Parks, planning and pints

Considering one’s Alternatives  It is a consistent theme of this blog that property investments are increasingly reliant on associated operational businesses. It is perhaps coincidence that those real estate investments with an established focus on operations tend to collectively comprise the group defined by the industry as ‘Alternatives’. Alternatively, it might be precisely by virtue of this focus that they have until relatively recently escaped the focus of mainstream investors. This is changing quickly, as Alternatives take up ever bigger shares of total investor allocations (currently 28%) and hence the titling of the sector might now be misleading.  A report recently published by my Research colleagues casts a light on this area of opportunity.  Key findings include that: (a) 76% of investment volumes in the sector had institutional buyers, (b) the biggest sub-sector is hotels (46% share of volumes), and (c) the best assets have typically been accessed through portfolio deals. The report goes on to categorise the different demand drivers across the sector, setting out a case why they should not be perceived as a single bucket of investments. To download your copy of the full report, click here.


Boxes  They say that necessity is the mother of invention.  As the retail sector has faced up to various challenges over the past decade, it is also the area of real estate where we have seen the most and the earliest innovations and operator responses. However, many of these innovations are now shipping over to other sectors. Launched in 2010, Boxpark was one of the early innovators in retail unit design, turning shipping containers into cheap, sustainable, modular and bijou pop-up units.  Building on this success, the operator have announced that they are to open two new formats. The first, not falling too far from the existing offer, is BoxHall (a foodhall concept). The second, however, is more radical and provides evidence of this innovation crossover. BoxOffice is a truly mixed-use concept of up to 150,000 sq ft arranged over 5-6 floors. The ground floor will be the traditional Boxpark streetfood offer. On the first floor will be leisure operators such as crazy-golf, cinemas and karaoke. And on an upper 2-4 floors will be coworking space. Assuming that this follows the existing containerised design, how high could they go? Actually, pretty high. A standard cargo ship typically supports 12-high stacks of loaded containers, with typical loads of 30 tons per container transferring down to the bottom one through the corner posts. As the world starts to operate on a finer and more modular grain, it makes you wonder what couldn’t be built with containers?


Park Life  It might surprise those who live in some of London’s increasingly dense and treeless neighbourhoods to hear that the capital has been awarded the status of the world’s first National Park City. Whilst the wider London area does in fact have relatively high levels of green coverage, the award is more of a statement of intent than one of fact. With the Mayor as signatory, this includes a commitment to better air quality, waste reduction and cleaner energy. City Hall has committed £9m to the project, as well as events and policy support through the London Plan, the Mayor’s Transport Strategy and the London Environment Strategy. While the governing foundation lacks the statutory planning powers of National Parks, its positions on development and planning include: (a) opposing the loss of nature through development, (b) design that allows wildlife to thrive, and (c) defending urban greenspace. This comes at a time when the University of Washington has found that being exposed to urban air pollution has a similar level of detriment to lung health as smoking a pack of cigarettes per day.  The policy and commercial pressures on our cities to green up are only likely to increase in the coming years with the direction of travel for a tightening regime around environmental standards.


Emotional planning  Urban planning is not typically known for being an emotional subject, but should it be? As reported this week in Science X, a project called MindSpaces is seeking to do just that.  The process involves digitising the proposed scheme in virtual reality and allowing stakeholders to interact with the digital space.  The users’ brain activity, heart rate and skin response are then monitored and analysed using machine learning techniques to identify the most and least pleasing aspects of the design. In a second walkthrough any offending structures are then adapted and the subject retested. The question is posed as to whether this could be a better way of aligning buildings to our emotional needs, rather than the more functional needs which receive most focus in traditional design techniques. This might be seen as more important than ever, in a world where the experience associated with building use is playing a more significant role in its value chain and commercial approach. It is also an example of where digital twin technology can play a new role in the design process.


Are you being served?  As we hit peak summer, there’s no better time to join other revellers in a frosty beer in one of the nation’s bars and pubs.  Except, that is, if you have to spend half of the evening waiting to be served.  This problem is compounded if you’re diminutive or just too polite relative to others who are more willing to assert their right to be served. It’s even worse when the bartender seemingly ignores you. Fear not; technology to the rescue!  Recently piloted at the Harrild & Sons in the City, a new webcam driven facial recognition system notifies the bartender of who is next in the queue to be served, based on how long their face has been in view. In the product’s roadmap is an age recognition feature that could help tackle underage drinking, and even a ‘Facetab’, which automatically charges your drinks to a tab based on your identified mugshot. Thankfully, if your local doesn’t yet have this technology, there are always more traditional techniques to get served. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology, which analysed a number of hopeful drinkers in Edinburgh, concluded that you are more likely to get served by: (a) facing straight on to the bar with head facing forwards, (b) looking at the bartender, and (c) leaning on the bar. To be avoided are: looking at the drinks menu, looking at the drinks or counting one’s money. Who would have thought it? Cheers!