The types of value generated by meanwhile uses are as varied as the types of meanwhile projects themselves. But do meanwhile projects have value by virtue of being meanwhile? We argue that they do. In successful cities like London, there are three sources of meanwhile value: efficiency – the benefits of avoiding vacancy; affordability – the benefits of adding affordable space; and flexibility – the benefits of doing projects on an interim basis.
Part of the meanwhile appeal stems from its efficiency value: a big motivation for organisations doing meanwhile use is that putting space to use is a better option than leaving it vacant, particularly in a city where land is in short supply.
The opportunity value of most London meanwhile activities is positive, because leaving land empty is costly, not only in terms of security and property taxes, 8 but also because it increases the risk of crime 9 and lowers land values nearby. 10 Indeed, US scholars speak of vacancy as an “epidemic”, because empty units have an effect on neighbouring properties: they suggest that a place is not looked after, and signal a spiral of decline.
While meanwhile use provides interim solutions to avoid vacancies and use urban space efficiently, meanwhile activity isn’t necessarily short-termist. Meanwhile use also creates value by driving up the supply of affordable space. Affordable space gives licence to experiment in an expensive city, providing businesses with an opportunity to prove a concept, or fail at low risk. Meanwhile use also creates space for non-market uses, such as public realm, the arts, education, training and temporary housing, which cannot afford the city’s land values without subsidy. Many of London’s more unexpected and playful uses of space have been enabled on meanwhile space because it was provided at low or no rent, from pop-up lidos to warehouse parties.
There are also specific benefits to opening up spaces temporarily rather than permanently, and these effects often radiate beyond the benefits of affordable space. Temporary projects allow for flexibility: they offer a platform to raise interest, showcase work or an idea – much like art exhibitions – and meanwhile projects can do this for their promoters, but also for the city, by allowing flexibility for places to evolve, and opening up the development process.
Time-limited interventions can create stimuli that change perceptions of an area and strengthen local economies. Nearly all housbuilders and local authorities that set up meanwhile projects use public-facing meanwhile activities to bring new people to a place and rejuvenate a high street. The Head of Design for a London planning authority described this well:
“We wanted local people to feel it was their park. We wanted community groups to be able to take the space so that it felt like a real place, and so that developers can see a site with a bit of life and identity.”
Head of Design, London planning authority
We surveyed shopkeepers and owners near three high-profile meanwhile uses to investigate whether these benefits were felt in the city’s streets. Local businesses saw the value of meanwhile projects in generating activity in the area – although only a few with a broad clientele (convenience stores) felt a direct benefit in terms of revenue. Interviewees also valued the social infrastructure or the character that these meanwhile spaces added, even if they did not visit them personally.
The temporary nature of meanwhile use also allows for experimentation, which can challenge current practice and improve development, for instance around use mix, density or funding. 11 Meanwhile use has enabled new mixed-use spaces to emerge, for instance projects joining up food stalls, bars, retail and events.
These meanwhile schemes can extend activity on the high street at lunchtime or into the evening, and create a critical mass of traders that draw people in. 12, 13 These projects also prove that more flexible approaches to funding leisure spaces can work:
“Meanwhile use will show the investment world that you can get greater combined cash flow from mixed use than what they are doing at the moment.”
Director of Financial Strategy, London university
Meanwhile use also challenges conventional citymaking, because it does not operate within the usual life span of new buildings, and is less deterministic over who their users will be. Meanwhile activity allows developers to leave some flexibility for places to evolve, without pre-empting how lifestyles and demand will change – as mentioned by the Head of Planning at a major housebuilder: “We don’t want to set in stone the type of retail and services and their location.”
But “meanwhile citymaking” goes beyond challenging the type of development, and can influence its process too. We found that housebuilders doing meanwhile use are interacting with local charities and resident groups to produce social impact, for instance animating public space, funding art exhibitions or mentoring small businesses. This can potentially shape the design of new development, as planning authorities may require provision of community spaces or public realm, but few housebuilders have experience of managing this themselves. Having occupants on site provides a prototype for the future space and can potentially influence its design, as mentioned by a meanwhile user:
“Developers and architects are not on site – by having us in [temporarily], they can visualise how people use the space. Otherwise you build a place without anidea of who will be living there.”
Founder, meanwhile use operator
Pop-ups also provoke interest, provide opportunities to get involved, and broaden the conversation around development. This was the experience of a London developer heavily involved in meanwhile use:
“Meanwhile use does not reduce local opposition, but it fosters better conversations, people get more involved. It’s a platform for communicating with people who may not interact with you.”
Head of Marketing, medium-size private developer
Meanwhile use brings another form of resilience, by softening the process of change. Short- and medium-term projects can help mitigate the negative impacts of regeneration projects on businesses, which often lose clientele as places change – though the evidence to date
is only anecdotal:
“Having people living alongside large regeneration projects helps mitigate their effect for local businesses. Otherwise not only have you lost the community, but also the services that people need when they come back.”
Director, property guardianship company
Costs and risks
There are also challenges and potential costs to operating projects on a meanwhile basis.
Even a meanwhile use ties up assets and resources (such as investment of time and energy in preparing a site). This could in theory make it harder to capture other opportunities, and could divert resources from other priorities. But we were not given examples of this being
a problem in our research.
Meanwhile activity does need some time to break even, given interview and anecdotal evidence suggest that moving temporary structures can be costly, even if they were designed to be moveable. 14
If the provision of affordable space is expected to deliver social outcomes, how should the beneficiaries of meanwhile projects be selected and is there a risk of unfair competition with those not benefitting? This is of particular concern where there is public subsidy (such as free land) or corporate patronage for the public good.
Businesses in our survey were not concerned by competition, despite being located near larger, more visible meanwhile projects. The few negative voices were so because they perceived the projects as exclusionary of local businesses and unaffordable to operate from.
Not all uses are suited to transience. Whilst meanwhile use can create longer-term value out of temporary projects, flexibility works best for projects that do not need to remain on one site to generate longer-term benefits. But evidence from our interviews and impact studies shows that some uses like retail or community projects need to forge a local link to generate social and economic benefits; that is, they need to be rooted in a place or in residents’ habits to make the most of the meanwhile opportunity. 12, 16, 17
“As a public sector body we have become more interested in the longer-term end of meanwhile use, seven to 10 years – so you can have proper office space, community gardens, libraries. Those uses seem credible at that time length.”
Head of Design, London planning authority
But several interviewees argued that the value of those meanwhile projects which are designed to be flexible can also be fragile, if there isn’t a space to turn a successful prototype into a longer-term project:
“In terms of long-term use, we’ve learnt of great projects that lasted – but the skate park was given a month’s notice, it seemed really abrupt. At the moment the meanwhile use shuts down you need to be really careful. Users and networks built up over years can be gone.”
Head of Design, London planning authority
“Do our sites have a legacy? Not really in the places they used to operate in. But as a whole, the project does have impact, for instance with the permanent spaces we get offered through our meanwhile use work. And our main legacy is the business and the alumni network.”
A provider of meanwhile workspace
Impact studies and our interviews show that achieving both social and economic value from meanwhile use takes time, follow-up, and dedicated personnel. Affordable space may be an enabler of social and economic value, but support staff and a move-on strategy are needed to maximise that opportunity. Case studies 1 and 2 offer examples of meanwhile uses with long-term plans.
Measuring benefits and costs
Figure 3 summarises the evidence. Assessing claims of value is a difficult exercise, partly because we lack robust impact measurement to date, and partly because many meanwhile projects are acupunctural, and much of their value, intangible. To measure their effect on economic or social outcomes would require extensive interviewing and the development of a counterfactual (“do nothing”) scenario, which are costly for meanwhile operators to produce. However, we used three sources of evidence to fill this evidence gap as much as possible:
- A review of available impact studies: Boxpark Croydon, 18 Granby Space, 19 Platform Project at Loughborough Junction, 17Pop Brixton, 12 George Street Studios. 22
- A survey of 60 shop owners and shopkeepers working near three of London’s larger meanwhile projects – those more likely to have noticeable impact on neighbouring businesses.
- Our 35 research interviews, to understand how meanwhile use stakeholders perceive the value of their meanwhile projects.
Though they are small, meanwhile activities can allow London to be resilient in a period of dramatic change – by creating space for experimentation, leaving flexibility for places to evolve, and opening up – even slightly – the development process. The next chapter looks at the potential for scaling up meanwhile use.
Case study 1: Croydon Arts Store, Croydon
The London Borough of Croydon is championing meanwhile use to generate activity in the town centre, and experiment with potential civic and cultural spaces as a prototype for community space in a new development. The council has turned a four-storey empty shop in a shopping centre earmarked for demolition, into one of the largest arts spaces in the borough. Croydon provided the funding and the initiative, but the project is operated in partnership with the Kingston School of Art, TURF and ArtHalo; two established collectives of Croydon artists, who run the exhibition space, arts skills courses, and creative expression workshops. In its first year, Croydon Arts Store has offered exhibition space for Kingston art students, creative photography workshops, and art residencies. 23
The partners want Croydon Arts Store to explore the role of art and culture in a shopping centre, engage Croydon residents in art making, and create a working prototype for the community space that Westfield will provide in the new development. The Store will also offer a few workplaces to take council planners outside of the town hall. 24
Case study 2: FIELD, Preston Barracks, Brighton
London-based developer U+I has played an active role in curating meanwhile uses on their land before construction starts, as well as supporting occupiers in finding a move-on location at the end of their tenure. Alongside the local enterprise partnership, U+I funded the renovation of a disused army barracks on their site into a co-working space for local startups. U+I selected eight entrepreneurs through a competitive application process and provided them with space to experiment and grow in exchange for their start-up spirit, a minimal service charge and a commitment to assist in community events and projects. 25 When the meanwhile use came to an end in Spring 2018, six of the occupants created a joint limited company to relocate their offices nearby – a move that U+I helped to fund, in order to preserve the small business community that had formed under their guidance. 26