If development, design and government doesn’t join forces, unite as a powerful lobby and face the challenges ahead, we may stumble into a future in which the real value of everything we’ve built is nothing, writes Christine Murray
The architectural press is a tidy place to be an editor. For the past 10 years, I visited buildings in the hazy afterglow of construction, between practical completion and handover. The projects were rich in artistic intention and unsullied by human inhabitation. Walking around with the architect, there was an air of celebration, because the difficult birth of the building was over.
Writing about these projects, I was often troubled by the fact that I didn’t know yet whether the building actually worked. That nagging feeling was formative in what would become The Developer – the need to look at places as they develop, from concept to decades after completion, and take the long view. With regards to successful city-making, everything about the journey counts, especially what’s there before you begin.
Plunging into the waters of place over the past few months, I’ve enjoyed meeting developers on muddy sites and hearing how on these plots of land will grow orchards of offices and homes. The scale of urban redevelopment in the UK is staggering.
Just as interesting as the stories developers have told me, however, is what they’ve failed to say.
Unmentionables in conversation often reveal our fears and their silence speaks of risks to UK investment. Brexit has been the most avoided topic. This week, at Mipim, there is magical thinking in action that if Brexit isn’t mentioned, it won’t scare investment away. The only person to bring it up was the French taxi driver.
This week, at Mipim, there is magical thinking in action that if Brexit isn’t mentioned, it won’t scare investment away. The only person to bring it up was the French taxi driver
There are other spectres scary enough to make crashing out of the EU (almost) a distraction. They also remain off the agenda.
In interviews, developers are keen to tell me about how online shopping is changing retail; they emphasise how they’re investing in the quirky, cultural and experiential. From King’s Cross to Liverpool One, closely curated retail, especially food and beverage, has been used to activate public spaces in new pieces of city. Yet not one developer mentions how crippling levels of personal debt in the UK are changing our relationship to shopping. As a result, using ‘activated ground floors’ as the sole strategy in the making of a place is increasingly risky.
British households were among the most flush in the world in the 1990s, but debt is now at its highest ever recorded level. Poorer households are having to borrow more to pay basic bills. This unspoken cause of high-street doldrums, more than online shopping or the wrong kind of retail, saw even ASOS.com post a profit warning in December. In the face of these figures, any retail strategy for activation is a risk.
The rise in student debt is also driving behavioural change. Saddled with an average of £50,000 in unpaid student loans, skint under-40s are forced to rent downtown where they can walk or cycle, resulting in a dramatic fall in car ownership and transport ridership. Developers often suggest this is down to a generational attitude shift, but it’s not about preference, but need.
Personal debt is the unspoken cause of high-street doldrums, more than online shopping or the wrong kind of retail, and saw even ASOS.com post a profit warning in December. In the face of these figures, any retail strategy is a risk
Even less discussed is the impact of debt on community cohesion. Growing economic inequality decreases tolerance of ethnicity and religion, and increases nationalism, according to recent studies. The fallout is already scary – there was a 19% rise in violent crime across the UK in the past year alone. What does this mean for mixed-tenure housing, with poor cores, if not poor doors, still the norm?
Another risk rarely discussed is air pollution. Visiting major development sites with cranes assembling glass-and-steel residential towers for young families, I saw balconies that overlooked motorways and bypasses, yet no one mentioned the rising panic about clean air.
A Mumsnet survey of 900 parents in November last year found that 66% of parents in urban areas were ‘quite’ or ‘extremely worried’ about air pollution and 28% had considered moving because of it; these figures rose to 80% and 40% respectively in London.
Last year, 40,000 premature deaths were caused in the UK by poor air quality, with a sharp 25% rise in asthma deaths over the past decade alone. The fact that the death of a nine-year-old girl has been linked with illegal levels of air pollution near her home in Hither Green, Lewisham, is reason enough for the industry to shudder – with major regeneration projects such as Lewisham Gateway in the works.
“Visiting major development sites with residential towers for young families, I saw balconies that overlooked motorways and bypasses, yet no one mentions the rising panic about clean air”
Parents already claim to be choosing schools based on air quality, so if your development has polluted air, that’s a risk, no matter how well designed it is.
Here, the industry is not powerless and can act to improve air quality: construction vehicles such as diesel diggers and generators contribute 14.5% of the most dangerous fine particles in the air around us.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room of risk: climate change. Even with Mipim headline speaker UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on stage emphasising the need for sustainable buildings: “No plan B on climate change and no Planet B”, developers don’t mention it. This is shocking given the open secret that the construction industry accounts for half of all carbon emissions in the UK and that this contribution is rising.
Even those with major projects fronted on UK waterways don’t explain how their buildings will cope with the expected 60-fold increase in flooding. The number of floods in the UK has already doubled since 2004. The Thames Barrier will fail within 40 years – what then?
No longer a distant threat, the risk of frequent heat waves, water shortages and floods now falls within the investment timelines of major UK redevelopments completing in 10 to 30 years.
By 2030, we are expected to pass the 1.5ºC marker, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If that seems a small or even a welcome degree of warming on an unseasonably warm, winter morning, let David Wallace-Wells’ new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, scare you. In it, he describes how seven million people are already dying of air pollution globally in “an annual Holocaust”.
No longer a distant threat, the risk of frequent heat waves, water shortages and floods now falls within the investment timelines of major UK redevelopments completing in 10 to 30 years
As the Earth warms, the risks grow: in a 2º warmer world, 150 million more people would die. Wallace-Wells writes: “Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but 150 million is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts… It is more than twice the greatest death toll of any kind – World War II.” Within 20 years, there will be 200 million climate refugees fleeing and in search of a new home, according to the UN.
The difficulty with carbon emissions, as explained by Wallace-Wells, is that we can no longer afford to do one or two token eco-things per development as an offset – we need to do everything at once and at speed: less waste, no concrete, fewer diesel vehicles, smarter estate management, more wildlife and biodiversity, and more innovation. But in return, we get the chance to future-proof investments.
“The risk of not engaging with these debates is obsolescence or worse – the loss of the real social, cultural and financial value of our places”
In the face of immense challenge might creep an inkling of futility, but we have the power to change how and what we build.
True visionaries see opportunity in every risk, while the peril of not engaging with these debates is obsolescence or worse – the loss of the real social, cultural and financial value of our places.
In our first edition of The Developer, we come at the topic of risk from many angles – from risky procurement to the anodyne public spaces created by the risk-averse.
On the whole, placemaking has always been a risky business, volatile in the short term but resilient in the long term, with high-stakes winners and losers.
“It’s the developer who takes the bulk of the risk, if they’ve acquired the land and have conditional funding arrangements, long stop-dates and need residential units to be sold before profit can be recovered,” says Theresa Mohammed, construction litigation partner at law firm Trowers & Hamlins.
But developers are not afraid of risk, perhaps because this is a well-heeled industry – CEOs with affluent roots take more risks than those from poorer backgrounds, according to a 2014 study published in the Academy of Management Journal.
True collaboration is a refreshing concept, because the time for finger-pointing is over. As makers of place, we must take great strides and big risks together
Fear of risk might explain why nimbys dig their heels in so deep – communities have a lot at stake, too. From residents decanted from social housing to small businesses ousted from their market stalls, embracing change can be a leap of faith too far. And are we worthy of their trust?
Tackling the risks of our time will increasingly require sharing them. In an era of finger-pointing and what Paul Berg, partner at insurer Griffiths & Armour, calls “back covering”, sharing risk is a challenge in an industry where an “integrated, collaborative environment is the exception, not the rule”.
Berg says: “Where it exists, it invariably requires an insurance solution that recognises that among the team delivering the project, there is no blame, no litigation, no fault, so that between team members, there is no finger-pointing.”
This industry has a handle on charm, bluster and glib retorts, but in the age of social media activism and hyper-accountability, more thoughtful responses are now required
True collaboration is a refreshing concept, because the time for finger-pointing is over. As makers of place, we must take great strides and big risks together. This will require a search for common ground and shared goals among the whole design, development and management team, including planners, architects, contractors, politicians, investors, engineers, policy workers, developers, asset managers and end users – especially the marginalised ones.
My ambition for The Developer is to bring the whole industry together to break down barriers between our siloed professions, first at the Festival of Place on 9 July. At our events, there will be frank discussion about the future of cities and no ‘unmentionables’.
The Developer exists to unpick the key ingredients to successful placemaking and promote evidence-based findings to help us mitigate risks.
This industry has a handle on charm, bluster and glib retorts, but in the age of social media activism and hyper-accountability, more thoughtful responses are now required.
Launching The Developer is a risk, too. But I believe we need more thoughtful reporting on the user experience of our cities. The Developer is an experimental space where we can grapple with the most difficult questions as an industry and work out inspiring solutions together.
Christine Murray is editor-in-chief and founding director of The Developer. She is the award-winning former editor-in-chief of The Architectural Review and the Architects’ Journal, where she founded the Women in Architecture Awards. She is an honorary fellow of RIBA and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts