When anchors call the shots: what Amazon and the European Medicines Agency have in common

Many ‘anchors’ – institutions that have a long-term, stabilising presence in a community, and coordinate economic and social activity – are established in an area because of the very characteristics of that area. Think hospitals needing to serve a growing population, or a university near colleges, industry and other intellectual activity. Yet a new breed of anchor institutions have arrived: born unrooted, they float high and unencumbered by place until they are enticed to a city by an offer they can’t refuse.

Two recent examples showcase this. First, Amazon is inviting metropolitan areas in the US to bid to host the company’s second headquarters. The prize?

Amazon will hire as many as fifty thousand (50,000) new full-time employees with an average annual total compensation exceeding one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) over the next ten to fifteen years, following commencement of operations. The Project is expected to have over $5 billion in capital expenditures.

Areas are expected to meet strict criteria, including a highly educated workforce and a ‘strong university system’. The Centre for Cities cover the ins and outs of Amazon’s invitation nicely, concluding that ‘firms like Amazon need cities as much as cities need firms like Amazon’. But it appears that Amazon have the upper hand.

Second, the UK’s vote for Brexit has effectively booted the European Medicines Agency (EMA) out of London. The EMA’s Canary Wharf headquarters is home to 890 staff and 36,000 annual visitors. EU countries have been bidding to host the EMA, who have also issued a set of criteria for interested parties. Yet, in this case, existing staff have been particularly influential. Reuters reports that

A staff survey last week found that between 19 and 94 percent of employees were likely to leave after the move, depending on which location was chosen. Picking Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna, Milan or Copenhagen as the new headquarters would be the best option for retaining staff, the survey found.

In both cases, the more connected, more open, more liveable cities with a skilled, educated population are in a far stronger position to attract a floating anchor institution. And as the most successful cities (and the principles of agglomeration) have shown, once you have one anchor it’s much easier to attract further anchors.

Anchor tenants

It may not always be enough to be within a particular city. Sometimes it matters exactly where you are

When the Grand Central shopping centre in Birmingham opened alongside a redeveloped New Street Station in September 2015, a fair amount of the fanfare was directed towards John Lewis, the ‘anchor tenant’ in the development. The Birmingham Mail described 2015 as the year that changed Birmingham forever and highlighted the arrival of the store. And John Lewis themselves were quick to capitalise on the attention focused on the city’s regeneration, commissioning ‘the largest panoramic photograph ever taken of the city’s changing skyline’ (it’s worth a look).

Anchor tenants are highly prized in retail – they bring prestige and draw in crowds, who often spend money in other shops and restaurants in the area. They encourage other shops and businesses to move in to the area. They invest heavily, are large employers and are there for the long-term. In return they may pay lower rent than surrounding shops.

There are strong parallels between anchor tenants in retail and the role of universities as anchor institutions in cities. Here, I pick out a few examples of universities who closely resemble ‘anchor tenants’ – investing heavily in the area and becoming a core part of the identity of the city, and in turn shape its character. They are all significant economic actors, employing large numbers of people and tying their future to that of the area and the people that will visit, study and live in it. There are two key themes: the long-term nature of the anchor role, and the immediate co-location with either government, the public sector, or significant transport and infrastructure hubs.

1. Dublin, Ireland

Dublin

Trinity College Dublin (red) sits next to the Irish Houses of Parliament (blue). On the other side of the campus sit the National Library and the National Gallery. For a member of parliament to speak to an academic, or a student to sit in on a debate, they simply need to cross College Green.

2. Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki

The main university building (red) sits to one side of Senate Square. Opposite is the Prime Minister’s Office (blue), and overlooking the square and visible from sea is Helsinki Cathedral (yellow). The university departments and facilities are scattered in an arc behind the square, but this is the symbolic heart of the city.

3. Accra, Ghana

Accra

Although the University of Ghana has its main campus at Legon, 12km north of the city centre, it also has a smaller campus in the city centre (red), near to several government ministries (blue), the African Development Bank, the National Theatre and the International Conference Centre (yellow).

4. Birmingham, England

Birmingham

You don’t need to be built as part of the original city centre development to be an anchor tenant. We return to Birmingham, but this time to a different station – Curzon Street. Birmingham City University (BCU) is investing heavily in Birmingham’s Eastside (red), near the proposed site of the High Speed 2 railway terminal (blue). BCU is anticipating the future, and actively shaping it – in this case by helping establish a college for rail engineering.

There are thousands more examples throughout the world, including universities who are anchor institutions in smaller towns and cities. Some have been deliberately placed by city planners hundreds of years ago next to government buildings. Others are pre-empting new hearts of cities. Some have a central presence that links to external sites (we can also see this with university satellite campuses in London, for example). Whether the buildings themselves are new or old, the planning is long term.

My initial impression is that ‘micro-location’ counts. That is, it may not always be enough to be within a particular city. Sometimes it matters exactly where you are – if you are across the road from parliament, you are likely to be consulted ahead of institutions further out. And if you take the initiative and build in an area of potential strategic importance, and invest heavily, and have room for expansion, business and industry will co-locate with you.