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Last night the fourth and final panel debate in the ‘Cities’ series, in partnership with RIBAJ, took place in the AluK Design Studio.

Discussing the theme of ‘commercial cities’, covering retail and office space, redevelopment and sustainability, were Oliver Fursdon, the director of London Commercial Development at Savills; Mark Swinburne, a senior projects director at Argent LLP; Alex Jan, director of the economics team at Arup and Neil Howsam, an associate at Piercy & Co, mediated by Peter Head CBE, Chairman of Sustainable Development.

Alex Jan kicked off proceedings by establishing what exactly makes a successful city: ‘They have to be attractive, for quality of life but also for career growth,’ he said, but conceded that making cities ‘physically attractive’ whilst simultaneously attracting global talent is challenging, ‘because the busier the cities are the more public sector services you need.’

Converting historic buildings into office space was a controversial topic. Peter Head questioned the practicality of repurposing Victorian buildings and Mark Swinburne responded, ‘The reuse of historical buildings is inevitable because people have an emotional attachment to them.’ However, Alex Jan pointed out that, paradoxically, many older buildings are actually better suited to modern, co-working office space than contemporary structures.

All panellists agreed that the rise of co-working is transforming cities’ commercial spaces. However, Mark Swinburne warned against getting caught up in such trends: ‘It’s more about the place than the architecture. Architecture is slow, people change quickly and fashions change quickly.’ For Neil Howsam, the most important thing is ‘human interaction between individual and building.’

Howsam continued that the ‘historical hangover’ of attitudes toward office space was finally coming to an end: ‘It used to be about quality management and efficiency, but now it feels like people are beginning to recognise that by giving buildings character you can drive value and have a product that’s positive.’

Alex Jan expanded on this, defending the accusation that developers and investors are simply out to make more money: ‘Developers are clever. They’re good at placemaking, even when it’s not “commercially” the right long-term decision.’

We’d like to extend our thanks to both the panellists and the audience for a fantastic evening and fascinating debate, and we look forward to seeing you at our upcoming events in the AluK Design Studio.