A discussion at the recent ULI Europe Real Estate Forum in Dublin focused on three projects where public and private sector organizations work together to tackle significant urban regeneration projects more effectively. While the relationship between developers and city authorities can often be antagonistic, the panelists discussed how more collaborative approaches can yield better results for both parties as well as for surrounding communities.
Nicolas Bearelle, founder of developer Revive, has extensive experience in tackling highly difficult brownfield sites. “We only buy derelict sites in city centers,” he said. “We only do complicated things and they can take 15 to 20 years and involve a lot of placemaking, but our sites by their nature are well connected.”
Bearelle pointed to a major Revive development in Bruges, Belgium, where the company had bought the site from a previous developer. But the existing concept had attracted a lot of complaints from surrounding communities, so Bearelle said it was important to get them on board.
The Belgian site was a former shipyard that had been a major source of employment and pride for local people. Since the shipyard closed, however, its gates had remained closed and the site off limits to locals. “So, we opened the gates and invited everyone in,” said Bearelle. “There are artists and lots of activities. Tourist boats now visit the site. It’s about stitching the site back into the city.”
However, Bearelle also pointed out that it was important to work with the Bruges authorities in order to engage the local community. He said that the city provided Revive with a list of local kids who were getting into trouble with the authorities, which the developer then used to target people who would benefit from getting involved in the activities on the shipyard site.
The result of Revive’s approach is that its proposals tend to receive a warm reception from city authorities. “We have hectares and hectares of space and we use it to connect to the people,” said Bearelle. “We can normally get higher density than that proposed by cities and that means a higher profit at the end of the day.”
Ed Watson, the second speaker and a director at Arup, agreed that working closely with both planning authorities and local people is essential to the long-term success of major urban regeneration projects. He used the redevelopment of King’s Cross in London as an example, pointing to the close working relationship between developer Argent and the London borough of Camden.
“There was extensive discussion between Argent, Camden, and the local community before anyone put pen to paper,” said Watson, adding that the discussions led to the coproduction of a key document, Principles for a Human City, which proved vital, especially when some flexibility was required due to the global financial crisis. “It was absolutely critical and created a lasting touchstone that would last for the 15-year development program,” Watson said.
In addition to genuinely engaging communities, Watson said that the King’s Cross development delivered some early wins for residents. “Managing existing communities with big development sites can be difficult, but one way of showing there is something for them is to deliver community benefits early on,” he said.
At King’s Cross, Argent provided access to “skip gardens” early in the development process and prioritized elements such as the fountains at Granary Square, which remain a well-used amenity, particularly in the summer. “It was about allowing people to feel engaged with the sites.”
Less successfully, Watson also cited the example of the West End Partnership, which was established five years ago by partners including the mayor of London, Westminster and Camden councils, and Transport for London, among others. The idea was to support growth in the West End through collaboration.
The partnership, Watson said, had achieved a lot, especially in terms of the public realm, but that one key project in particular—the pedestrianization of Oxford Street—had stalled. “It has not yet achieved its potential,” he said. “At the heart of it is politics. You need to have an awareness of politics. You need genuine, ongoing engagement.”
Engaging with local communities and allowing people to see what they stand to gain from development was also at the heart of the final speaker’s message. Rob Sloper, development director at U+I, said that his company is on a mission to “change people’s perceptions of developers.”
He added: “Our goal is to unlock potential through regeneration. We’re committed to working with communities, which allows us to identify opportunities for social change. We think that creating successful places, long-lasting places [is] essential to delivering for shareholders.”
Sloper also noted the benefits of public/private partnerships (PPPs), with the public sector supplying the land and developers bringing their development experience and expertise. However, he added that trust is essential to making PPPs successful and that in the past both sides have been guilty of focusing on the bottom line.
“Public benefit used to be a tick box exercise,” he said. “It created distrust and we have been focused on changing that. We’re happy to share our financial information as it creates a sense of trust. But local authorities were to blame too by simply selling sites for the highest price. The core of successful placemaking is having the same goals and communicating, drawing on both sides’ assets and skills.”