It is no secret that as a society we trade on intangibles. Most brands we buy into carry with them a halo of status, association and aspiration that extends beyond the experience of the product or service itself. This is what help us part with an extra fifty dollars when purchasing the latest laptop, and what the advertising and marketing industries make a living out of.
But the property sector finds these intangibles very hard to deal with. I’ve heard several times that these intangibles can’t always be measured with a dollar value, they don’t always add up in a financial model, and they more often than not involve going the extra mile to deliver something that is above and beyond what was deemed required in the first place.
Place is nothing more than the confluence of the all the intangibles that people connect to emotionally. You don’t connect to square metre rates and floorplate configurations. As a citizen using the city for your work or life, you connect to the materiality of the wall, the shopfront that spills out onto the street, the fact that the shops you really like are clustered together and show the world that you live in a place that knows what’s good. More often than not, you haven’t even articulated this connection, you just know that this place feels good, that you like it.
Sure, location is part of place, and we know that for location, people dish out the extra cash. But in a market like ours, a market where a whole tower of apartments can be sold, sight unseen, off the plan in half a day, does anyone really value place? If placemaking is the art and science of designing and coordinating the intangible layers of our cities, who is reaping the benefit?
Having recently worked with a number of organisations in the property industry on this question, it is clear that place is at the forefront of their agendas in recent times. Perhaps sustainability is now a tamed concept; quantified and worked into the models that underpin property development, and now it is time to tackle the indomitable concept of place as the new competitive edge.
A first observation is that place is usually an uncomfortable word to define in the property industry. It involves skills and concepts that haven’t traditionally had their place in the lexicon of property professionals such as emotional connection, legibility, image, experience.
There are, however, many professionals who understand that place must form part of what is delivered. Many cite the growing onus on the private sector to deliver all the layers of a city – from the infrastructure all the way to the activation program, identity and experience of a place. As the size of urban renewal opportunities grows, so does the scale on which these need to be delivered.
It takes a keen eye and the creative skills, often held by creative agencies, urban planners, strategists, and obviously, placemakers, to guide the sector through this muddied territory. It takes an understanding of how people form a bond with a place and what are the clues that need to be built in for people to form that attachment with buildings, streets and local culture.
When this is done well, the dividends are there to be reaped: increased foot traffic, solid sales, steady value uplift for owners, media coverage and reputational capital for the developer as the creator of this “bit of city”. So why is the case so hard to make? Why is place biggest card to play when pitching for new sites, yet rarely placed at the centre of the development process?
Firstly, good places aren’t just good places on day one: the current development business models don’t tend to factor in months and months of activations, or indeed thousands of square metres of incubating retail space sitting on the balance sheet. Current models incentivise the immediate reward for sale, not the longer lasting legacy.
Secondly, to create a good place, you need to get under the skin of what will make the local economy and culture tick. As a developer, you’re no longer only creating the receptacles for this activity to happen within, you are also designing the productive condition of a particular site. Only now is this awareness emerging in the sector of the development process as something that shapes the soft infrastructure, as well as the hard infrastructure.
Finally, place creates a reputational dividend for developers. As large sites are more often than not owned by government and sold to the private sector, government is usually held to account to ensure that certain economic but also social and cultural outcomes are delivered.
But in an ironic turn of events, it is the private sector that has understood that its audience is part citizen, part customer, and that its own development brands are intertwined in the logic of both the commercial and the civic. This is resulting in a shifting industry landscape, with placemakers becoming the “must have” consultants at the table. It has also shifted the positioning of developments, the language used to promote them, and the words to describe legacy.
Delivering a good place today is the best way to ensure a healthy pipeline of work – to have a living model of what you can do as a property developer. And that’s priceless.
These are welcome signs that the industry is understanding the strategic value of place for our urban renewal projects. With several projects due to be delivered over the next three to five years, the proof will be in the pudding. The talking about place will stop, and we will be the judges of what is delivered.
Michelle Tabet is an Independent Strategy Director at michelletabet.com