Marnix Galle, executive chairman of Belgian developer Immobel and chairman of ULI Europe.

At a defining moment, the executive chairman of Belgian developer Immobel addresses how COVID-19 may change society and real estate.

Marnix Galle, executive chairman of Belgian developer Immobel, started his two-year term as chairman of ULI Europe on July 1, succeeding Juergen Fenk, a member of the executive board at SIGNA Holding GmbH.

Galle brings extensive ULI leadership experience to his new role. He was chair of ULI Belgium for three years (2015–2018) and was vice chair of the ULI Europe Executive Committee. He is a ULI global governing trustee as well as a member of the ULI Europe Urban Regeneration Council.

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Urban Land spoke with Galle about his plans for his chairmanship, the future of real estate, and what he hopes will happen with cities after COVID-19.

Congratulations on assuming the ULI Europe chairmanship. This may be the most challenging time ever for someone to assume this position. When you look across ULI Europe, what are your thoughts about the membership base?

Thank you. I think that ULI has been recognized worldwide as being the gold standard as an organization for the built environment. I think the last four years have been impressive in terms of the reputation that ULI has gained, particularly in Europe, and it’s a reputation that we work on every day and that we continually strive to grow.

It’s also a reputation that has proven its resilience, because even though we are in dire circumstances, we have seen our membership going up these last months. One would expect that one would lose members in times of economic difficulty, but the contrary is true, and we actually saw the number of members increase during our financial year which ended on 30 June.

You can see that we are very much a member-driven organization; this is something we are fully concentrating on. We are trying to focus on how to get together, to be together, to have people join us through all sorts of programs we are organizing—and have members create these bonds between each other and with ULI more actively than ever.

What are your priorities as chair of ULI Europe?

My number-one priority is to help, where I can, deal with the COVID situation. We have to look at this situation as, first, we can survive and thrive and grow; and second, this is one of the most important challenges that humankind has faced. And it is all the more important that ULI translates this into being relevant. So the COVID situation has two prongs for me: first, it is dealing with ULI as an organization to make sure we continue to do well; and second, to understand how COVID affects society, not only the built environment but society as a whole—and within that context, to ensure that ULI retains its reliability and relevance.

ULI has been a leader for the industry, and if you see the webinars and other types of activities that are being organized by our national councils, the organization has been really on top of what’s happening today.
COVID is incredibly challenging for ULI, and we must continue to engage with our members by keeping in close contact with every country in the ULI Europe sphere so they feel listened to, so they feel attended to, and so they get the services that they want and need. It is about our leadership—showing that we are up-to-date and that we are at the forefront of the industry.

What drew you to become involved with ULI?

This touches on a point that I find important. I didn’t know the existence of ULI the day I was asked to be chair of ULI Belgium. But the organization grew on me in such a way that I am now dedicating a considerable amount of time and of my life to ULI. It is an organization that I fell in love with. I think it’s really the intellectual companion to quite a down-to-earth sector and business, and ever since becoming involved, I have tried to help and assist in every form that leadership has asked of me.

ULI has really become part of my life. But in saying this, it is also a plea in a certain sense. I think that organizations sometimes tend to be a bit closed because you always work with the people with whom you are comfortable, so you tend to work with the same people. I think it is important for an organization to continuously have fresh input and fresh people and to have people from outside the organization coming in.

My interpretation of diversity—besides, of course, the classic diversity of race and gender—includes age. I am all for giving younger, very active populations such as ULI’s Young Leaders and NEXT members more slots on ULI’s decision-making bodies.

We should put in more people who may be able to think outside the box to make sure we have a diversity of opinion and fresh ideas. This can help maintain ULI’s relevance and, more important, put ULI at the forefront of new ideas and trends regarding the built environment.

Vienna, Austria, is one of the many European cities working to prioritize pedestrian and cyclist access to downtown areas over automotive traffic. (Marion Carniel/Shutterstock.com)

What do you think is the biggest challenge for the European real estate market right now?

I think this is the great unknown. Today, the built environment and society as a whole are more pulled together in their future fate than ever before.

That means that societal changes are going to come with it. COVID has already begun this process, and circumstances, similar to the United States, are bringing the need for social change and requests for different ways of living.

But I think that the built environment today has not yet figured out where it is going. Is the city of tomorrow going to be a 15-minute city within the center, which means that every citizen in the city can have access to culture, education, leisure, and work within 15 minutes of their home? Do you have the city within the realm of a large metropolis, or, because of COVID, is this going to build out into satellite cities? This has huge reverberations and huge implications for the built environment, for everything from hospitality to living to working to leisure to retail—every part. The built environment is going to follow society.

Is this going to be a revolution? No, I think that revolutions in life are very rare. But it is going to be an evolution. Is the net effect of more people spending time at home and less time in the city going to weigh more than people needing more square meters in an office? People desire to have larger homes. We all want larger homes, but we only can afford what we can afford. So to have a larger terrace, a larger garden, and extra rooms, are we going to go out to a neighborhood which is a bit cheaper where we can afford more, or are we going to stay in a fancier neighborhood with less space and maybe with more convenience to attend things?

Developers are constantly thinking about this, but this is also where ULI is playing this huge think-tank role. This is a constant discussion within ULI: Where are we heading, where should we be heading, and where can we be heading? And these are, for the built environment in Europe, our main challenges.

Are there opportunities to shape the future of the built environment, even if the rest of the world seems to be in flux right now?

I feel that the situation socially and societally is so challenging, but all of us in the built environment have to focus now on purpose. I think it is most important to look for opportunity on how we can serve. I would almost feel ashamed if we started looking out for real short-term economic advantage. Of course, we have to survive; of course, our companies have to live and thrive. But, at the same time, I think this is a historic moment for everybody to reflect and find out how their companies, associations, cities, professional entities, and public entities can serve and to see how, together, we can get out of this mess.

Getting out this mess, indeed, equals opportunity, but the opportunity in a societal sense—the opportunity in the sense of, OK, let’s provide more of this there, let’s try to induce people to come back to cities within the context of what is responsible and what is possible.

I feel very uncomfortable when American companies declare that their employees will not come to the office until the summer of next year. That’s fine if you have your own Google campus, which is a completely self-sufficient unit. But if you have cities and people living, commuting two hours per day to work in a hotel, restaurant, or another type of service in the city, and then basically because their company decides that you have to stay home until next year, you’re basically cutting off these cities from a vibrant life and cutting off people from living. I am really uncomfortable with that.

I think we have to find the right balance in making our cities live—all within reason, all sustainable—but I think it’s very important. I think it’s a civic duty for all of us to try to make cities living parts again.

Do you anticipate any lasting changes to real estate supply and demand due to the pandemic or shutdown experience?

Yes. Society is going to change. We are definitely going to be reconfiguring things, whether it’s apartments or condominiums or houses. There surely are going to be a number of changes following consumers’ preferences and the importance that consumers give to certain things.

Now, are the changes going to be monumental in the sense that people are going to be massively leaving cities and going to be living and working outside the city communities? I think that it’s far too early to know. I would beg for patience. As I said earlier, I think it is not going to be revolution, but it will be evolution, pluses and minuses, and we will see in a number of months where this will bring us. People are going to have different desires, and as far as they can afford those desires, I think the market is going to try to respond to them. But, for now, I would stay with my earlier statement: Are cities going to be revolutionized? I think the answer is no.

Is there anything else you would like to say to Urban Land readers?

There is a Spanish saying, “Out of bad things always something good arises.” I think out of COVID will arise, in a noble sense of the word, opportunity. There will be a number of societal opportunities. I think cities are going to become more livable. I think that’s a fact that’s written in stone.
You see in every European city bike lanes have been expanded. This started before COVID, by the way, but the virus was a real accelerator.

Infrastructure projects that change the way we use our cities are continuing at an impressive pace. Work is being done right now. I think in Paris there are 1,500 public works sites; Brussels is working all over the place; in Madrid, everywhere you see the city reinventing itself.

Out of bad comes good, and one of the things you can do is amplify the good. That’s why my war cry is for purpose—to take the negative energy that is coming out of COVID and turn it into something positive which serves society. If we are able to answer, as well as possible, the demands and desires that society has for itself, I think we will have made a huge step forward—a step that, when history judges us in 15 or 20 years, we might say, “Of course COVID was an absolute disaster, but it propelled a number of changes for the better that stabilized us for the next phase of our civilization.”

JUSTIN ARNOLD is ULI senior manager of communications.