Monday, 20 April 2009

"How to Freecycle Woolworths!"

For those of us who've been arguing for the creative reuse of empty space as part of a response to the recession, there was exciting news last week. The Department for Communities and Local Government announced £3m in small grants to help people reuse empty shops for creative and socially beneficial projects. Here's what they say:

People are increasingly worried about boarded-up shops and vacant land in their towns and cities. It is vital that we do all we can to enable vacant properties to be used for temporary purposes until demand for retail premises starts to improve. Not only will this help to ensure that our towns and high streets are attractive places where people want to go, it can also stimulate a wide range of other uses such as community hubs, arts and cultural venues, and informal learning centres, which can unlock people’s talent and creativity.

This kind of temporary use of empty premises has great potential for those "real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media" that I've been writing about. (Thanks to Noel for first drawing my attention to the "slack space" movement in the comments on the original Social Media vs the Recession post.) And the turnout for the second London Alternative Third Spaces meetup at the Hub a couple of weeks ago was a sign of the amount of energy gathering around these projects.

Last week's announcement wasn't just about funding, although that was what made the headlines. Plans for encouraging temporary use also include:

  • a simpler process for local authorities to waive "change of use" planning permission requirements
  • providing specimen documents for landlords making temporary use agreements
  • a pilot project in five town centres, in which local authorities act as intermediary - agreeing a temporary lease with a landlord on behalf of a local community group
  • and, of course, funding for grants "to help with cleaning and decorating vacant premises, basic refit for temporary uses, publicity posters, and other activities that can help town centres attract and retain visitors"

It sounds like the details of how these grants will work are still being worked out, but all in all this an extremely promising set of proposals.

One further thought, prompted by a conversation with Dan Littler. Last week's announcement accompanied the launch of a guide for town centre managers on 'Looking after our town centres'. To make sure the widest range of people have access to information about the grants and other measures, though - and to contribute to the success of the projects they create - it would be great to see a practical handbook for "How to Freecycle Woolworths!" (At least, that's what we'd have called it in the days of Pick Me Up...)

Once you start looking, there are a lot of existing examples of the creative and constructive reuse of empty space, around the UK and beyond - and a lot of knowledge of what to do (and what not to do) has been accumulated by those involved. It feels like time that knowledge was tapped.


United Diversity said...

Wow, those plans do sound promising!

Tim said...

Great post. Matt Weston put me on to you. I'm trying to pull something simlar together:

I really like the map and flickr set the Brighton group have done. It would be fun to have a "before an after gallery" once the spaces are in use.

There's a practical problem for the Economic Development Units of local authorities to keep track of all the buildings, or even find owners.

This model of "crowd sourcing" using social media - to document both the problem and the solutions - could make the whole process a lot quicker.

Craig Barnett said...

We're trying to do this in Sheffield, making use of empty properties on The Moor. City of Sanctuary, Opus Productions and the Archer project are working on setting up a Sanctuary cafe run by refugees and ex-homeless people. It helps that the City Council are already involved and have control of a lot of empty property.

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