From pop-up retail to community gardens, ‘Meanwhile Use’ can not only fill a gap in a development’s timeline, but can have positive lasting effects, explains hgh Consultant, Frances Wheat, who also sees the role of planning in the process.
Meanwhile Use may be introduced deliberately by a landowner or developer to create activity on a site in advance of development or on a sequence of sites within a major regeneration scheme.
At Kings Cross Central, Meanwhile Uses successfully created an ambience long before any buildings were completed. A Skip Garden, art installations, pop up theatre and a roller rink attracted a variety of people to the site, encouraging the public to think creatively about their built environment whilst softly advertising the new cool destination. Overall the development has a varied long term offer with short term surprises which continue to delight and entertain. The long term dividend is a development that is attractive both to occupiers and to visitors and can command rents commensurately.
Not the first time
Meanwhile Gardens was a case of its time, part of a 1970’s groundswell of local activism to insist on informal recreational space in an increasingly built up part of Kensington & Chelsea. 45 years later it remains ‘Meanwhile’, but has been joined by a newer vogue for Meanwhile Uses which reflect the value of urban land and footfall and the long timescales for some developments to be realised.
The regeneration game
Registered Social Landlords may introduce community uses such as outdoor gyms or allotments or community gardens as part of their engagement with the local community over a long term regeneration programme. Many examples of this include Notting Hill Genesis at Grahame Park in Barnet and the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark. The benefit here is less anti-social behaviour on the site and a more engaged, cohesive community – appealing to surrounding residents in addition to potential tenants and home buyers.
Meanwhile Uses are often driven by organisations who populate vacant sites, low rental buildings or public spaces. As well as meeting a demand and providing some site security, they generate activity, employment, entertainment and optimism. Some examples:
Make Shift provide retail and café spaces at Pop Brixton;
Box Park have pop up container malls in Shoreditch, Croydon and Wembley providing street food, brand clothing and events;
Mercato Metropolitano provides sustainable community markets and street food in Elephant and Castle and Mayfair;
Camden Collective offers free or low cost workspaces across a succession of 18 sites under the auspices of Camden Town Unlimited;
Snoozebox provides temporary hotel accommodation in shipping containers at Stratford and Canary Wharf.
On the cultural front, Punch Drunk have launched their new season programme of immersive theatre whilst Secret Cinema focuses on immersive film experience in a succession of short term locations. There is an obvious convenience in teaming up with a tried and tested Meanwhile operator.
For communities too
Meanwhile Uses may also be driven by individuals or on behalf of community groups. Some become permanent such as Calthorpe Community Garden in Kings Cross. Some, such as Meanwhile Gardens (see above) in Westminster, continue to have an uncertain future. Others, such as Skip Garden in Kings Cross Central, Mobile Gardeners in Elephant and Castle and Grow Tottenham move from site to site within a regeneration project. Others still, such as the Nomadic Community Garden in Shoreditch, pop-up and die away, at least benefitting their local communities for the time that they exist.
Meanwhile Uses serve a wide variety of needs. They work only when a combination of funding and voluntary labour and goodwill combine to break even. They need buy-in from each of the landowner, the developer and the local community. A landowner promoting a Meanwhile Use may also want assurance that a permanent future use will not be prejudiced. Likewise, a developer will want sufficient certainty to justify the investment, but flexibility to relocate or replace it to meet a longer term programme. From another perspective, the Local Authority and local community will need to welcome the Use and will want to know that the environmental impacts are acceptable. They will also want controls in place to cease the Use where necessary, or the flexibility to extend it if it proves beneficial to the local area.
A vision is critical
For Meanwhile Uses to continue, they need to maintain an appropriate level of quality, safety, attractiveness and a vision. Where any of these fail, so too will the Meanwhile Use. The vision may be achieved by moving location to a succession of different sites or by the funding and organisation to become permanent in a single location. Use of the public realm is usually for very short term events or part of a wider planning consideration.
How Meanwhile is Meanwhile?
Thus ‘Meanwhile’ encapsulates a spectrum from deliberately short-term Uses pending some alternative development to testing a Use on a site with longer term flexibility. What all have in common is the absence of permanent bricks and mortar in favour of more temporary buildings, using PTFE, shipping containers or other modular buildings, and of seasonal planting in preference to mature tree planting.
Many of the Meanwhile activities and emerging businesses will come and go, but some will take root and become the next big thing, or transform the cohesiveness and resilience of a local community. The pandemic has encouraged a more flexible approach to business premises and short term use of the public realm. Meanwhile Uses can be an effective way to test demand, to see what works, facilitating change in a locally responsive way. Meanwhile Uses also encourage individuals to engage, giving permission to be informal, experimental, diverse and to be creative.
How can Planning assist?
Most of the processes in Planning are designed to deal with permanent buildings and Uses but perhaps greater recognition should be given to the value of Meanwhile opportunities where appropriate. A common complaint is that securing planning permission for a Meanwhile Use is too much like hard work. Perhaps this is not surprising given the need to strike the right balance between flexibility and certainty for both the landowner/developer/operator and the local community/Local Authority.
In some cases this could be formally conditioned as part of a planning consent or secured through S.106 Agreement perhaps as part of a community/cultural plan. In other instances an enlightened developer with a good relationship with the local community may introduce Meanwhile Uses as part of their normal social investment into an area in which they are developing.
Temporary consents are of course also available and can formally set out the scope and restrictions, and prevent the long term beneficial use of a site being prejudiced. Any concerns about environmental impacts can be tested in practice and analysed again should an extension of time or permanent use be sought subsequently.
The clearest cases for Meanwhile Uses are on sites already identified for future redevelopment in the Local Plan. The long term future and timescale provide that balance of flexibility and certainty that both operator and community need. Increasingly, Interim strategies are being sought or proposed for Meanwhile Uses on major regeneration sites or multi-phase developments. They can serve to engage local people in the new development, helping to knit it into its surroundings, as in the case of Kings Cross. The GLA/Arup’s Meanwhile Use Guide for London seeks to encourage these vehicles of change, suggesting registers of potential sites and Meanwhile Users to facilitate partnerships.
On a smaller scale, the flexibility between business Uses under the recently expanded Permitted Development could play a role, though values inflated by the scope for residential Use may undermine this. It will be interesting to see how this controversial legislation plays out in practice.
Space to play
All our cities, towns and villages change over time at different paces and in different directions. Let’s hope there will always be space for the informal, experimental, diverse and creative use of space for emerging activities – and for fun, too.
Image courtesy of Make Shift