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Transience in the city (I)

Part 1: Meanwhile spaces and economic empowerment



The city is often compared to a living being, changing and adapting over time in response to surrounding social, political, and cultural events. The physical fabric of the city is continuously in flux with perpetual construction and destruction meaning that the built form of a city often outlives the social climate of its inception. Criticised for its association with temporary interventions which spark negative connotations of obsolescence and unsustainable practice, flexible design within temporary spaces also has the potential to provide opportunities (p23) which can spark change and ignite positive grassroots empowerment.


Flexible design comes in many forms and solutions - In an urban city context, these designs initially require vacant space whether that be brownfield sites or empty property. Such sites, earmarked for demolition or future development have been coined ‘meanwhile’ spaces. Bridging the gap between tenancies and development, these areas are commonly home to pop up events and retail spaces, forming a spatial opportunity for experimentation and entrepreneurship. An obvious downfall of short term use is the legacy of the business using the space - what happens when the tenancy ends? However, meanwhile spaces can also be appreciated for their benefits - as a leg up to a more permanent solution. These opportunities allow for small and local businesses to establish themselves with lower risk, lowering barriers to entry within entrepreneurship and increasing the diversity of spatial uses, business owners and visitors within an area.


The buzz of conversation and debate surrounding meanwhile spaces has risen in a post pandemic landscape. Spearheaded in London as a method of resilience (action B2), the government commissioned research surrounding the topic and has promoted the reduction of barriers to entry for businesses to take advantage of vacancy. This post, however, argues that promoting meanwhile spaces should not only arise as a method of resilience. Resilience is suggestive of recovery - whilst there is no denying that the pandemic impacted our cities and vacancy rates, the issue of underutilised buildings has always existed and was only exacerbated by a lockdown. Back in 2009, The DCLG announced a Meanwhile Project’ which aimed to revitalise town centres after the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis. Despite also being developed in response to a crisis, the project demonstrates the need for methods to be in place which preempt, acknowledge and embrace the inevitability of urban vacancy. Cities will never be static and vacancy rates will never be zero, as such, temporary spaces need to be considered as permanent part of urban existence and their potential should be better understood in order to be fully beneficial to society.


Within the context of inclusivity - how socially sustainable are ‘meanwhile’ spaces? Who do they benefit and who has access to them?


Many of the examples of meanwhile uses are of creative practices (see part 2). These industries bring along with them a new community of artists and creatives which naturally transform the identity of an area. This shift in identity is particularly interesting - the agglomeration of creative practices is what Richard Florida referred to as the rise of the creative class[1] - whilst he was not specifically referring to artists themselves or meanwhile spaces, the principle concept remains relevant. Florida proposed that creativity encourages growth and development of an area - whilst the question of whether such growth is success is another topic in itself, the relevance to this topic lies in the urban change which creative practices induce. In London there’s a fairly obvious correlation between locations of meanwhile spaces and areas which have been subject to gentrification. The numerous pop up spaces around Shoreditch and Hackney, not only allow for short term creative enterprises to flourish but also can be seen to contribute to the identity of the area which drives up prices and displaces locals.


One obvious way of ensuring that the benefits of meanwhile spaces support the local economy and preserve local identity is to ensure that the organisations who get to use the space are local and benefit the local community. This is not to say that new businesses from further afield should not be given an opportunity, but the priority should be given to support the needs of the local community in opposition to the gentrification which often comes hand in hand with creative areas within a city. Part 2 of this post, explores this further, asking what comes first, the creatives or the facilities for them?



What are the barriers to meanwhile spaces


The constant flux and change of the city under devolved governing systems, means that tracking and recording spaces remains difficult and time consuming. Questions of responsibility and funding arise- who should be finding and documenting these spaces and where does the funding for this come from?


Recent government schemes which aim to support the use of meanwhile spaces[2], take the form of reductions in planning barriers. However, despite thinner red tape - the language and processes involved with identifying and securing temporary vacancies is complex and alienating especially for some actors and community groups who would benefit the most from access to the space. This results in demand for a middle man - someone who brings the spaces and businesses together such as Meanwhile Space CIC. Without these ‘middle men’, the barriers to identifying and locating and accessing meanwhile spaces are vast. Often undocumented and forever changing, without consistent investment of time, potential spaces get looked over and opportunities are missed.


However, the funding for these types of social enterprises is limited. As with most questions of social equity in urban environments, obvious solutions seem to lie within public funding. Without the support of local governing bodies, the incentive to connect small companies to spaces has the potential to change from social to financial. But Is it the responsibility of local authorities to engage local businesses and start ups with spatial opportunities or is this something which should be left to a market system? As this post suggests, it could benefit them in the long run - not just by engaging the local community but by giving them the tools and facilities to empower them economically. Looking at the list of partners at Meanwhile Space CIC, it’s evident that multiple local authorities already recognise the potential which lies in helping to connect businesses to unused spaces, the question lies now in whether such initiative will continue to grow and whether their impact will overall be one of local economic empowerment or whether the giant of gentrification will drown out any positive outcomes.

Footnotes:

  1. This post is not in support of the logic behind the theory and, in fact, Richard Florida himself has critically reflected on this book within his new work - The New Urban Crisis. The reference to the rise of the creative class is used solely to highlight the relationship between creativity and gentrification.

  2. Regulations came into force on 25th May 2019 when the government extended permitted development rights and temporary change of use to give greater flexibility within the planning framework for the provision of meanwhile uses without requiring planning permission and to support speed up of delivery.

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