Meanwhile, in London: Making use of London’s empty spaces


Making use of stuck or forgotten spaces is part of London’s history. In some cases, this is in order to address a need – 30,000 people lived in squatted accommodation at the peak of the squatter movement in the 1970s. 2 In others, the aim is to trial new attractions and uses – the Young Vic, Gabriel’s Wharf, and the London Eye were all planned as temporary structures; they now define the Southbank, and the Eye has become the most popular paid tourist attraction in the UK.

London looks different today. The city no longer has a problem with long-term dereliction. Residential land values have increased sharply, 3 adding pressure on other uses, 4 and to many it feels as if every piece of land in the capital has a price tag on it.

The city was never cheap, but it always had its fringe – Southwark, Soho, Shoreditch – a seedbed for innovation that made London successful, resilient and fun. Where is London’s fringe today? Private rents have been running ahead of earnings, 5 and the cheaper locations for office space have seen the fastest increases in rent. 6 For many, this means the first rung on the ladder of homeownership, entrepreneurship or activism has been removed 7 Not only does London lack space to take risks and set up shop on the cheap, it also means that non-market uses such as social housing, community and artistic spaces cannot afford space in the city without hefty subsidies.

Against this backdrop, London has seen a flurry of meanwhile projects in the last decade. Meanwhile use is a loose designation for activities that occupy empty space, while waiting for another activity on site. Meanwhile uses can be as diverse as permanent uses: London has pop-up shops, bars, allotments, art galleries, football pitches; as well as housing or workspace on a meanwhile basis. Meanwhile uses are usually defined by their short time frame, which makes them relatively affordable. Most landowners charge low or no rents for meanwhile spaces, because these spaces are second hand and time sensitive: they may need investment to be fitted out, but there is only a short time period to recoup that investment.

Thus, meanwhile use has become the only way to do a project relatively cheaply in much of London: there can be artists’ studios in Mayfair, free concerts on Brick Lane, a new museum in Vauxhall, accommodation for the homeless in Ealing. Some see meanwhile use as a conscious choice, to shake perceptions of an area, raise interest, or to address a need.

The more cynical see meanwhile activity as a last resort: London’s land values have become so high that project promoters can only realise their projects in meanwhile spaces, where they cannot take root. And because meanwhile uses introduce new uses and a new population to an area, they can be controversial. The more optimistic use meanwhile space as a way to offer opportunity to those unable to afford the city otherwise, to try out new activities, and to make things happen in parts of the city needing greater economic vitality.

But meanwhile use reveals other shortcomings in the way we make London, particularly in the types of new spaces that are built, and the process by which these are decided and designed. The rise of meanwhile activity shows that there is a need for more flexible space – for instance smaller retail units, one step up from a market stall, that can be subdivided or joined up. Or the need for spaces that straddle use classes, which can be in turn workspace, garden and nightclub within a day. The city’s new “soft” infrastructure – the public realm, or the new community and creative spaces – is often agreed in masterplans and negotiations between local authorities and developers, yet these spaces require more than the specification of a number of square metres or planted trees to be successful.

The growth of meanwhile use also reveals some trends to which the real estate industry and the planning system have been slow to respond – such as growing interest in makeshift and recycled spaces and other changes in consumer behaviour – while digital makes
it easier to broker or manage spaces as a collective. These changes are adding pressure in particular on outer London town centres, many of which lack some of the amenities that foster resilient clusters.

Yet we know little about how the benefits and potential costs of meanwhile use play out in practice, and whether meanwhile use could be scaled up to become a pillar of citymaking in London. This report explores what contribution meanwhile use can make to addressing the city’s pressing inclusive growth challenge. Can meanwhile use become London’s new fringe, and breathe life into more parts of the city?

Chapter one investigates the value of meanwhile use to London. Chapter two shows that the potential for meanwhile use in London is still vastly untapped, and chapter three explains factors holding the sector back. Chapter four suggests ways the public sector and the development industry could scale up meanwhile use.

To do this, the report uses a mix of research methods. Through desk research and site visits, we estimate the size of the meanwhile sector in London. To assess their value to the city, we reviewed meanwhile projects’ impact studies, and conducted a survey of 60 local businesses neighbouring three high-impact, high-visibility meanwhile uses. In order to map potential, we analysed the first pan-London dataset of empty commercial units. We interviewed 35 meanwhile providers, housebuilders and local authorities to understand why they chose to open up their land (or not), and the hurdles they face in doing so. The report also offers good practice case studies from other cities. The findings and the recommendations were then tested at a public event hosted by U+I which brought together policymakers and practitioners.

What do we mean by meanwhile use?

Not all temporary uses are meanwhile: meanwhile uses take advantage of a window of opportunity on a site, before and after another use. And not all meanwhile
uses are short term. Some meanwhile uses are offered long leases, for instance in regeneration projects spanning decades.

meanwhile use, temporary use, development models,

  • 2 Wikipedia. Retrieved from:
  • 3 Savills land values in central London index
  • 4 Ibid.
  • 5 Office for National Statistics. Index of Private Housing Rental Prices.
  • 6 Colliers International
  • 7 Leadbeater, C., Wilson, B., Hollow Promise (2014). London: Centre for London.