If you build it, will they come? That is the question that will be on the minds of many attendees of the Mipim international property fair in Cannes in March, or at least the cynical or savvy among them. Cities and regions from around the world will unveil elaborate stands in the Palais des Festivals exhibition hall showcasing grand plans for real estate developments that will, they hope, revolutionise their urban spaces.

After reaching a nadir of exuberance in 2007, many dreams of grandeur were dashed, property markets collapsed, pools of capital evaporated – even those that were only mirages anyway – and a more grounded mood prevailed. But two years ago, walking around the Palais there was a sense that the heady times might be returning. The parties were buzzing again, yachts were back on parade in the marina, and ambitious projects were once again being hawked. Liquidity has returned – to a degree – and urban planners can once again dare to dream.

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But the memories of the crash are still fresh, and some markets have struggled to come back. For all the cork-popping optimism, there is also now at least a dash of realism that was missing before in the halls of Cannes. There is a greater fear of speculative property investments – and for good reason.

Fear can be a protective, preservative instinct. It can steer us away from danger. But it can also hold us back. A desire to avoid the next crash, and to avoid having hulking, half-empty buildings blotting a town centre, has caused reluctance in some corners to push too hard for new office and residential spaces for which there is not yet an obvious demand. The balance between sensible caution and unguarded optimism is delicate and often money, credibility and careers are at stake when it comes to deciding which way to sway.

Questioning the viability of big projects is always a good idea. But sometimes city planners also have to take a punt on future growth. This is especially true of cities that do not yet have all the amenities that talented, mobile workers and international executives expect. Young people starting their careers are told to dress for the job they want, not the job they have (great advice, I believe) and the same is true of cities: they need to make themselves look like the cities they want to be before anyone else will view them that way. Time for the post-crisis makeover: the look is not too over the top, yet mature and aspirational. And what better place to shop for a new look than Cannes?  

Courtney Fingar is the editor-in-chief of fDi Magazine. E-mail: courtney.fingar@ft.com