Placemaking from city streets to country fields to the bottom of sea

24 April 2023

Placemaking is about much more than bricks and mortar – it directly affects people’s employment, leisure, education, and communities. In this wide-ranging interview, special guest Dan Labbad joins Richard Vernon to reflect on how placemaking can contribute to social and economic prosperity – and why collaboration and partnerships are more vital now than ever.

As CEO of The Crown Estate, Dan certainly has a unique perspective to share on placemaking. His organisation occupies the space between the private and public sector, with a portfolio that includes city and country properties across the UK, including a substantial rural holding and Windsor Great Park. It also manages the seabed around England, Wales and Northern Ireland and plays a major role in the UK’s offshore wind sector.

In this podcast, Dan talks with Ashurst partner Richard Vernon about how placemaking can rise to the challenges of climate change, threats to the natural world, and social sustainability. And they discuss the need for learning, experimentation and collaboration to enable long-term social mobility. “We’ve got to be careful not to over-corporatise placemaking,” says Dan. “This is ultimately about people, families, and communities.”

This episode forms part of Ashurst’s Reimagining Real Estate Campaign, which also includes Richard Vernon’s previous podcast interview with British Land’s David Lockyer.

The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Listeners should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.


Richard Vernon:

Hello and welcome to Ashurst's Business Agenda, and today's place making conversation, which is part of Ashurst's Re-Imagining Real Estate Campaign. I'm Richard Vernon, a partner in Ashurst's real estate team, and I have great pleasure in being joined today by Dan Labbad. Dan is the chief executive of the Crown Estate. The Crown Estate is a unique 260-year-old business established by act of parliament. It occupies the space between the private and the public sector and it's tasked with returning all of its profit back to HM Treasury for the benefit of public spending. And this has totaled three billion pounds over the last 10 years. It also has a uniquely diverse portfolio that includes extensive property interests across the country and in London, a substantial rural holding and Windsor Great Park. It also manages the seabed around England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and plays a major role in the UK's world leading offshore wind sector. So let's listen to my conversation with Dan.

So Dan, the pandemic has dramatically accelerated what was already the direction of travel, in terms of working more flexibly, but it also fundamentally changed how we view our quality of life, as we sort of live and work within the built environment and we're all far more aware of the environment and also quite rightly, we're prioritizing health and wellbeing. And it'd be great to get your thoughts on how place making has evolved to address those priorities, but also how it needs to continue to evolve to meet what we're now looking for from the places we live and work in.

Dan Labbad:

Yeah, thanks, Richard, and thanks for having me on. I think place making, we have to remember is not solely about bricks and mortar. Often when people hear the term, they think, oh, it's about buildings, and sometimes it's about the way buildings come together in communities. But in fact, place making, I think, responds to the fact that we are spatial creatures as human beings and we go about our lives in certain ways. And the quality of the environment that you exist in, that you live in, plays a big part in that quality. And that's not just the quality of the physical environment, but the quality of education, the quality of employment, both where it is and what it is and everything in between. It's really the way we have fun, for example, the way we spend our time in terms of leisure. And place making is about how we create environments to foster those things in a way that supports people, is enjoyable to people and allows people and communities to realize their potential.

So I like to take it away from the bricks and mortar because it's not about bricks and mortar in isolation. The pandemic, I think, really brought out the importance of being able to express ourselves in our lives because it was constrained for quite a long time and we all felt that we weren't able to do the things that we otherwise would've done. And I think different places allow us to express ourselves in different ways, and some places allow that to be done well and other places, not so well.

Richard Vernon:

That's fascinating. I think picking up on some of those themes, in your role now with the Crown Estate, take a step back, the crown estate is there to create that lasting and shared prosperity for the nation, that it's in its DNA, but a part of that is that, you've touched on, so creating that social environment but also financial value. We can't escape financial value. What role does place making have in those contexts in terms of both creating that prosperity but also socially and financially?

Dan Labbad:

The Crown Estate, ultimately we are a national landowner and our role is to enhance that land on behalf of the country, both for today and also for tomorrow, into the future. And so it plays straight into the place making context because while we're asking ourselves at all times is how do we ensure that our land basically creates an environment for place making to occur in the way that I've just defined it, both from a social perspective, a socioeconomic perspective, a physical perspective, and everything in between. We think very, very, very carefully about whether it's Central London and the way that we're thinking about the future of, for example, Reagent Street, or the way that we're thinking about some of the strategic land holdings that we have around the country that can support communities, economic development in different ways, how we link the economic development that we're producing on the seabed through the rollout of renewables, with on land opportunity around place to ensure that the UK is benefiting from that economic development and how do we create places that can do that.

And so bringing it back to what Crown Estate is, we have four key business lines, one being London, as I discussed, one being strategic land in the regions, rural, as well as marine. And all those things come together around this concept of how do we care for the land we own in a way that is going to support the prosperity of people in the UK and to the future.

Richard Vernon:

I guess with that diverse portfolio you mentioned, that brings with it its challenges because for many working in the built environments, they have a fairly standard, I suppose, land portfolio, for example, in a certain part of the country or a certain type of asset class. But obviously that unique diverse portfolio that the Crown Estate has brings its challenges because it's not one size fits all, you're looking at place making in very different types of assets. Have you got examples of where that challenge has been succeeded in terms of where you feel the Crown Estate has achieved place making? I go back to that first comment of the challenge often is what is place making, but also how do you know whether you've achieved it? Do you have examples of where you feel you've achieved it or is that a work in progress?

Dan Labbad:
I think it's definitely a work in progress, but that's because I don't think you can judge whether it's been achieved in the period over which the word place making has been popular. These are intergenerational investments. And coming back to your point, I think ultimately they require, for everybody involved, regardless of whether you're the Crown Estate, you're a developer, you're government, you're the third sector, whether we're talking about the UK or anywhere around the world, huge amounts of collaboration, huge amounts of partnership. Long-term commitments are often in environments where motivations are not symmetric. Often as a profit driver for a business, they might be a political driver for government, they may not line up, and over the long term things change within government and business. For place making to work, we need to develop mechanisms that can stand the test of time. And this is where the Crown Estate, I think, is so important for this country.

I see us as a company for the country and that's because as you just said when you just spoke of the Crown Estate's purpose, now we've been around for 260 years, we will be around for another 260 years with this sole purpose to do good work on behalf of the country, to look out for the long term, which I think complements place making considerably. And so whether we're investing in the long term renewable industry for energy security and net-zero purposes, whether we're protecting the natural world in order to, for example, maintain the healthiness of our environments, the healthiness of the seas, or whether we're creating places that yes, have a built form element but bring in policy, programs and the skills of government, the third sector and developers, so that we're placing long-term investments into the future of our communities. That's what the Crown Estate is here for.

Richard Vernon:
You touched there, interesting, I know you personally are very passionate about sustainability, we've spoken about that before. And you can't escape everything we do now in the drive for net-zero, the climate crisis. I'd be interested to get your take on really how place making has evolved but also needs to continue to evolve to address those challenges. Because we talked about social, we've talked about financial, but obviously environmental and sustainability, you can't escape from it, and everything we're now doing it has to be. What do you think the role of place making is in the context specifically of sustainability?

Dan Labbad:

Well, first of all, I think a few things. First of all, if you think about what I've primarily been talking about until this point, it is integration of social and financial. So what we're ultimately talking about is the prosperity of society. And when I use the word prosperity, I mean in the broadest sense of the word. I know this is used all too often, but I do think that we want future generations to enjoy the quality of life that we have today. So therefore at place making's core is this concept of social sustainability and how do we ensure that society can be sustainable into the future. Now obviously in order to do that, you need a whole host of things, but you also need environmental integrity, but you also need the integrity in that environment, not just of carbon reduction and dealing with the climate crisis.

You also need the natural world to be protected. Can you imagine waking up every morning and walking outside and not being able to listen to birds, for example, or go for walks like people enjoy in the countryside today. So we have to remember that we're dealing with a dual crisis. We're dealing with the climate crisis, but as part of the global warming element of that, we're also dealing with significant existential threats to the natural world which we have to fight to protect. And both these things underpin social sustainability. Often environment is seen as separate, it's not separate. It is the foundation or at least one of the foundations of social sustainability. And this comes back to my point about partnerships like never before. When I came up through the industry in the early days, and in fact was just in the process of discovering sustainability, I was pretty much trained to build buildings and make money, develop buildings and make money, invest in buildings and make money.

That was the mantra. Yeah, you want to do that well and you want to do that with equality, of course. But today, if you're in the property industry, you have to be an energy expert, you have to be a digital expert, you need to understand how to engage with communities and actually talk to people. And I did a podcast a few years ago with the Architects Journal, and I talked about this concept of humility. And part of that is because we cannot get done what we traditionally did by ourselves, we need others to ensure that we can get it done. So environment is a great example of that because whether you're in the property industry or you come at place making from another direction, you need to understand or at least have people around you that can understand and help you bring in expertise from a whole range of sources that even 10 years ago weren't required in order to define what good looks like.

Richard Vernon:

So picked up on a number of points there, this idea around development no longer can just be seen as bricks and mortar, and also the period of time it takes to make that call as to whether or not you've made the place because as you say, it's not just build a building and make a place, it's a much longer period for that. You've talked about sustainability and the challenges with that. As we look forward, yes, sustainability and the drive for net-zero and carbon reductions is a huge part of the challenge, but what else is there? What else do you see? From what you've learned in the journey so far, what are the challenges or the key challenges that you see looking forward, but also the opportunities in terms of making successful places?

Dan Labbad:

Well, I think one of the biggest challenges is how you can create environments that can support long-term social mobility. When you look at the environment that we're in at the moment, it's really tough on families and it's not getting easier. In fact, it's getting harder for those hardest hit in our society. And that's everything from employment, right through to life expectancy and everything in between. And we know that the built environment hasn't been supporting those things for many years. You asked me about good examples, I think people have got a lot of not so good examples, and that's not because people weren't trying. I think a lot of the places around the country that today are seen as not working, when they were developed and put together there were the best intentions in mind. And I think we've got enough learning now to understand what good doesn't look like, what we've got to fight for is what good does look like and we have to experiment and we have to be willing to take risks.

But to answer your question, I think ultimately we keep thinking about ... and we've got to be very careful to not corporatize this. I think the whole place making concept has been over corporatized. This is ultimately about people, this is ultimately about communities, this is ultimately about families and what good looks like comes from the prosperity of those communities, again, using prosperity in the broadest sense of the word, into the future. That's when you know place making will work. No point having the best environmental community on the planet if people don't have a quality of life beyond that, that supports their aspirations and what they want out of life.

In terms of opportunities, I do think, as I was just saying, that Crown Estate is uniquely placed. We sit between, as you said in your introduction, Richard, between the public and private sector, 100% of our profits go to the treasury for public spending. So that combined with our purpose, to think about the long term, puts us in a position where we're well-placed to respond to the challenges that place making requires moving forward. We have a strategy now that is looking to ensure that we are playing a role, bringing partners together around the land that we own around the country that can support communities and other things. And we are going to be walking into that as we move forward because we really believe that in order to support the long-term future of the country, we need to be using the land we own to support communities in different ways, working with partners from around the country.

And I guess I'll finish on this point and that is that I think that a lot of people involved in place making have learned a lot over the last 20 years, just like I've learned a lot. We've learned bits and pieces that work really well and we've also seen parts that don't work very well, but what one can't deny is that we need to all become better at this capability, we have to do this better moving forward. And I've got no doubt that working in partnership between government and the private sector, obviously the Crown Estate will play its role, we've got every chance of making big strides in building opportunities for people moving forward.

Richard Vernon:

Well thank you so much, Dan, for taking time out to talk to me today. Some fantastic insights into what is being and can be achieved. I like the expression about the fact that development is not just about bricks and water, but clearly it's about communities, prosperity and that sort of direct positive social impact development can have. So thank you so much for your time today.

Dan Labbad:

Thanks, Richard. Thank you so much.

Richard Vernon:

So thank you for listening to Ashurst's Business Agenda and our place making conversation. To make sure you don't miss any of our future Business Agenda episodes, subscribe on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, you can listen back to our previous episodes and please feel free to leave us a rating or review. Thank you for listening, and goodbye for now.

Speaker 3:

If you enjoy Ashurst Business Agenda, why not check out our other two podcast series as well? Ashurst Legal Outlook explains the emerging legal trends and requirements of our fast-changing world. And ESG Matters at Ashurst, reveals how business leaders are rising to mounting environmental, social and governance challenges. You can listen and subscribe to Legal Outlook and ESG Matters wherever you get your podcasts.


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