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Private Equity Firm Hires Sidewalk Labs And BuzzFeed Exec To Help It Build Cities In A New Way

NREP's Jesse Shapins

BuzzFeed, Google subsidiaries, New York City's Museum of Modern Art and the world of documentary filmmaking have not been hunting grounds for real estate private equity firms looking to recruit top execs. Until now.

NREP, the Copenhagen-based investor with assets under management of €18B ($18B), has hired Jesse Shapins as head of urban strategy and design and co-lead of its urban development team.

Shapins joins NREP from Sidewalk Labs, Google’s urban planning and infrastructure subsidiary. Before that, he was director of product at media firm BuzzFeed, joining the company as it bought a visual media startup he co-founded. His background also includes establishing a New York documentary film organisation, Uniondocs, and creating an art project that allowed members of communities to share stories about their neighbourhoods that won praise from the Museum of Modern Art. 

Major urban developments created by companies and cities tell a story about how a society wants to see itself, Shapins told Bisnow in an interview over video from Copenhagen.

With the world at an inflection point amid a climate crisis and increasing social upheaval, NREP wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls of the past — including the problems faced by Sidewalk Labs — and build projects that promote social cohesion and equality while showing humanity and nature can coexist. 

He will oversee urban strategy and design for NREP both in Denmark and internationally as it advances its urban vision across northern Europe. That will start with NREP’s Jernbanebyen, or Railway District project, a major piece of urban development in the southern and central part of the city of Copenhagen. 

A consortium, including NREP, bought an 840K SF slice of a wider 3.9M SF development site based around former railway yards in Copenhagen. The land is owned by the local Copenhagen authorities as well as Nordic pension funds. 

The Jernbanebyen scheme in Copenhagen

NREP will develop a mixed-use scheme on the site it owns as well as work with the other landowners to develop the wider scheme. The project will include housing, a minimum of 25% of which will be affordable, with a social housing company already involved in the development set to kick off in 2023, Shapins said.

With the western world at a time of deep existential crisis, developments like Jernbanebyen embody the world as we want it to be, Shapins said; done right, they show man can preserve the planet and coexist with nature rather than destroy it, and that people can be brought together rather than pulled apart. 

“What is the vision of society we want, and how does this project make that real?” he said. “We’re at moment of global and social crisis — in terms of the climate and environment, geopolitical, and to a greater degree in the U.S., in terms of democracy. 

“Hopefully we’ll look back at this moment at the end of the 21st century and see we haven’t devolved into authoritarian forms of government and learned to cohabit with nature sustainably.”

Jernbanebyen will have sporting facilities, including three football pitches, and affordable community space to allow residents to come together and build relationships. Some of the site has become overgrown from disuse and will remain that way as part of a process of "rewilding," to provide as much green space as possible. 

NREP is also looking to buy into other large-scale development projects in the Nordics and northern Europe, Shapins said.

The Jernbanebyen from the air

“We want to create opportunities for social connection, to reduce loneliness, and these uses allow programmes to achieve that,” he said. “Green spaces can be places of respite, as well as social spaces, and have a big role in reducing stress and anxiety.”

The S in ESG, social, has been less of a concern than the E, environmental, for real estate companies, he said. On the environmental side, NREP has pledged to become carbon-neutral, reducing its carbon emissions without the use of offsets, by 2028.

“Social is where environmental was about a decade ago,” he said, adding both need to be addressed in order to make neighbourhoods and cities that help the world cut carbon emissions, and are affordable and inclusive places to live.

“There are ways to measure social impact, happiness, the mental wellbeing of residents now."

In terms of making large-scale schemes like Jernbanebyen work, he said, it is vital private sector developers have buy-in and work closely with local municipalities to ensure both sides are aligned in terms of what they want. 

He cites Sidewalk Labs’ high-profile project in Toronto as an example of what can happen if that isn’t the case.

Sidewalk Labs was appointed by the Canadian city in 2017 to plan and develop a major new scheme in a neglected area of its waterfront. It proposed a tech-laden smart city, packed with sensors to collect data on how people used the area in hopes of adapting and improving services accordingly.

It attracted controversy over who owned the data that was collected, however, and in May 2020, citing the pandemic, the company pulled out of the project. Though the pandemic impacted the economics of the scheme, Shapins also faulted differing visions between the company and the city. 

“There was a level of ambition around environmental and social impact that wasn’t shared by municipal authorities,” he said. “The aim was to increase cycling, walking and public transport use and Toronto is a city with a strong policy preference for the car.”

Copenhagen, with a long history of promoting active and public transport, has not seen the same problems, he said.

A phrase that Shapins mentions regularly is “system change," or the idea that the way we build cities and neighbourhoods needs to change if they are to become better, more equitable places for people to live.

No one development can do that on its own, he said, but it can prove to others what is possible.

“There is no question that any of these things on their own can achieve a transition," he said. "But the storytelling part of what we want to do is what makes system change possible.”