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Who Will Champion Open Spaces?

Image above: a model of London at this year's MIPIM conference spurred conversation about how to find more opportunities to create open spaces in the city. One proposal is the London Riverwalk, seen on the river above.

Whether it’s the city I live in or the many places I visit, I always appreciate the restorative power of open spaces – somewhere to get a breath of air in a bustling environment.

And not only is my appreciation shared by many, those open spaces are even more commercially valuable than we might have suspected.

In a survey of real estate developers, investors, and consultants that Gensler conducted with the Urban Land Institute (ULI), 95% of respondents said they were prepared to pay at least 3% more to be in close proximity to open spaces. In London alone that could yield an additional £1.3 billion of investment value.

But finding ways to leverage this desire into actual funding is really complicated, especially with governments stretched to the limit for basic services. One option that has become increasingly appealing is the Business Improvement District (BID) model. This flexible form of governance—in which businesses help fund public works projects—allows participants to craft localized solutions and retain autonomy in respect to improvement and management programs.  In plain terms, it means that businesses that reap financial reward from open spaces also pay to support those spaces. It’s a savvy investment, and also benefits cities.

BIDs have emerged as an international model for urban revitalization. The first UK BID was established six years ago, and there are now 108 UK BIDs. The advantage of the British approach to the BID model is that it relies on contributions from occupiers rather than taxation. This forces BIDs to outline short and medium term benefits to local businesses.

The BID model has seen great success globally. One internationally-recognized model is Chicago's Millennium Park. But the biggest barrier to private sector investment in BIDs is convincing the private sector that their investments will be maintained. In the UK, increasing tax burdens also get in the way of cooperation. The high taxes paid by UK businesses are re-allocated to local authorities instead of staying in the hands of government agencies that are interested in meeting their needs.

What cities need to do now is to focus on long-term planning to increase open space that will provide adequate access for residents and visitors alike. It's an expensive undertaking, so sharing the costs is imperative. The BID partnership structure encourages the public and private sectors to work together on a shared objective: increasing the quality urban open spaces that we all love.

Ian Mulcahey runs Gensler's firm wide Planning and Urban Design practice area. As the leader of a multidisciplinary team of planners, architects, and urban designers, he's interested in creating compelling spaces that add to the richness of urban environments, and he recognizes the competing political, commercial, and social forces that influence urban planning and design. Contact him at ian_mulcahey@gensler.com.

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