By Natalie Bayfield

Earlier this month, before the EU referendum here in the UK, I had the honour of attending the Central and Eastern European Summit in Warsaw. The event was co organised by the Urban Land Institute, Poland Today and Property EU.

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The theme of the conference, Urban Vision and Capital Markets, brought under one roof an interesting juxtaposition of speakers. Leaders in City Management, Real Estate Investors and Economists together gave a rounded view of the road ahead.

One of the great benefits of attending any ULI conference is how much you learn. Often, as in this case, they are facilitated by the impressive senior ULI fellow Greg Clark succinctly summarising the contributions in real time. Incidentally if Mr Clark hasn’t already considered a career on the box, he should.

However despite this, I noticed that apart from the clear distinction of an actual location in the conference title, it was difficult to distinguish one panel topic from another. This was primarily a factor of the very integrated nature of the subject matter. Not one aspect of city success can be considered in isolation. All panels mentioned the need for affordable housing, the need to attract talent, the need for competent city strategy, the need for effective infrastructure, an uncertain political landscape, the positive and negative aspects of immigration and the continued pursuit of better yields. Where this conference stood out was the attempt to bring this type of holistic city discussion firmly alongside the businesses responsible for financing and creating value in the structures that provide space within which we work, shop and live.

The quite brilliant Tom Murphy, retired long term Mayor of Pittsburg, ending his speech with an applause that prevented Greg Clarke’s summation for a good few minutes, quipped that his role had been to make the “Internal Rate of Return equal the External Rate of Return”. The strong implication was not so much an emphasis on planning but instead leadership. In a later panel Maciej K. Krol CEO of XCity Investments was echoing the need for certainty when he said “Build the Infrastructure and the Investors will do the rest”.

One regular and of course prescient theme struck me, that of the concern over immigration, yet the need for cities to attract talent to remain competitive. Further, antagonising the discussion on immigration is the pull of outsourcing, diverting capital to where talent is competitively priced. It is clear that cities like Warsaw have reaped rewards as net beneficiaries of outsourcing but as Petr Zemcik of Moody’s Analytics eloquently pointed out in his statistics, Poland has much more to offer than this short to medium term advantage especially as home grown talent blossoms amid all the recent investment in its capital and other cities.

This, for me, underscored the idea that cities and countries might think less in terms of competition and devote some resources towards assisting the economic development of one another. This requires, not just strong city leadership but strong regional and global co-operation. And by this I mean flexible co-operation and mutual support rather than stifling standardisation and over-regulation. Carl Weisbrod Chairman of NYC Planning Commission argued the value of reaching beyond the borders of the city by means of a ‘regional development unit’. As Weisbrod proudly noted, not only does this recognise that regional success is not a zero sum game, New York is the first city in the world to include this specific policy within its own government.

Finally technology, which opened the conference generated some measured conclusions. It was thought that technology should perhaps be considered one tool of many rather than as a panacea for all of a cities challenges. As the comparatively low tech bicycle and green spaces regain favour over the car and the parking lot, the suggestion was made that cities don’t always need high tech solutions to support large populations and thrive. My own question at the conference asked does the big data produced by cities create a tension between security and freedom and indeed whether this was a city planning issue. ULI Europe CEO Lisette Van Doorn answered that the world’s most energy efficient office, the Edge in the Netherlands, monitors employees movement through the building. This doesn’t appear to trouble the employees providing the benefits are clear. Chris Choa, Director of Cities and Urban Development at AECOM said that a balance needed to be struck. This inevitably adds to the challenges of city leadership.

One thing we can be sure of is that cities are changing our way of life. As the world’s population gravitate towards them we need to learn how best to accommodate all of us, healthily and happily. These challenges are great but cities also possess a significant portion of the resources, technology, talent, investment and good leadership to help us manage that future.

Gordon Black of Heitman in his concluding remarks, after charting the three ages of the growth of Warsaw said that the two most important factors in the success of any city is one, a dependable planning framework, albeit capable of being checked by free markets, and two, the ability to attract talent. Both require legal certainty. It is interesting that London on the 23rd June voted Remain, yet its very recent Brexit mayor is tipped to rule the country. In these uncertain times we might find a moment to reflect on the mandate, importance and power of cities.

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ULI CEE Summit video Keynote speech by Gordon Black

ULI CEE Summit video Innovation Technology & Real Estate, Lisette Van Doorn, Chris Choa, Carl Weisbrod. Includes Natalie Bayfield asking the panel about big data and security versus freedom.

All videos and information about the conference can be found here

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