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Developers: Identity creators in search of the Holy Grail

In the real estate industry’s pecking order of professional fields, one guild has always been at the top of the list: developers. Fund managers, asset managers or analysts may take a different view, but developers have maintained their pole position over time for good reason: they create tangible and perceptible value. It is the properties they create that give the industry its raison d’être.

Despite the fact that capital, and land, is readily available for development, and contract work for investors is more the rule than the exception, developers’ sense of identity and self-worth is no longer as assured as it once was. There is a very simple reason for this. All of a sudden, developers are being asked to adopt new working methods and take on new roles. Now, developers are expected to create integrated neighbourhoods, define new urban identities, all while reconciling demands for connectivity, 24/7 operation, private and public space. In other words, developers now find themselves assigned tasks, which, to put it politely, they don’t really have the “tools” for.

Above all, developers are being forced to reposition in response to the growing trend for creating new and distinct “urban neighbourhoods”. The quality of life in any neighbourhood or city district not only depends largely on how residents perceive their immediate environment, but also what impression the neighbourhood has on outsiders. With the development of a strong sense of local identity, residents assume responsibility for their neighbourhood and, where they can, get actively involved in enhancing it, which in turn attracts even more public attention.

The “identity” of an urban neighbourhood emerges from the interplay of several factors:

a) Structural-spatial aspects

b) Social structure

c) Branding

The first point, structural-spatial aspects, encompasses neighbourhood planning features, i.e. the urban layout and access to the public transport system. These are decisive in shaping how an area is used. And, if the neighbourhood’s buildings embody a particular architectural style, visitors will remember them and residents will identify with their unique streetscape. Another factor is the creation of green spaces that can be used for recreation or community activities.

The second point, the social structure, refers to the residents and users of the area and expresses itself in shared experiences, customs and traditions. Despite the megatrend of individualisation and the subsequent increasing diversity of lifestyles and consumption patterns, this can lead to new communities, forms of work and lifestyles. Local identity can, for example, also be promoted through neighbourhood festivals. The last aspect to be considered here is the ratio of condominiums and rental apartments in the urban neighbourhood. Condominiums contribute more to creating a local identity than rental apartments, as the occupants of condominiums spend more of their lives in the neighbourhood, encouraging engagement and closer contact with their neighbours.

The third point is perhaps the most important because it is so difficult to quantify: branding. This encompasses the two aspects mentioned above and involves giving a development its name. Branding is used to create unique means of communication and a distinctive corporate design, both of which increase the recognition value of the neighbourhood for residents and the general public. An apt logo strengthens the development’s visual identity and creates an affinity for the brand. Furthermore, a memorable slogan draws even more attention to the development. Branding can also be used to satisfy people’s growing need to express themselves on social media. However, a strong neighbourhood identity does not always have a positive effect. A particular neighbourhood can be portrayed as dangerous or threatening, thereby negatively affecting how residents perceive their own locality. Buildings and outdoor spaces must be adapted to satisfy new demands. The process of forming an identity can be represented as a cycle. The higher the quality of the built environment, the more positively it is perceived by its inhabitants. This also increases acceptance and the willingness or inclination to identify with the environment and personalise it, which in turn increases residents’ sense of belonging to the area.

This enlivens the environment and creates a unique sense of identity. Social infrastructure is the basic prerequisite for a high quality of life in the neighbourhood. A neighbourhood needs an unmistakable character so that an identity can develop. This is the only way to establish a sense of community, create sustainable structures and guarantee the lasting engagement of all stakeholders.

Currently, many innovative ideas and concepts for new “urban neighbourhoods” are confronted with the reality of existing properties that have shaped the cityscape for several generations. The objective of achieving a balanced mix of uses that better reflects the particular interests of stakeholders such as planning authorities, investors, owners, current and future users and the general public is a product of the shift to a doubtlessly better approach to “major urban redevelopment” which emerged at the beginning of the new decade. The mixed-use model often demanded by investors in particular represents a radical departure from decades of planning and investor doctrine. Developers are predestined not only to work through this process, but to actively shape it. The Holy Grail is within reach. 

TB

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