In the latest Bayfield Training Webinar, Sonia Martin-Gutierrez, in collaboration with Dr. Eime Tobari and Dr. Gemma John present: Designing the Future: A Method Delivering Social Value. Drawing on her social anthropology training, Dr Gemma John illuminated the importance of intangible assets such as brand, reputation, and trust. As explained, these elements are a key driving force behind financial return—particularly the retail sector. The webinar examined how social value can be delivered through property development and asset management. By considering social value as ‘shared value,’ the webinar explores how social value can help align the interests of various stakeholders in development projects and facilitate constructive partnerships between public and private sector organizations.


COVID-19 is rewriting the rules

For some time, digital technology has raised questions about the value of physical spaces. This has been further exacerbated by COVID-19, which has illuminated economic disparity and inequality within cities, calling into question the role of physical spaces. Specifically, this relates to several features of cities, including the following: whom the physical space is designed for, the level of inclusivity, and making it beneficial to all.

As Dr. John explains, against the backdrop of perceived modernist failures in urban planning, new ideas have forwarded to ensure cities support economic growth and social cohesion and minimize environmental impact. For example, a renewed focus on human relations and the merits of proximity. Dr. John describes the work of Jane Jacobs, an urbanist activist, whose writing championed a community-based approach to city building, and invigorated neighbourhood-based activism to help stop the expansion of expressways and roads.

Dr. John articulates how this has partly brought about the idea of the “15 Minute City”. Specifically, the “15 Minute City” is based on research into how city dwellers’ use of time could be reorganized to improve both living conditions and the environment. It is a concept developed by Professor Carlos Moreno (Sorbonne, Paris) in which daily urban necessities are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike. Moreover, it is based on four major principles: proximity, diversity, density, and ubiquity. Finally, areas within the city should fulfil six social functions: living, working, supplying, caring, learning, and enjoying.


Placing people at the centre 

“Cities affect human behaviour”, explains Dr. John. Specifically, it is within cities that humans make memories. For example, Dr. John explains that we develop a collective understanding of a particular city’s significance based on the seasonal events that took place there, using them as a reference point and shared identity. Secondly, objects, and the social organization of space, are symbolic tools that individuals use to communicate to who they are, how they want to be perceived, and their cultural references and practices. Objects are carriers of meaning and help construct the social world. For example, in the context of the physical space at home, we create rituals for ourselves with objects, such as placing memorabilia on shelves and cushions on chairs. Finally, digital technology has a profound impact on placemaking and spatial design. Therefore, it is imperative to analyse local needs first before defining the purpose of the asset in the context of real estate. This allows you to shape the new places’ distinctive character and experiences to reflect social value requirements.


Exploring a retail case study

Next, Dr. John discusses the practical lessons and implications about how to create meaningful places and experiences. Central here is the retail asset. Dr. John argues that digital technology and COVID-19 have thrown into question the future of retail faces, including its value to customers and occupiers. Dr. John presents a retail case study from Chesterfield. As she explains, Chesterfield is a well-known market town that is in need of revitalisation. Markets throughout the country are in decline, and Chesterfield Borough Council has plans to improve the quality of Chesterfield town centre as a location to visit, live and invest in. Given the importance of understanding people and their behaviour and needs, Dr. John and her team met local representatives to understand the challenges and opportunities in Chesterfield and how retail assets could help address them. In addition, they ran focus groups with local students to determine what improvements they wanted to see. Moreover, they spoke to SME’s who emphasized a desire to access local talent to boost business growth. In sum, for the purpose of the retail space design, Dr. John and her team identified three primary themes. Firstly, well-being relating to a demand for space that could provide residents an opportunity to be healthier (e.g., health and green centres). Secondly, inclusivity regarding more affordable space and amenities that people could use, such as leisure, food and beverage. Thirdly, enterprise, i.e., a desire for more space that allows people to connect, for professional and personal development. The three themes allowed Dr. John and her team to strategically advise their client on how the retail space should be designed and operated.


Powering significant growth

To conclude, Dr. John expands on the benefits of placing people at the centre of real estate. Moving across the pond to a case study in the USA, she describes a movement toward a new kind of urbanism in which stakeholders work together to revitalize an essential urban neighbourhood. For example, Union Market Northeast Washington, DC, represents the importance that food can play in social interaction and the creation of community ties. After engaging with long time community members, the retail real estate owner reopened in Union Market in 2012 as an indoor food hall. As of 2016, Union Market saw an average of 15,000 visitors per weekend and has subsequently served as a catalyst for new development. It has been the anchor for a burgeoning mixed-use district that is being developed in the surrounding area. In 2019, the area surrounding Union Market saw the greatest amount of new development and the vast majority of retail openings in Washington D.C.

When community consultation led to Union Market becoming a food hall, food was symbolically put at the centre – which led to tangible outcomes for business and society – and ongoing regeneration and inclusive prosperity. Therefore, Dr. John concludes by emphasizing that placing people at the centre can produce more stable returns and secure capital value over the long term. Moreover, it helps increase local trust and confidence in the real estate developer’s brand.