Cinemas, gyms and bee-keeping clubs: why it’s good business to ‘create communities’ on developments 

By Sue Petri, MD of FirstPort Bespoke Property Services

There’s a change afoot in our cities which is set to transform apartment living, with larger, more complex developments now far more common, developers and property managers need to truly understand what residents are looking for and create communities that they want to live in.

In a recent report by the LSE and Berkeley Homes – New London Villages: Creating community – the LSE’s Kath Scanlon noted that “observers over the centuries have remarked that London is quintessentially a city of villages” and that today this descriptions still rings true. This is to be expected, she argued, when “some of the qualities associated with villages – intimacy, character, a self-contained functionality and so on – are attractive to lots of people.”

It’s no surprise therefore that Berkley, and many other developers, have put ‘creating communities’ at the heart of what they’re trying to do in London and elsewhere. But creating communities is not just a development matter, property managers are an integral part of building and sustaining these communities.

Property managers increasingly get involved with developments up to two years before a scheme is born. Through on the ground experience – and nearly all large developments these days will have a permanent site presence – we understand how residents interact with amenities and communal spaces. This means we can advise on everything from the design of outside areas, to the location of playgrounds or the opening hours of on-site gyms or swimming pools.

The role of property managers is also becoming far more active, and moving beyond just looking after buildings and facilities to actively engaging residents through events or activities. These can be incredibly varied: bee-keeping clubs in one of our developments, the Bridge, in Dartford; garden parties, picnics, charity fundraisers and family fun-days; I’ve even encountered ‘curry-eoke’ nights run by development managers, to encourage residents to meet and mingle with their neighbours.

So what have we, as the UK’s largest property managers with over 3,500 developments under management, learnt about creating communities? First, and most important, is having a deep understanding of the area and residents. This links directly to the second most important rule: tailor your approach. There’s no one-size fits all with creating a community feel, and different groups, ages and types of residents will require different things. By understanding who your residents are or will be, you can adapt your approach to their wants and needs. Young professionals will react better to amenities like gyms and swimming pools; families like open space and play areas; older people may be more interested in social clubs and meetings; and all of these groups may have different needs in different geographies.

The next most important rule is empowering your staff. With increasing numbers of developments having permanent on-site staff, they will know the development and community better than anyone else. If they are given the freedom and flexibility to take the initiative they will know how best to engage residents and attend to their needs. In property management, despite the rise of technology, your people are your greatest asset and it’s essential to invest in their training and development (at FirstPort 8% of turnover is spent on staff development).

Lastly, it’s important for property managers to engage with residents associations, and work collaboratively as much as possible. If there are regular and open flows of communication between residents and managers, you can respond quicker and more effectively to their needs.
With the number of large, complex developments in London is set to treble according to the research firm, Credo, driven by the rise of build-to-rent and the growth in PRS, it’s essential that these developments work as communities, not just collections of homes. This isn’t just good for residents, it is good business too. Developments that foster a strong sense of community and have happier residents will have higher occupancy rates (with happy residents encouraging others to live there), longer tenancies and greater yields for developers and investors. Ensuring that this comes to pass is where property managers come into their own.