Cover Cities like Miami in the US continue to be favoured for their lifestyle and connection to the outdoors, as exemplified by luxurious developments such as Five Park Miami Beach, a property marketed by Knight Frank

While a move away from the urban sprawl grew during the pandemic, the recent increase in investment in cities proves that urban hubs are truly resilient and remains an alluring destination for astute investors

A family making a permanent move to their larger country house, a professional who’s trading city life for a more pastoral existence, and digital nomads eschewing home ownership altogether—these are some of the trends that exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When socialisation was deemed a serious health risk, cities were not attractive places to be in. From statistical reports to anecdotal evidence in the last two years, these seemed to signal that these urban centres seemed to have lost their sheen, stripped off the bright lights and dynamic energy that made them attractive in the first place.

While not completely a myth, the purported migration towards rural destinations may have been overstated. Once the pandemic restrictions started easing, the sentiment changed. From London to Singapore, people rediscovered the joys of city living; be it walking or cycling to shops and visiting restaurants and parks, many urbanites quickly remembered why this lifestyle was appealing.

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“It is now widely reported that the city centre exodus observed during lockdown has strongly reversed,” says Harri Williams Jones, associate director of residential development in London for real estate services company Savills. He adds: “We saw these signs initially in the lettings market and this has been mirrored in the sales market where transaction resilience has been maintained throughout the last few months in uncharacteristic form.”

Liam Bailey, global head of research for Knight Frank agrees. “Most global cities now find record levels of demand for rental property pitched against record-low levels of supply. As a result, rents in the prime markets in London and New York are now rising by upwards of 20 per cent on an annual basis.” Then, the sales market swiftly followed. “There’s an uptick in demand for housing across key urban markets. London, in particular, is experiencing record demand levels—nearly 100 per cent above pre-pandemic norms,” Bailey notes.

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1. Accessibility

Truthfully, few can deny a city’s real draw, which is access and convenience. Top schools and hospitals are within easier reach, and most cities boast of a well-connected transport network, which is especially important for environmentally-conscious millennials and Generation Z. As international borders continue to open up, proximity to airports is a massive plus for leisure and business travellers who were kept grounded for so long.

This has led to a strong demand for small apartments in desirable locations. “The market requirement for pied-à-terres has been particularly focused in central locations with sophisticated travel connectivity. We have buyers both international and domestic looking for these apartments, who usually have family bases located elsewhere but seeking an easy route back to one of the home counties or to the airport,” adds Williams Jones.

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These “boomerang buyers” are driven by a mix of push and pull effects, says Peter Allen, sales and marketing director of Stanhope, a London-based developer, investor and asset manager. “While remote work is here to stay, some senior employees are being pushed back by hybrid working policies that have been put in place. Others are being pulled back into the city after realising the grass isn’t always greener on the other side: long commutes, uprooted children, distanced social networks, and a lack of services that they have long been used to.”

This is evident in London where “demand for property in the city has risen strongly, with the number of new prospective buyers 67 per cent higher compared to the five-year average, according to James Cohen, a partner in Knight Frank’s new homes team.

High-end hotel-branded developments in London are also thriving. These include One Bishopsgate Plaza, a gleaming tower in the financial centre with Europe’s first Pan Pacific hotel and residences; Twenty Grosvenor Square Mayfair, a luxury development with a Four Seasons residence; The Whiteley, a former art deco department store now being redeveloped by Finchatton to house the first Six Senses hotel and residences; and The OWO Residences by Raffles London, a Grade II-listed Edwardian baroque building set to open later this year.

2. A holiday getaway

Singaporean investors, who were hit by the Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty (ABSD) introduced in late 2021 for local purchases, have set their sights abroad to cities like London. “The sentiment is that savvy and new investors seek an alternative option to invest their money by turning to overseas properties,” says Rachel Ho, senior manager of residential services at Savills Singapore. “We saw an uptake in inquiries for London properties, and also second-tier cities such as Manchester and Birmingham, with developments such as Deansgate Square and The Blade in the former and Snow Hill Wharf in the latter.”

Surprisingly, some were undeterred and doubled down on the Lion City, according to Tammy Fahmi, vice president of global operations at Sotheby’s International Realty. “Singapore thrived during the pandemic and is anticipated to continue to see an influx of wealth because of its reputation for stability, international finance, and as a safe haven for investors. Shophouse investments in particular, which are not substantially impacted by the ABSD, have emerged as an appealing option,” says Fahmi.

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3. Being connected to nature

While high-profile developments in capital cities are undoubtedly appealing, more and more buyers have also looked to cities with a greater link to the outdoors. “Cities offering space and greenery are in demand, which means Miami and Los Angeles in the US. But so too are cities where houses with gardens are available, so the likes of Dubai and Sydney are seeing strong demand for houses,” says Bailey.

This is mirrored in the continued demand for Singapore’s landed properties. “Singapore has one of the highest home ownership rates in the world. They value a relaxed lifestyle, which is reflected in everything from a sustainably designed urban environment to fluid, landscaped indoor-outdoor spaces to open, crafted, naturally lit homes. The approach supports family living, as well as the lifestyles of young professionals with independent interests,” adds Fahmi.

4. Investment potential

The resurgence of cities is a positive sign overall for the real estate market. While its demise was reported widely over the last two years, being home to innovation, talent, as well as wealth ensures its lasting relevance.

The latest edition of Knight Frank’s The Wealth Report outlined the City Wealth Index, with London seeing “the largest volume of cross border private capital (US$3 billion) invested into real estate during 2021, as well as attracting the most diverse investor base.” Despite the difficult lockdowns in New York, it “retains its crown as the world’s wealth capital, with more UHNWIs choosing to reside there than in any other city.” Four Asian cities were in the top 10, with Tokyo ranking fifth and Singapore seventh, followed by Hong Kong placing eighth and Beijing tenth.

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For ardent investors in city property, where should they look to next? Aside from placing their bets on trusted developments in key locations, a city that prioritises sustainability and good governance is of utmost importance. According to the Knight Frank report, HNWIs—individuals with at least US$1million of net assets—grew 126 per cent over the last five years in Singapore. It’s projected to increase by another 13 per cent by 2026.

Those interested in the city of the future can glean clues from ground-breaking projects such as the Mooikloof Mega City in South Africa, a 200-hectare integrated development unveiled in 2020 that promises inclusive housing and solid green credentials. It’s expected to have 50,000 residential units, healthcare and educational facilities, and everything needed for a community to thrive—a first for the country.

Another example is Neom in Saudi Arabia, an extremely innovative, technologically-advanced and ultra-sustainable city built from the ground up. A pillar project of Vision 2030—a transformative plan to diversify the Kingdom’s economy by developing other sectors—Neom houses around US$1 trillion of real estate and infrastructure projects and aims to be the benchmark for urban planning in the 21st century.

Whatever the city of the future will look like, one thing is for sure: it will continue to attract the best and the brightest, serve as a nexus for connection, and always be a great investment.

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