Good placemaking pays corporate dividends, by Chris Brown

It may not be new but it's encouraging to see developer British Land, in its recent publication A Design for Life, throwing its weight behind the case for placemaking and design quality to improve health and wellbeing. Its assessment of the financial benefits to the state makes a compelling case.

It is not new because it has many antecedents, from American urban activist Jane Jacobs to NHS Healthy New Towns and the BREEAM Communities method for measuring the sustainability of large-scale development plans, to name but a few. British Land is investing heavily to retrofit some of its poorly designed, bland corporate precincts into attractive campuses where people want to work.

I have written here before about how polite society advocates placemaking these days. But there does seem to be a degree of clear blue water opening between those businesses that get this stuff and those that do not, and the consequences for those that aren’t paying attention seem to be underperforming shares and the inability of chief executives to choose the time of their own departure. This isn’t because shareholders like good design. It is because customers and tenants’ employees tend to react positively to great places and that attraction is fed through via commercial retailer and office occupier demand to faster lettings, higher rents and better financial performance for the property companies.

The transmission mechanism isn’t perfect. It is hard to measure and quantify these effects and many of the intermediaries are ignorant of the impacts. Then there are the good design deniers, who at least have the partial defence, compared with climate change deniers, of a paucity of scientific evidence. This is something the Bartlett Real Estate Institute, launching later this month under the leadership of Yolande Barnes, who has previous form in researching the value of good design and sustainability, will no doubt be looking at.

But the more that companies such as British Land explain how good design positively impacts people’s wellbeing, the more the intermediaries will learn to measure it and the more the shareholders will be able to judge whether their investee companies have good, or less good, management. The same is true of local authorities and other public bodies. It is good to see Camden and Islington Mental Health Trust advocating BREEAM Communities in its disposal of St Pancras Hospital, but disappointing to see that the intermediaries failed to include it in the evaluation scoring matrix.

However, it is downright frustrating to watch some local authority and mayoral bodies failing to understand that, as the British Land report recognises, community control enhances wellbeing. Community control over placemaking pays dividends in reduced health and social care costs. Public bodies that ignore this, either through ignorance or for administrative convenience, sit alongside the failing corporate chief executives.

Chris Brown is executive chairman of Igloo Regeneration

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