Growth and change in the Square Mile

Monday 15 September 2014

© Agnese Sanvito

The City of London is forging ahead with initiatives to make it become a better, more attractive place to be in, and thereby help its businesses to lure and retain the best staff.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from a special On Location conference held at the Guildhall last week at which placemaking and cultural attractions were deemed to be just as important in attracting businesses – small and large – as the facilities they have behind their front doors.

Mark Boleat, Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee, City of London Corporation said that the Square Mile works ‘energetically’ toward keeping it as the premium international centre for business, focusing its planning policies towards meeting business needs. But – leaving aside bigger problems such as housing and slow broadband speeds in the City – the Square Mile has an ‘encouragingly high’ number of cranes and has become a very attractive place for people and a vibrant community. ‘That is critically important for us’, he said.

It was this kind of consideration that weighed heavily in Aon’s decision to up sticks from Chicago and establish its HQ in the Leadenhall Building, said the company’s COO, David Ledger. ‘The move was an opportunity fundamentally driven by our view of how we see and serve clients more effectively and actively to promote our global growth’, said Ledger. ‘Financial benefits also came into play, but being a part of this centre of excellence, and being able to deliver industry-leading solutions for our clients were the two critical elements of our decision’. The firm was drawn by the ‘vibrancy’ of the City, coupled with the quality of available talent. Unusually among insurers, Aon has taken soundings from other firms and embraced a new culture of agile working, with no offices for UK management, no fixed desks for colleagues and the use of storage and paper kept to a minimum.

JLL head of research Jon Neale said that the City is the single largest provider of office stock and will remain so for the next 10 years; provision of new space in the City – currently constrained – is ‘absolutely vital’ to the future of the London economy. The occupier base in the City has become more diverse, with much of the TMT sector taking up the slack. But an important trend in the wider central London market was that companies are becoming more footloose, and transport improvements such as Crossrail will only encourage that more. Occupiers are also thinking more ‘scientifically’ about where they are, and office densities are on the rise. ‘Companies see offices and the urban environment around them being essential parts of their brand and an important recruitment tool’, Neale said. It is, he added, as much about where you are today as it is about how you design your office.

For Grant Brooker, senior executive partner at Foster + Partners, ‘it’s all about the talent’, rather than the buildings, with a key trend in building design being to allow more internal communication within organisations, and another being how technology is impacting on space requirements. Everything is about ‘transparency, team spaces’ and sharing space, with better in-house facilities such as cafes and restaurants to improve morale and, again, attract the best staff. Those extend outside the front door to creating ‘place’, said Broadgate Estates CEO, Steve Whyman. The key themes, said Land Securities leasing director Matthew Flood, are collaboration, productivity, efficiency and talent retention. ‘Whether you’re a bank or a Google, those are the things that matter to the people at the top of those industries to make sure they are successful’, he said. Indeed, said Gensler principal Philip Tidd, we need to provide much richer and more diverse places, but it was fascinating to see the ‘sharing generation’ and how much work is done outside of buildings ‘because they can’.

The City needs to remember that it is business-focused, said Peter Bennett, City Surveyor, but his team is involved in creating a better street scene with greater retail and cultural activity. Victor Callister, assistant director for Eenvironmental enhancement, City of London Corporation added that a key balance is between congestion and the movement of traffic, with information collection contributing to accommodating growth in ‘softer forms’ like cycling. A major factor was the move to installing 20mph speed limits, and the need to design streets where that feels natural.

Finally, the conference also heard from a group of people who are involved in helping to raise the quality of culture and heritage in the Square Mile and how it can be improved and better integrated within the urban environment. Sir Nicholas Kenyon, managing director, Barbican Centre said that cities are ‘sensual, emotional experiences, for good and bad’, something which was ‘absolutely key to our experience of the Square Mile.’ But despite the Museum of London attracting a million visitors a year and Barbican two million, ‘we do not have the public realm that those people deserve.’ And given that cultural activities in the area produce £290m a year, ‘this is not an add-on. It is central to people’s experience of life.’ The vision is to maximize the City’s offer of cultural facilities such as the Guildhall School’s Milton Court or new Barbican cinemas, integrating them better into the life of the city.

Michael Cassidy, chairman of the City of London Cultural Hub Advisory Group, agreed. ‘We have become a financial hub for many of the world’s business transactions’, he said. ‘But, do you know? That’s not enough to make a marvellous global centre. You need to have more, and it’s the cultural contribution which adds that special dimension to those who choose to work here.’

There is only one road in the City, he added, at Farringdon – the rest are streets, because once you have arrived you don’t need roads. ‘Why is it that big companies are pretty much all moving to the heart of London? Because that is where the talent is, and what they enjoy is the cultural experience.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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