Speaking at the Urban Land Institute Annual Conference 2019

Duncan, Ian, Guy.jpg

In February 2019, my friend and colleague from Tech City days Ian Mulcahey, Principal at architects Gensler, invited me to take part in a panel discussion with Guy Nicholson, Cabinet Member for Planning, Business & Investment at the London Borough of Hackney about the renaissance of London’s City Fringe (that is, the area just north of the City of London that includes Shoreditch).

This was part of Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) annual conference, which was held in London in 2019.

I’d not heard of the ULI before this event, and I was impressed by the range of urban professionals working on cities across Europe, the Middle East and the USA. And the camaraderie between everyone.

Ian and I had spoken the week before about the discussion, and I’d impressed upon him the importance of looking forward as well as back, and how some of the things we worked on in the 2011-2017 period were now mainstreamed. To illustrate this, I recently heard from a VC friend that Emmanuel Macron has read some of our reports, including the Tech Nation Best Practice Report on Hackney.

The halcyon days of the Olympics abruptly gave way Brexit-Trump in 2016 and a different politics came through. In the days of Silicon Roundabout -Tech City, the tech sector, local government and national government had all worked (pretty much) in unison.

To quickly give you the back story. I explained how I’d thought of our regeneration team in Shoreditch as a startup, so we could be the right shape and size for the tech sector to deal with. But that we were also a 1BN 3,000 person-strong organisation when we needed to be to work with corporates and other levels of government. We were like a Transformer.

And I talked about how under the leadership of Jules Pipe, now London’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Regeneration, we established a model of close collaboration with the private sector that helped to nurture digital culture in and around Shoreditch and gave birth to Here East, which I described as Shoreditch’s biggest success story (despite it being in Hackney Wick). And that digital culture has spread globally.

That was then…

So what about now?

We spoke about some of the trends going on now. Offices and workspaces have become flexible so they can quickly adapt to the needs of the workforce. WeWork is a household name. Housing and economic space are being thought about hand in hand. Cities are now under pressure to densify in their centres, or suburbs or in satellite towns, the latter two being the so-called polycentric city approach. Which poses the question, what is Shoreditch’s role going forward? If you ask me, its role will remain as the centre of the European startup scene and the capital of digital culture, it’ll be the ‘crossroads’, the place the cluster comes together, no matter how disparate it is.

After the session we went on a walking tour of the City Fringe and I had some good discussions. We talked about how people are staying in one place now where they used to move on – for instance, the American Dream is that you get out of the tough neighbourhood into middle class life. Which is a good thing, right? We talked about Brooklyn, and Bushwick in particular, which I visited in 2018, which now has five people staying in each two bedroom flat to be able to afford it, and the locals are hanging on for dear life to stay there. It used to have serious crime problems and people wanted to leave (not my words, those of a guy I met who’d grown up there – yes, a sample of one!). But now it’s safer and the majority of people want to stay and enjoy their days there.

We talked about Amazon HQ2’s upcoming move to Queens, NYC as being a fascinating case. Could they make it work? Could they come up with a local jobs programme that would resonate with AOC? Would it have to increase everyone’s rents and make buying there unaffordable for locals? Would the business voice, those that would profit from the new arrivals and their spend, and create jobs, be heard? In short, could some kind of overall ‘deal’ be done that could win over all of the communities (and I’m not just talking about the $3BN).

And then a week later the whole thing fell through, and we’re now trying to figure out how this whole thing works again. Amazon pulled out, but it looked like they might have sensed a local councillor who had been appointed to the decision-making board might have vetoed the move (I inferred this from an FT Weekend article). It’s going to be interesting to see how the local vs. regional vs. national power games play out in this area. Who says yes and no to ‘growth’ and what the consultation and change process entails - how people are put at the centre of growth, but at the same time that it does actually happen.

We at Remarkable City think it can be done, and we’re working on a paper at the moment with a vision for how high streets in particular can help themselves (with a little help from us). Complete the form below and we’ll send it to you in March.

Amazon opened up their 600,000 sq ft office in Shoreditch in 2017 – on land owned by London Borough of Hackney. I’m not in that role anymore but my understanding is that the Amazon jobs programme for Hackney residents is going well.

Maybe there is more to learn from those halcyon days after all...

Duncan RayCities, Business