To say that securing a lunchtime table along La Croisette, Cannes’ sun-drenched promenade during the four days of Mipim is an ordeal would be something of an understatement. At around 12.30 the Palais des Festivals, the town’s 1980s exhibition centre overlooking the waterfront, disgorges the thousands of visitors and exhibitors who have come here from all over the world into the storied sunlight of the Côte d’Azur.
Some delegates spill onto the coast-hugging promenade and head for the restaurants and hotels that line the beach. Others turn in the opposite direction and make a beeline for the marina, where countless yachts lie ready to host meetings over canapés and bottles of Minuty. “Your boat or mine?” is a question you’ll hear floating on the sea breeze.
This is the Marché International des Professionels de l’Immobilier, the world’s leading global fair for the property industry, which takes place every March in Cannes. A magnet for property developers, civic leaders and architects from around the world, Mipim operates like a miniature version of the global property market – but in overdrive. Meetings are arranged, projects discussed and deals signed in a whirlwind of activity. “It would be difficult to get all these people together in one place normally,” says the ceo of a company managing central London retail space. “But that’s exactly what everyone is here for.”
For cities and regions the motivation for having a presence here is manifold: to invite investment, gain inspiration and make sure you don’t get shown up by the competition. “If a European region isn’t represented here at Mipim it sends a signal to the world that it’s not interested in investment,” says Olof Zetterberg, ceo of the Stockholm Business Region, just before hopping onstage at his stall to announce €100bn of investment in his city over the next five years.
For others it is not so much about saving face as showing their face. “Of course it would be nice to get a project or two,” says Andrew Bromberg, international design director for the fifth-largest architecture firm in the world: Hong Kong-based Aedas. “But every year at Mipim I have both previous clients and current clients, so it gives me an opportunity to take care of a lot of business in one place and potentially meet new people.”
With 93 countries represented and more than 4,500 investors among the 22,000 delegates, Mipim 2015 is proof that the global property sector is finally bouncing back from a long rocky patch. In fact, investment in the sector internationally is expected to rise by 11 per cent this year to €1.2trn, according to figures from commercial-property consultant Cushman & Wakefield.
But while the mood is optimistic across the fair it is slightly undermined by one notable absence. Russia, which last year dominated proceedings with an impressive marquee that was more a show of force than an invitation to do business, is today reduced to just a few stalls dotted here and there representing individual cities. Sanctions and trade restrictions imposed by western powers since last summer, coupled with plummeting oil prices, are clearly biting.
Meanwhile, conspicuously winning the soft-power tussle for floorspace – perhaps unsurprisingly – is Germany. The European heavyweight’s cities enjoy pride of place on the Palais’ prime plot: the stalls overlooking the sea, with terraces that catch the sun throughout the day. Considering each stall at Mipim is priced according to the predicted footfall it will attract (it is, after all, a property fair; you want the most from your square metres), this also means the German cities have stumped up the most cash for their places in the sun.
One name stands out above the rest: Hamburg. The northern German city experienced transaction volumes of €3.82bn in 2014, an increase of 43 per cent on the year before, and it is keen to ride this wave. In December it signed a deal with Franco-Dutch commercial-property company Unibail-Rodamco to develop the Überseequartier, a portion of the HafenCity district. The agreement was worth a cool €860m. “We’re talking about the revitalisation of the city,” says Andreas Köpke at the Hamburg stand. “The HafenCity development is the biggest project but there are also plans for the east of the city and for Wilhemsburg, south of the Elbe.”
As in years past, the London pavilion is also a hive of activity, attracting a mixed crowd of developers, architects and city councillors. The air is fizzing with a sense of buoyant optimism as the city’s property market continues to perform in a league of its own. “More and more we’re seeing the emergence of a few global cities,” says Filippo Rean, the director of Mipim, a few steps from the UK capital’s pavilion. “And if you look at the London presence here you can see that. London today is a city unlike any other.”
For Mipim old-timers it’s all becoming rather reminiscent of the days before the 2008 financial crisis, when this event was little more than a welcome knees-up on the French Riviera. This, of course, raises the question of whether we could be heading for yet another crash; another burst bubble. After all, the global economy is far from rude health and Russia on the brink of recession is only half the story: China’s economy is slowing down and Greek economic ambitions ensure the Eurozone remains unstable.
But Rean is sanguine about the industry’s prospects: “The current crises are basically factored into investment decisions, unlike during the ‘bubble’ years. Today the effects of the crisis are still pretty recent so people haven’t yet forgotten the overheated years and no one wants to go back to that.” But, with half a smile, he also recites what proves to be something of an industry maxim here: “Without risk there is no fun and without risk you can’t make money.”
The obstacles the global economy is putting in the way of the property market do at least have one positive side effect. While the supply of prime building land has shrunk, developers’ willingness to be ambitious with design has grown in tandem. And architects are beginning to see the rewards. “I think people are starting to be a little more design-focused,” says Aedas’s Bromberg. “It’s not only based on areas and efficiencies and the bottom line. When there are fewer properties out there it becomes more competitive and design adds a bit of value.”
This in turn is transforming the way our cities are shaped and constructed. “A few years ago a developer wouldn’t have been interested in paying a premium for this,” says Bromberg of the community spaces he integrates into his projects. “But now they understand that’s what the city wants and, by offering that, the city might give them the right piece of land. It’s all kind of wrapped together but it’s a good thing; it’s basically putting the people first and not the money.”
At Mipim it’s easy to only see the vast sums of money changing hands and to become distracted by those billion-euro deals hitting the headlines. You can forget that the impact of these deals and the investment decisions being hammered out will be felt by real people as their cities change and evolve around them.
These four spring days in the Cannes sunshine provide a glimpse of the alchemical reaction that takes place when you put all the players who shape our cityscapes in one place at one time.The clearest conclusion to be drawn here is that the future of our urban experience depends on the interaction of these players and how close they can get, between them, to joined-up thinking about the cities we call home.