Why the art of place-making can lift our cities

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Guy Bradley, Chief Executive, Swire Properties


• Place-making, to effectively contribute to urban development, depends on paying attention to small details.

• Such fastidiousness makes the differences when designing for sustainability.

• Stakeholder engagement is also crucial in maximizing the potential of place.

I joined the real estate sector relatively late in my career and was given a lot of advice in the weeks leading up to my first day at work. One of the most poignant remarks, which I still remember to this day, was to make sure I took the time to walk the streets of our developments or places, and immerse myself.

When I asked what aspects I should pay attention to and in how much detail, I was told: “The location of the lampposts, the colour of the flagstones, the types of artwork, the species of trees, the way people move about. In short, everything. You’ll need it because your colleagues have been studying it for years.”

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was aimed at ensuring that I developed an appreciation of the art of place-making that we see deftly occurring in developments such as Roppongi Hills in Tokyo or King’s Cross in London. I particularly admire these projects, due to the extent that they reimagine the urban fabric in two of the great world cities. Roppongi Hills, for example, required innovative land use to complete the largest private-sector urban redevelopment project in Japan. A variety of uses, from office to museums to retail helps to create a community feel, and vast amounts of green space, from rooftops to walking courses further encourages public use.

For place-making to be a success, it is essential that every aspect of a development be carefully considered to create a space that is the most it can possibly be. Stakeholder engagement gets a lot easier if, as my mentor suggested, you can tune into all these diverse factors. Looking back 15 years later, I remain very grateful for that advice.

Sustainability is currently a leading consideration in place-making at Swire Properties – one where the closely intertwined principles of creativity and innovation must come into play. It is not enough to have high specification structures that go above and beyond statutory requirements in design and sustainability criteria, such as in One Taikoo Place in Hong Kong. Here, we have a special team dedicated to improving the sustainability features in our older buildings; while 89% of Taikoo Place comprises of green buildings, some of them were built in the 1970s and need extra attention. We know sustainability is also important to our tenants and the wider communities that we serve.

Therefore, we have set long-term decarbonisation goals for our properties around the world under our SD 2030 programme, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. One useful engagement practice we instituted back in 2008 was free energy audits for both office and retail tenants. This has resulted in 9 million kWh in annual electricity savings, which is a staggering amount. You can run about 2.6 million home air conditioners for an hour with that power.

The key to being successful in driving sustainability is not only investment support and relevant technology, but also partnerships that enhance the ability to conduct data analytics and benchmarking to determine how to best improve energy efficiency. Many developers around the world have been collaborating with educational institutions to develop big data analysis and KPI monitoring to enhance energy optimization in the built environment. This is also extending into the wider supply chain, where there is a growing trend of integrated design approaches where sustainability is integrated throughout the entire life cycle of a development.

Another key aspect of place-making and stakeholder engagement in dense urban settings is the manner walkability can be boosted. Those that know Hong Kong will be familiar with the ubiquitous number of hillside hiking trails that provide a quick and often convenient getaway from the urban hustle. It is obvious people like to take a stroll, but in urban landscapes the right environment for them to do that must be designed.

It has been encouraging to see that over the course of the pandemic, cities across the world from Athens to Auckland have been making changes to reduce vehicle traffic and create more pedestrian-friendly streets. The Mayor of London, for instance, has been active in encouraging the identification of more streets and spaces suitable for temporary or timed pedestrianisation; more “streateries”, as well as the development of localised outdoor seating venues, will emerge. Chicago spent many years developing its Pedway network: a series of underground tunnels and overhead bridges that link more than 40 blocks in the central business district. The public can therefore walk free from the discomfort of bad weather.

The essence of stakeholder engagement is to get varied and wide perspectives to conceive better solutions or ideas on how to develop land. The Treasure Island development in San Francisco demonstrates the necessity of strong partnerships to both improve liveability and also address aspects of resilience critical to place-making. Treasure Island is the largest development of new open space in San Francisco since 1871 and required a team of engineers to address the threat of rising sea level rise and soil stability. Through testing and modelling, a programme was established to make all streets 36 inches higher than the base flood elevation. The development will ultimately turn the former naval station into a mixed-use neighbourhood with vast stretches of public parks, biking and walking trails, hospitality and office space along with close to 8,000 homes, 27% of which will be designated as affordable.

Engaging environmentalists and biologists from Hong Kong University has helped with landscape planning in and around Taikoo Place, where we are developing urban gardens that will boost biodiversity and complement existing parks and recreational facilities in the area. We are creating some 6,400 square metres of green space at street level, a significant amount in the dense urban metropolis of Hong Kong. Auditing of biodiversity in and around our development footprint helps emphasise the environmental challenge we face to our teams, and elevate consciousness that urban areas are and can be home to a wide range of flora and fauna.

Another key stakeholder during such projects are the local authorities. The first step towards developing gardens for instance is securing street-level space that can be transformed. In the Sanlitun area of Beijing, for examples, the Opposite House Community Garden was only established with the help of the Chaoyang District Government. Cultivating an attractive design and detailed plans required patience, compromise and empathy from all sides to reach a mutually acceptable solution.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to support the Future of Real Estate?

While investable real estate has grown by more than 55% since 2012 (PwC), the COVID-19 crisis has underscored weaknesses in relation to human and planetary health along with drastic inequalities, leaving a stark reminder of the influence the built environment has on societies and the vulnerabilities that exist in times of crisis regarding how spaces perform.

As the real estate industry looks towards recovery, the need for transformation is clear. Portfolios must be rebalanced, and distressed assets repurposed. Technology must be fully embraced, and sustainability and wellness must be at the core of design and operation. The affordable housing crisis that already existed pre COVID-19 must be systemically approached to ensure access to adequate and affordable housing. If the Real Estate industry is to deliver transformation, it is more important than ever to ensure that policy, financing and business solutions are aligned in delivering better buildings and cities.

The World Economic Forum has brought together CEOs from the Real Estate industry to develop a Framework for the Future of Real Estate to help drive the industry’s transition to a healthier, more affordable, resilient and sustainable world.

If I ever need an energy boost and a dose of inspiration, I like to chat to our new recruits at Swire Properties’ Placemaking Academy. They are a cohort of youngsters from Hong Kong that we take in every year, empowered to work on the latest projects within our portfolios, ranging from markets that focus on providing local produce to Christmas fairs suitable for a new era of social distancing regulations. They remind me that the future of the art of place-making is alive and well.

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