The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction


Bartlett Real Estate Institute workshop explores community engagement in real estate

27 March 2019

The definition of community and the challenges to achieving community engagement in real estate were among the issues raised during the first in the BREI’s series of Rethinking Real Estate Workshops.


Opening the debate at the Community Inclusion workshop on March 20, provocateur Dr Jos Boys, programme director of BREI’s MSc Learning Environments, raised several questions. How do we get beyond the stereotypical oppositional stance of the community on one side and the real estate industry on the other? How can we have ways of exposing the underlying complexities of the processes and see who benefits and who doesn’t so we can think about how we make these different choices, who makes them and identify commonalities as well as differences?

Dr Boys also asked what was meant by communities – a question that was reiterated during the open discussion.

There were three respondents to the provocation: urban design consultant Paul Murrain; UCL teaching fellow, the Bartlett School of Planning Michael Edwards; and BREI chair Professor Yolande Barnes.

In his response Paul Murrain described the current level of community engagement as “placation”, where the public has an active role but the final decision remains with the agency or local authority.

Mr Murrain advocates charettes as a means of direct involvement in decision-making and action. He cited the success of the event that resulted in the new town of Sherford in Devon. It required a large investment in time and resources by the developers but paid off as the plans attracted little opposition.

But he warned that community engagement had to be more than just a process.

“Unless you secure the outcome in a tangible document that has teeth, it’s a waste of time,” he said. “At Sherford the code got planning permission, not the design, because the code is the rules. It means you can manipulate a variety of things as long as they are in the rules.”

Even in charettes, he noted later in his summing up, the notion of community and how it is identified is complex.

“Communities exist in many forms but there isn’t a thing called community,” Mr Murrain said. “At charettes, who has the right to be there? How do we define it?” 

Michael Edwards said the real estate market is a wealth machine and he was pessimistic about community groups’ willingness to participate in a process where the terms are outlined by the real estate sector. He believed the basis for collaboration was remote, but not hopeless.

Land ownership and the pursuit of asset value appreciation were creating greater social inequality, hence the social relationship surrounding land remained fundamentally conflictual, he said. 

In England, especially, this is exacerbated by feudal relationships between land owners and non-owners and land ownership being strongly represented in the political system. 

The financial sector is also dominant. Its asset value has grown significantly and is now 11-12 times that of GDP.

“This makes me feel pessimistic about looking forward to a more harmonious relationship between citizens and property interests,” Mr Edwards said.

BREI chair Professor Yolande Barnes was more optimistic, advocating that fundamental changes in the nature of capitalism offered opportunities for a different approach to real estate and community. In the 20th century, institutional investment needed capital growth but now, with changing demographics, the focus was on providing income streams to pay pensions.

“In the 21st century, landlords, owners and investors will increasingly want places that can sustain community because that provides long-term stable income streams. More enlightened developers now see communities as an asset and there is talk of co-creation of places,” she said.

In the open discussion some took issue with her use of the term asset, but Prof Barnes said she was not commoditising people.

“Communities contribute value so for business not to see people as an asset is crazy. That is all real estate is. Land is worth nothing without people using it productively,” she said.

During the open discussion Richard Johnston of technology company Geve said that if developers engaged with communities even before the design was completed it could accelerate the programme, saving time and money. 

Participants during the open discussion also highlighted how planning processes can be a barrier to meeting community needs.

Rose Seagrief, programme manager at charitable trust Power to Change, said there was huge interest in community-led projects but planning needed to change.

“In Bristol there’s enormous political will but planners say no because they don’t have the tools, for example to discount land,” she said.

Ed Watson of Arup said the planning system operated in the interests of those who already benefited from property ownership, engagement and inclusion.

Social value was increasingly recognised as important in policy making and decision making, he said, but the planning system moved very slowly.