Business Matters: “Bringing New Developments To Life”

John McHugh of MAG Property says that a ‘genuine sense of identity and place’ is essential for developers to stand out from the crowd.

A recent visit to Chiswick Park for a conference focussed on the future of the workplace saw speakers cover a range of thought provoking topics, including generational differences, organisational transformation and culture. Traditional discussions of service charge, rent reviews and dilapidations weren’t on the agenda. Instead, content was inspired not by the mechanics of our industry, but the occupiers who sustain it.

This was hardly surprising, being held at a business location that’s the go to example of a property brand synonymous with loving where you work. Although it was another reminder of the powerful influence people’s expectations of the workplace now have on employers and the market.

Despite this influence, the crane count in major cities across the UK confirm they’re thriving with big development. What’s different is how they’re responding to the physical and emotional needs of the people that use them. The result is developers working harder than ever to stand out in a crowd where a genuine sense of identity and place is essential.

The challenge of time

Property development comes with numerous inherent challenges: planning, funding, infrastructure, competition, demand, the list goes on. For bigger projects, the greater sum of these challenges is time, meaning from inception to occupation major projects can often take years, sometimes decades, to complete. The knock-on effect is having to craft a credible story for a place event before the cranes make it to site.

That’s why creating a sense of place early is key. Whilst a topic that’s very much on trend, it’s something that’s crucial to any person’s instinctive relationship with a place. Sometimes organic, sometimes manufactured, often a mixture of both, the essential elements of place, how they’re harnessed, adapted and developed provide the opportunity to curate somewhere that conjures those all-important personal connections.

In the property world, many developments can rely on existing space, architecture, heritage and reputation to build their own narrative. But it’s tapping into the emotions of people that helps create the magic of placemaking.

Bringing life to place

Manchester and the North West continues to benefit from the insight and creativity of developers from Bruntwood, Allied London and Muse to Urban Splash, U+I and Capital & Centric. That’s why those regenerating post-industrial sites like Manchester’s Mayfield and St John’s are taking a very deliberate approach to creating a sense of community early doors.

Instead of simply waiting for occupiers to arrive, they’re connecting with people in a way they can easily understand and generating an appetite for their vision. Street food, community gardens, social clubs, and tapping into the UK’s £2.3bn pop-up industry, all providing effective opportunities to attract attention.

City centres, with their inherent infrastructure, buildings and amenities offer the ideal conditions for this type of approach.  However, not every location provides such raw ingredients, meaning creating a sense of place becomes more challenging, particularly where timescales are long and landscapes are void of character.

Peel’s dramatic transformation of 200 acres of Salford wasteland into a home for Media and a place where the BBC, ITV and many others are happy to call home, proves placemaking can happen in the most of difficult of environments. Now, Media City stands as a great example of how property development can shape not only places, but perceptions too. Airport City Manchester is not entirely different, where the ambition to create a world-class business destination on 130 acres of vacant land and surface car parking is gathering pace.

Taking a varied approach

Of course, Airport City benefits from an impressive backdrop. It’s on the doorstep of the UK’s third largest airport in one of the best-connected locations outside of London and offers all the associated benefits of the airport’s existing infrastructure. A combination like this provides solid foundations, but generating a sense of place for a 5 million sq ft business destination in its formative years requires a considered approach.

Leveraging the competitive advantage of the airport and scale of available land has been critical from day one. This helped fuel the success of Global Logistics where 2,000 jobs across 810,000 sq ft of industrial space have already been created. Now we’re building our narrative for the next phase of development where 70 acres is primed to become home to 1.4 million sq ft of offices and 2,400 hotel beds.

This involves delivering a long-term strategy for the Airport City brand that’s informed by placemaking, marketing and CSR activity; one that’s all about accelerating a sense of place through activation and inspiration to help create personal connections with our target market and the wider community.

Our plan is well underway and the last 12 months has seen our Platform event space grow from strength to strength, resulting in over 6,000 occupiers and local people benefiting from a range of rolling pop-up activities across the site. We’re working on creating more permanent amenities and facilities around Airport City too; ones that will not only enhance the offering in the short-term, but also provide the modular flexibility to grow and evolve as the development does.

We’re also investing in the social and community fabric of Airport City and its surrounding areas. Drawing inspiration and input from key stakeholders across the region, our plan will see the delivery of a diverse programme of initiatives and commitments, from sustainable transport, green space and eco-friendly buildings, to global apprenticeships, community food projects and well-being education.

Connections are key to success

Activity like this helps create valuable relationships and connections to shape people’s positive perceptions of the place to come; particularly when backed up with the credible delivery of planning, infrastructure and deals. Construction of the £15m Enterprise Way, announcement of four new hotel deals and confirmation of a £6m foot and cycle bridge provide yet more proof points from which we can continue to build our reputation.

The reality that it’s the daily needs of people that are shaping these brands and stories, means it’s vital to employ new and smarter ways of identifying, delivering and communicating a location’s proposition and sense of place. Only then can you begin to develop the essential connections people have with them; ones that are vital to any development’s success.

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