WAF Newsletter - In Practice - October 2019

In Practice

Paul Hyett, 22 October 2019


Reflections on the worst land deal ever...

Ever heard of ‘Run’? You should have, especially if you are either in real estate or an American. And if you are in US real estate and you don’t know about Run then shame on you and read on.

The history of Run was just one of many fascinating stories that surfaced last week in London during two days of brilliant presentations and workshops at a symposium held at the RIBA, organized by David Gilmore’s Design Futures Council, part of the Design Intelligence organization.

The story goes like this: Run – also known as the Island of Pulau Run - is 0.6 miles wide and just under two miles long. Pretty close to the size of New York’s Central Park, a little wider but not so long. So, what’s Run got to do with real estate and land deals?

Just a little, but the explanation followed a brilliant presentation by Alastair Parvin of Open Systems Lab – an architect who specialises in ‘open digital innovation for industry and society…. working to transform cities…. with private, public and third sector organisations to design 21st systems’.

Google Open Systems Lab and YouTube Parvin: his stuff will blow your mind. And it’s deadly serious. For example, he reckons our planet needs to build a city the size of London every five weeks for the next 30 years to meet global population demands. It is what we build in that time which will determine our survival. The stuff you all know about: ecologically responsible architecture and energy or we kill the planet.

Because Alastair is all about ‘systems’, he posed the simple question ‘which system is getting in our way’ in terms of solving our global city and development problems. The answer: LAND. Not land per se but land as a system of exchange and investment. Land in the sense of Location, Location, Location.

Parvin pointed to uncomfortable facts such as the massive escalations in house prices in a consistent pattern across the world, which continues despite pretty static wage levels for the majority. His point is that we have the science and the knowledge, and certainly the money, to solve all our city problems but we deal with land in terms of value, investment and tenures in a way that distorts outcomes, wastes resource and opportunity and strangles futures.

That is the backdrop to the story of the Isle of Run, one of 18,307 Indonesian islands. (Wow: world’s 16th largest economy, biggest Muslim community, with 719 of the world’s 6,500 languages: how do they manage such a fragmented country?).

The date was 31 July 1667 and the Dutch finally got their deal: they acquired the coveted Run from Britain. This tiny little place was of critical importance to the Dutch, for years a leading power in a spice trade critical to ongoing European progress. Indonesia, which the Dutch had increasingly controlled from the later 16th century, was the prize in their imperial crown. But there, tucked in amongst the Banda Arc of islands, directly north of Darwin in an Australia yet to be discovered, lay the haven of Run. And the British owned it.

It had some nutmeg trees, and therefore a supply of mace, but not much to excite the Dutch except that it was not theirs. In retrospect it was pretty amazing that they managed to complete the deal with the British on that Sunday in 1667, because only five weeks earlier the Dutch navy had bombarded British towns around the Medway in southern England. (Even worse, they had captured the pride of the British fleet, HMS Royal Charles. The flagship was towed to Hellevoetsluis in the Netherlands, where she was placed in dry-dock as a tourist attraction.)

But the British never let pride or acrimony get in the way of trade, so it was that they finally agreed, in the most haughty and disdaining of manners, to let the Dutch have their little mound in the Bandu Sea. But the deal did not involve money: the British wanted something else and they got it: the most valuable land swap ever to take place, before, since and surely forever.

The Dutch got some coconuts and the nutmeg that they could sell on a 32,000 per cent yield in the European markets. The British got a swamp – but that swamp was ‘New Amsterdam’ on the east coast of America, now of course New York.

Fortunes ebb and flow: Britain lost New York asa result of the American War of Independence a century later, while the Dutch held the Isle of Run well into the 20th century.

Those two days at the Design Intelligence Leadership summit were rich in content with a series of presentations covering themese of Rebellion, Revalue, Reimagine, Reinvent, Redefine, Respond, Reflect, Re-generate, Recreate, Redistribute, Revolution and, finally, Renew.

We face the gravest of problems, but events like this offer hope that we can design our way through and out of the mess. But, as Alastair Parvin so rightly against pointed out, we cannot solve 21st century problems with 20th century systems. Change is crucial: the old paradigms simply won’t do.

We must, otherwise Manhattan will revert to swampland in the metaphorical blink of an eye. Run will go on much as before.

Read other WAFN Articles.

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