Real-estate developers have a reputation for valuing profit over contributing to the urban fabric. Patrice Derrington traces and critiques the evolution of the practices that guide their decision-making and, in doing so, shows that private development began with a much more balanced focus when it first took shape in 17th-century London. This economic model came together with the goals of providing shelter and advancing the public realm, as well as creating financial assets and maintaining their sustainability.
Detailing the success of Covent Garden, for instance, Derrington argues that, while focused on maximizing economic gain, the owner, the fourth Earl of Bedford, contributed to the public realm by incorporating an open piazza and a simplified classical St. Paul’s parish church within the site. Though not directly generating income, these public amenities allowed higher rents and increased neighborhood desirability. Covent Garden’s architect, Inigo Jones, strategically used materials to cut costs while implementing an innovative design, whose classical Tuscan roots differed from the Baroque and Mannerist styles then growing in popularity. This design choice would influence the urban vernacular for years to come.
Over time, the use of financial models for decision-making, along with the introduction of external sources of capital, encouraged a short-term-compensation timeline. As qualitative outcomes became less important to the private developer than economic returns, the significance of the public realm diminished, along with the role of the architect. There have been exceptions, such as the Rockefeller family’s creation of Rockefeller Center in New York, built between 1929 and ’40. There, Raymond Hood and the team, Associated Architects, created open spaces with ample amenities, amid functional, modern buildings, enabling a privately owned and managed socially vibrant pocket within the city. More recently, the redevelopment of the Domino Sugar site in Brooklyn in 2018 indicates the private sector’s growing understanding of the importance of upkeep in public space. In creating the six-acre park, designed by James Corner Field Operations along the East River, the developers, Two Trees, also formed a financial vehicle to fund the ongoing maintenance costs, knowing that benefiting the neighborhood would directly increase profitability of the project. While municipal incentives have encouraged contribution to the public realm, Derrington argues that community benefits hinge on the internal justification for the developer rather than the external requirements by the government.
While much of the historical context for the development of real estate is not well known, Derrington comes prepared for the task in providing this understanding as the director of the Real Estate Development Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, with extensive work experience in the field, which she entered after receiving her B.Arch and Ph.D in architecture, not to mention an MBA from Harvard.
Often, real-estate degree programs center their education on understanding the practice as it exists in the present day, without acknowledging its historical roots. Built Up fills this academic gap, outlining the history of property rights from classical periods to the formation of mortgage agreements and lease structures, making it clear how the processes evolved and questioning how they should proceed. Her book provides guidance for dismantling and improving current practice—a boon for both students and professionals involved in the creation of the built environment.
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