Developers follow where the hipsters lead

11 November, 2016

At the end of the recent BBC4 program about the hipster phenomenon, presenter, Peter York, concluded it would be remembered simply as a hugely successful consumer culture.

And it’s true that evidence of hipster influence is everywhere from fair trade coffee to fixed-gear bikes. Even MacDonald’s has an artisian grilled chicken sandwich on its menu.

For developers and estate agents, hipster culture is only interesting because of the galvanizing effect it’s had on property prices in east London. As someone in the programme says, estate agents follow where the hipsters lead.

While developers understand the benefit of allowing “meanwhile” uses for buildings or sites and often let hipsters set up shop, longer term those things hipsters espouse, like organic food and localised industries, are not profitable enough and get pushed out.

Yet, some developers are waking up to the fact that while a micro-brewery may not pay as much rent as Wetherspoons, they win the heart of consumers. This is especially true of Millennials- people between the ages of 18 and 30- soon to enter their earning prime.

Winning over consumers is not something that has exercised developers much in the past. Buyers, yes. But why care about the people who walk through your development if they’re not paying rent or buying a property?

This is why so much development is dire. It’s not the architecture or the “public realm” that’s to blame, it’s that most development lacks a good vibe- to use an old hippy word – because no one has thought about the experience that make people want to return.

But this is something Argent understands very well at King’s Cross. Instead of chain coffee shops, men who paint themselves silver and pretend to be a statue and ‘craft’ stalls, it takes curation as seriously as the architecture, from art projects to its food offer.

Shoreditch and Williamsburg, NYC, supposed birthplace of modern hipsterdom, are now gentrified and teaming with tourists. You can even go on a hipster tour of Shoreditch given by a bearded man-bunned guide.

But what Argent has surely realised is that the success of those places has been driven by how people talk offline and online about them and if this can be applied to a place like King’s Cross, it will influence buyers and other potential buyers.

Another hipster legacy is paper. While developers understand that pushing the same old messages through traditional media is not as effective and cost efficient as it once was, they are watching the growth of often free, independent magazines with interest.

L&N’s new newspaper is a good example precisely because it’s not what you expect a developer to do. It’s not on glossy expensive paper, it’s on cheap newsprint and it’s a tabloid. The contents are refreshingly free of PR spin and instead it’s full of things it finds inspiring.

So what does all this mean?

I think it means that development will change and the experience that developers offer will drive the profits not the architecture. It’s what happens in places that matter not what they look like, whether that’s baking competitions, Shakespeare or street food. But to use a favourite hipster word, the experience has to be authentic and it has to be two-way.