As ‘super gentrification’ advances in London, people worry increasingly about the loss of neighbourhood and vitality of community.
‘Don’t-rock-the-boat urbanism’ is in part to blame: minimalist marble slabs to sit on, featureless expanses of manicured grass, parades of shops selling the same thing, bans on skateboarding and smoking, and musak not birdsong.
This landscape Fit for Beige follows on from globalisation, the rise of luxury shopping, a cult of well-being and lack of diversity of housing provision.
Its architecture looks nice and chic off-plan in a hotel presentation and it is friendly on the balance sheet too, promising lower maintenance costs and outsourcing human interaction and incident to smartphones.
Problem is that the arrival of ‘Bland-ville’ expresses and induces a loss of community and increasingly consigns public life to the pages of Facebook.
To turn it around, real estate developers, urban planners and innovators have tended to turn to enabling things that bring instant brightness and empathy to a place: food events, play space, art objects, independent and pop-up retail.
Such ‘interventions’ are great – and I’ve created a few. But what is more sustainable, ambitious, and can actually change the climate and destiny of a place is to support and develop communities, relationships and markets – and that demands a more strategic response.
Two weeks ago, Trilogy Property announced a partnership with venture capital company Blenheim Chalcot to buy a property in Manchester and create a new “collaborative community of innovative businesses.”
Developer Cathedral Group (now u+i) has entered into partnership with Brunel University and others and turned a section of a former record factory in Hayes, Middlesex, into The Central Research Laboratory - a ‘lab space’ for design-led hardware companies.
A forty-strong network of angel investors in West London that I founded and manage is now entering into partnership with The Collective property company to create a new investor/entrepreneur co-working space in Holland Park.
Strategies for effective urban development often involve canvassing, co-opting and engaging with local opinion. These new ventures demand engagement of a different order.
They seek to build new cities within a city. They birth new communities of entrepreneurs and commerce through partnership. They involve people other than the unusual suspects - be they firms in property technology, small-scale manufacturers or private investors. Their ‘media’ is entrepreneurship, supporting, nurturing and seeking profit, and they spawn Happy Hours, dance parties, rooftop yoga, food halls and many other forms of co-locating enterprise.
The super-gentrification of our cities looks anti-social in comparison. Traditional consultation starts to look like it is about winning minds not market share. Pop-up animation looks like entertainment and brand marketing, rather than a pre-condition for transformative change.
In his new book The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur's Vision for the Future, Steve Case, the co-founder of America Online, argues for three waves of modern technological change. The First Wave was the arrival of the Internet. The Second: using it for search and social networking. In the future, entrepreneurs will use tech to create the ‘Third Wave’ and transform major “real world” sectors like health, education, transportation, energy, and food. Iconic entrepreneurs will be born from partnerships, firms of different sizes, networks created by innovators and new communities.
Diverse experiences in cities are becoming harder to find. Blandness is taking over. To counter it will require transformative change, and some of that will be delivered by real estate making new, unusual partnerships and through them, inventing new, unusual communities.
Image: Wall art, Centro Historico Cartagena De Indias, Colombia. Ph: Sandrine Merle.