It is becoming increasingly clear that the case for focusing on building and sustaining communities is of vital importance for developers and managers of mixed-use estates.
From boosting the life expectancy of residents to securing the backing of investors, the societal and commercial benefits of not just paying lip service to communities but engaging and empowering them throughout the property cycle has never been more evident.
One of the ironies of London, amongst the most populous cities in Europe and a hyper-connected global hub, is how easy it is for someone to hide in plain sight. However, it will come as no surprise to those of us accustomed to dodging unwanted eye contact on the tube that it is often ranked as one of the loneliest in the world. Is this bleak contrast a sign of our urban future? And if it is, how can the property industry play a part in ensuring our cities remain places worth living and fulfil our needs as a highly social species?
The unprecedented challenges facing us in the coming years will mean the sector needs to see itself as not just shaping the physical environment, but also as custodians of the human lives that play out within the spaces it designs, builds and maintains. To deliver and activate the innovative environmental solutions people, we need to look beyond the boundaries of our buildings and expertise typically seen in the industry to bring in a diverse set of perspectives.
Today 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050 – an eye-watering 2.5 billion more people (and you thought the Northern Line was already too crowded). Moving in the opposite direction, around the world we are experiencing high levels of polarisation and loneliness. This isn’t just a problem for individuals; Governments are coming to view the impact of loneliness as being in line with obesity or smoking.
A strong sense of community, and more specifically social connection, is now proven to lower stress, dramatically decrease your risk of dementia and could even add up to a decade of a person’s life. How’s that for social impact?
In fact, “embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier” according to the longest study ever on health and happiness, which followed 268 people for 80 years. It discovered that our relationships and social connections over a lifetime were the primary indicators that predicted happiness and longevity.
Ensuring the supply and quality of homes, workspaces and other places is just the tip of the iceberg. Making a genuine difference will require bold, creative thinking; nowhere are the social challenges facing the industry brought more into focus than in mixed-use neighbourhoods, especially those that are regeneration-based.
The developers and owners that will thrive in the future will ensure their spaces cater for the diverse needs of everyone who works, lives, plays and visits there, not just the residents.
Community campaigns are often treated with trepidation by property companies, worried about the risks that come with ceding control over their processes or the bad press that might ensue from a vocal minority and ‘NIMBYs’. Democratic participation and community resilience are imperative to securing the full potential of an estate. Whilst delivering an experience that will set you apart as exemplary, building invaluable trust in your brand.
However, you only have to look out across the tranquil, natural setting of our newest estate management mandate to see the positive, enduring legacy of community participation. Surveying the waterfront homes and idyllic public spaces of the Woodberry Down regeneration, it is striking to think that this treasured oasis and now sought after residential neighbourhood, was nearly lost were it not for the foresight and tenacity of community activists that saved the reservoirs from being filled in when they were put up for sale over 35 years ago by Thames Water.
However, it is not just grassroots campaigns or consumer cynicism that should be focusing minds in the property world to deliver positive social impact. The numbers are stacking up, too.
The number of signatories to the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment, which commits signatories to incorporate environmental and social issues into their investment decisions, has grown from 63 investment companies in 2006 (totalling $6.5 trillion assets under management) to 1,715 and $81.7 trillion in AUM as of 2018.
We are now seeing a significant and sustained shift towards sustainable investment strategies. Having a positive impact on the world and good financial returns are no longer being seen as mutually exclusive. And that can only be a good thing for people everywhere.