Impact real estate in 2019: Precincts and partnerships

There are some stunning examples of precincts in the Netherlands that accommodate a more holistic set of human needs – something for Australian precincts to aspire to?

A fortnight ago, we were driving past social housing flats in London. You would recognise these towers of small units, crammed into blocks of grey concrete and steel. We can all instantly recognise these buildings as social housing because of their austere design. These buildings were designed for shelter and little else: the base of Maslows hierarchy of needs. We rarely think of these buildings as places that can address other human needs, like connection, wellbeing and love.

We think the best developments of the future will place the whole person at the centre. They will be places that connect people and are regenerative for both people and the planet. While these are principles that have guided our thinking and work for years, our recent visit to the World Architecture Festival in Amsterdam has strengthened our convictions and has given us more examples and inspirations.

On our study tour, we took notes of our conversations and observations among world leading investors, developers and intermediaries. We met them in London, Brussels, and the Netherlands, accompanied by our architects, Woods Bagot, and world-renowned Dutch architects MVRDV and Space&Matter.

We heard about and witnessed places that provide shelter, a safe space and sense of security. It is possible to design spaces that help build the trust, social capital, and relationships that are needed to feel connected, safe and fulfilled. We believe we can design places where people can address their whole needs: to feel proud of where they live, who they are and what they create. We want to develop built environments with a sense of place, identity and belonging, and environments where people can contemplate, reflect and feel inspired.  

This is how the built environment can foster the social determinants of health; the upstream causes of downstream social illness. One amazing example: Rotterdam’s Markthal

During our time in The Netherlands, MVRDV showed us a building they designed called Markthal (Market Hall in English) in Rotterdam. It is a residential and office building with a market hall underneath and was opened in October 2014.  

Markthal (Market Hall), Rotterdam

Market Hall is an excellent example that demonstrates how the built environment can accommodate a more holistic set of human needs. This building shows how social housing (one tower of the arch) does not have to be stigmatised or set apart from other forms of housing. One tower is dedicated to social housing which flows continuously into the other tower that has been developed for private housing. These residential units are seamlessly unified in their façade and design.

The two towers are connected to house a vibrant market and ground floor retail market place which is filled with food and retail vendors. Think of it as a cocoon of a building with huge panels of windows creating natural light and a sense of openness, connection to the outside world and to one another. The windows internal to the building link residents to the marketplace. And the ceiling artwork of fresh produce brings to life the feelings of vitality of food, diversity, colour and life.

We found Market Hall so inspiring in contrast to the social housing blocks we saw in London. We wanted to share how thoughtful design can transform what a building or precinct can do to meet the needs of people at a more holistic level.

Another example: Borneo-Sporenburg

Borneo-Sporenburg was a compact new housing district to the west of Amsterdam Central in the 1990s. Masterplanned by West 8 Landscape Architects, the renewal areas inspired by former villages in Amsterdam where intimate houses descended towards the water. The masterplan was divided into a variety of house types, distinctive apartment blocks and the waterfront.

As you walk around the area, whats unique about the site is the eclectic and various architectural typologies (designed by six architectural practices), the high density living, and workspaces at the ground plane. Yet despite this, the scale of buildings is modest. Its rare to see anything higher than 4-5 storeys, other than the odd apartment block.

From initial inspection, the site doesnt wow you. However, what distinguishes the site from other neighbourhood renewal areas around the world is the thoughtful placement of green open space, the scale of buildings, and the strong consideration given to architectural design at the street level.

It feels like a very pleasant environment to live and work, which puts the needs of people at the centre of the development. In hindsight, its what we could have achieved in the Docklands in Melbourne. And maybe its a precedent for what could be achieved in parts of Fishermans Bend and the Arden Macaulay Renewal Areas.

So what next?

We believe precincts offer a scale at which social and environmental value can be delivered alongside attractive commercial returns.

We also see the opportunity for investors and developers to build partnerships with world leading academic researchers, innovative new data platforms, and industry-leading architects and urban designers. And we are aware that the unique combination of commercial acumen, strong track record, and proprietary approaches to managing for and measuring social impact in property development is and will increasingly be highly sought after by investors and tenants.

In particular, we think a game changing differentiator will be the ability to set social and environmental impact filters to select sites that will deliver measurable community benefit. By partnering with communities to engage in a thoughtful co-design process and by measuring what matters to these communities, this will drive more attractive financial returns, creating value for residents, tenants, investors, government, and the broader community.

Its an exciting time to be looking at the world of sustainable precincts.

Dr Erin Castellas and James Fitzgerald were in Holland for the World Architecture Festival, supporting their Young Husband rejuvenation project’s place on the shortlist of the Commercial Mixed Use Future Projects award.

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  1. Great article. What’s really interesting about these projects in The Netherlands is that many of the more innovative ones were made possible by the Global Financial Crisis, that resulted in many of the dominant housing providers (of which they are approx. 5) needing to sell land and rethink their approach to development – with pretty great results as you have pointed out. What’s a bit scary is that with the boom currently occurring there is a bit of a ‘return to the status quo’ occurring where some of the housing being produced is monotonous and representative of past failings (but they are still miles ahead of Aus in terms of social housing provisions and its quality). But what’s exciting for Australia is — with a potentially significant drop in housing prices — what opportunities does this bring for the development sector to innovate in new and creative ways??