of severe forest fires in Canada, exacerbated by climate change, has detrimentally affected air quality in parts of the US hundreds of miles away. On a broader scale, the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has triggered global climate changes with lasting repercussions, such as the recent extreme heat events worldwide. On the other hand, temporal and spatial scales can be very small and still have important repercussions, as seen when a small pond, vital to local biodiversity, is filled for construction purposes (Rowe, 2019).

Temporal scales in human systems, especially in evaluation contexts, often correspond to life stages such as children, adults, and elders, generational shifts, economic cycles like return on investment, or program and policy cycles. Temporal scales in natural systems can also reflect generations but with huge variations depending on species, varying from a few human days to centuries. Seasonality is one of several analogs to economic temporal scales that influence patterns of growth and dormancy. For example, just as businesses have busy and slow times, nature has seasons where plants grow and times when they rest, and many animals have seasonal migration patterns. In natural systems, temporal scales can be very relevant to place, such as the slow migrations of beech trees over the Alps to central Europe or the currently observable migrations of fish and forests moving towards the poles and crossing human jurisdictional boundaries. The recognition of “forever” as a temporal frame is of growing importance—this pertains to indigenous and traditional values attached to specific places and to the long-lasting presence of certain man-made substances, like "forever chemicals" and plastics, in the environment. Forever or in perpetuity is an important temporal frame for place for many Indigenous peoples. As with spatial scales, relevant temporal scales can range widely from very short to very long. Fortunately, there will usually be solid, relevant scientific knowledge to support evaluative judgements on longer-term outcomes yet to take place.

It's incorrect to assume that the boundaries of human and natural systems will match in terms of time and space. If an evaluation only focuses on the human system's spatial boundaries and timeframes, it will overlook crucial processes and impacts within the natural system. And potentially also environment-related human system effects such as environmental justice. Indeed, it is safe to reject a priori any assumption that human and natural system spatial and temporal boundaries align. This means that an evaluation employing only human system spatial and temporal scales will ignore potentially important natural system processes and effects and will improperly assess the value of the intervention.

This is why broadening how we understand 'place' is important in evaluation. How we perceive a location, its physical dimensions, and relevant timeframes shapes the scope of our evaluation. How we approach and grasp the concept of 'place' and the processes we use are crucial for ensuring our evaluations are relevant, valid and useful.

Identify and listen to interests as well as stakeholders

Knowing the place means knowing the place as a nexus of human and natural systems, where the human system is attempting to change a condition, usually regarded as lying in human systems, and which will cause nexus effects in human and natural systems. All human and natural systems have "interests".

In sustainability-inclusive evaluation, while interests are similar to stakeholders, the difference can be important. Stakeholders, at its core meaning, are mainly representatives of interests in the human system that have found their way to having a "stake or role" in the intervention or the evaluation. On the other hand, interests have "an interest" in the intervention or the condition that the intervention is seeking to change, either because they can affect the success of the intervention or because they are, or could be, affected by the intervention. So, while all stakeholders have an interest in the intervention, not all interests are seen as stakeholders in the traditional sense and, therefore, are often excluded from evaluative processes.

To illustrate, some of the interests in a landfill could include those concerned with the designation and cleanup (for profit, government, local communities and First Nations), those concerned with environmental effects on humans (health, environmental justice), effects on natural systems (conservation groups, watershed protectors, biodiversity). Stakeholder approaches will be mainly concerned with the first group (designation and cleanup), who will be regarded as quite rightly having a seat at the decision table. Many other interests will be accorded intervenor status and will not have an additional voice in the decision process.

Interests can stem from both human and natural systems at the place. They might be directly connected to the intervention or targeted outcomes or indirectly related through nexus connections (or 'coupling’) of human and natural systems. Local and Indigenous knowledge holders can frequently point to coupling of these systems, including highlighting longer-term trends and changes in conditions that other interests and intervention developers are often not aware of. Stories are a particularly rich way to identify and communicate these and describe why they matter, as discussed in this recent blog by Larry Bremner and Linda Lee. As a simple test of our knowledge of place, all interests should recognize in the description of place the aspects of the place that to them are most critical – the non-negotiable elements of a place.

Actively explore unintended, unexpected, and ignored effects

Evaluation has, in the past and still today, largely ignored natural systems. My use of "ignored" is deliberate and is contrasted to the evaluation categories of unexpected or unintended. It is implausible that today, those shaping interventions and evaluations are unaware that most human actions adversely affect natural systems. However, these effects are largely ignored in the framing of the intervention and consequently also the evaluation.

An understanding of place can bring these previously ignored effects into the framing of the intervention and evaluations. It is how, for an intervention, we recognize the specific ways that human and natural systems couple and how what we do in human systems affects both human and natural systems.

Understanding place is also central to important evaluation functions. For instance, the primary evaluation role of assigning value isn't valid if we overlook natural systems when selecting intervention sites. While designing sampling strategies, if we only focus on characteristics within the human system, we're missing out on important information from natural systems. Instead, a sustainability-inclusive approach must factor in human and natural system elements.

The historical lack of coupled human and natural systems data has previously made this difficult. However, this integration has become more feasible with the use of big data and Geographic Information System (GIS) tools. For example, the Independent Evaluation Office of the Global Environment Facility (IEO-GEF) has been successfully using big data and GIS to bring human and natural systems characteristics into sampling for case studies. The Footprint Evaluation Uganda case study also demonstrates how GIS can measure joint effects cost-effectively. Other methods and processes for collecting data are discussed in this blog.

Regardless of the processes, it is critical to focus on the place itself and the intervention's role within that specific place rather than merely viewing the place as a backdrop or a natural resource for the intervention. Traditional evaluation processes often systematically demote to unexpected/unintended, or plain ignore, important effects. This is especially the case when those effects impact those with less power and authority or when affecting interests representing natural systems.

If evaluation continues to ignore natural systems effects, then it is unlikely to be valid and likely to return false positives or negatives on the value of the intervention. Overlooking the interconnectedness of systems and the impact on natural systems means evaluations favor certain perspectives while disregarding others. This bias can raise concerns about the reliability of the evaluation and risks resulting in disenfranchised interests challenging the evaluation, making its use problematic.


Evaluation is not long-term curiosity research. It must be feasible, responsive, rapid, and used. So, while 'place’ is a very wide and complex concept, understanding place is crucial for the validity of evaluations.

For sustainability-inclusive evaluation practice, evaluations need to be able to rapidly focus on the main attributes of the places where the intervention occurs and directly and indirectly affects. Key to this critical matter of identifying the main attributes of the place for human and natural systems is recognizing the boundaries of natural systems, as well as human systems, identifying the relevant

interests of a place, as well as traditional stakeholders, and actively exploring unintended, unexpected, and ignored effects. This is critical for framing the evaluation, ensuring it is comprehensive and addresses these factors thoroughly. In sustainability-inclusive evaluation, understanding an intervention's context or "place" is essential. Separating the intervention from place will lead to incorrect evaluative assessments. It’s crucial to start recognizing and integrating this perspective, even if not all aspects of place can be covered within the limitations of an evaluation’s resources. By prioritizing the most significant points of connection and assessing what's feasible, we can begin to shift towards a more holistic approach.

It all starts with understanding place.

Related content

Rowe, A. (2019). Sustainability-Ready Evaluation: A call to action, New Directions Evaluation 162 pp. 29-48 in George Julnes (ed.) Evaluating Sustainability: Evaluation in Support of Managing Processes that Promote the Public Interest. Retrieved from:

'Knowing the place' is referenced in: