Hugh Anderson: Edinburgh's 21st century approach to living

Two Scottish property developments draw attention to the changing world of work and its implications for both real estate and urban planning, as Scotland faces up to becoming more competitive in Europe.

Hugh Anderson of haa design praises the 'integrity and quality' of Edinburgh's Quartermile development. Picture: Contributed

In Edinburgh, Quartermile has broken new ground in its mix of residential space with commercial and by tapping into the needs of the university, creating in the process a total working environment which appears to have captured the market’s imagination.

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Glasgow’s major campus expansion is similarly planned to have a “game-changing” effect on the city and, if the visuals are anything to go by, will create a world-class learning environment, certainly as far as students and staff are concerned. How this will impact on the changing demands of Glasgow’s commercial sector however remains to be seen.

The significance of these two developments is in how they illustrate a change once considered peripheral but increasingly key to an effective workplace, an aspect of work which has been highlighted in last week’s Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) report – “Good Work For All”.

This “peripheral”, “nice to have” aspect of the workplace has been described as a “sense of place” or “urban ambience” or, in more down to earth terms, as a “decent place to go and have a coffee”. The logic is as follows: work is mobile, information is anywhere and everywhere, discussion and interaction with one’s colleagues is everything and an informal environment is totally professional or at least an essential complement to the formal work place.

Follow this further and the quality of the coffee or at least the attractiveness of the breakout space starts to be just as important as the ergonomics and light levels of the traditional office, and, if one can pretend that the recent good weather is a reality, it is a short step to recognising that what is outside the office is as significant as what goes on inside it.

This is where Quartermile has broken new ground, not just in having designers who have created a delightful pedestrian precinct which meanders between new and old buildings, blending with The Meadows and giving access to a selection of trendy eateries, but in the “how” and the “when” that accompanied this investment in the outside.

At a recent Quartermile Developments presentation, which highlighted a recent tenant coup in securing US chip designer Cirrus Logic at the site, a key principal admitted: “No one pays you rent for all that expensive paving!” What the Quartermile guys were drawing attention to was the upfront investment that goes into a quality external environment.

It is an investment that does not make good until a quantum of tenants have taken up residence, until the wine bars and the eateries are up and running and the planting looks as though it is actually growing. In short, not until the place has genuine ambience is it going to be a “go-to” place to work and is that the additional rental is going to be feasible.

The RSA report also draws attention to the need for “quality” of work, not just “quantity”. Cirrus Logic chose to relocate to a top rent location and spend as much again in fitting out their building because they knew it would appeal to the graduates still engaging in university life next door.

So, where Edinburgh and London lead is Glasgow set to follow? Glasgow has no shortage of coffee bars or weekend hangout spots, but its parks, while close to the university are remote from the city centre and the urban living of the Merchant City does not equal the integration and the quality of Quartermile.

Of course, we cannot expect one city to be like another, nor would we want it to be, but where the images of the new Glasgow campus still feel like a campus, Edinburgh starts to feel like 21st century city living and one can’t help feeling that Glasgow has missed a trick.

Hugh Anderson is managing director of haa design