Empty Shops 2.0: 10 years of recycling empty shops in the UK

Empty Shops Network logo

The Empty Shops Network promotes creative reuse of empty shops in the UK. Helping to create a 'DIY movement', it shares resources - such as their toolkit - to help artists and entrepreneurs to reclaim their high streets and turn private spaces into public places.

Here, Dan Thompson, founder of the Empty Shops Network, shares his decade-long experience of the rise of the pop-up phenomenon in the UK and his thinking on the future of this activity.

The Problem

In the UK, about 15% of town centre shops are vacant at the end of 2011. As the UK enters the second stage of a double-dip recession, it's become clear that this isn't just a recession issue though; it's the result of changes over a long period of time and indicates there's a cultural shift, which means nothing will be the same again.

The UK's town centres are typically Victorian (many are even earlier; Colchester, for example, is essentially the same street plan the Romans laid out), with 100 years of unplanned, piecemeal development. This 'High Street' is something people feel defines their local area, providing local distinctiveness, which has been threatened by corporate homogenisation. There are small streets, with lots of little shops, and further shops in areas leading off the high street.

Most of the UK's towns are essentially the conglomeration of smaller villages, so many have separate 'district shopping centres' - the old high streets of the villages swallowed-up by urban spread.

Since the UK's first pedestrian precincts were built after the Second World War in Coventry, they've spread across the country and many of the UK's town centres are now largely pedestrianised. These aren't as well planned as Coventry, which was built pretty much from scratch after being levelled by a combination of the Luftwaffe and city planners. They're usually just old streets closed to cars.

Because of the history of town centres and local residents' resistance to change, new buildings have sprung up on the edge of town - big box developments, suitable for larger national retailers and with access for delivery trucks and onsite parking for customers. An estimated 88 million square feet of extra retail space has been built across the country in the last 15 years. 

Westfield Stratford City is the largest shopping centre in Europe, with 300 stores employing around 10,000 people. It has had a huge impact on the nearby Vicarage Field, a smaller, older shopping centre. "The opening of Westfield has halved our customers," says one shop manager. "Westfield has more variety, better facilities, bigger range of foods and good parking, so inevitably people want to go there."

This is the face of modern retail; big, flexible, easy access.

The other thing that has these characteristics, of course, is the internet. Internet retailers with their 'long tail' can provide more choice, and the UK's reliable Royal Mail makes home delivery an affordable option. The UK is the biggest of Europe's online shopping economies, according to e-retail experts imrg.org, with 37 million people making sure that nearly 10% of all shopping is done online.

So the combination of the three things - old high streets, new retail models and internet shopping - have left Britain's town centres struggling.

The Solution

British creatives have been borrowing, sharing and adapting empty spaces, often on a short-term basis, for a long time; when the Church of England broke away from the Pope in the 16th century, some of the redundant buildings apparently became theatres or homes for the radical new technology, the printing press. More recently, the 1960s saw a wave of theatre and art in unlikely places, the punks of the 1970s colonised any space they could find, and artists have been converting empty buildings into studios and galleries since the 1980s.

Since 2000, Revolutionary Arts have been using empty shops and borrowing other spaces such as local churches to exhibit work by artists, typically recent graduates, early career artists or outsider artists. In 2009, Revolutionary Arts decided to share their knowledge and experience by creating a national Empty Shops Network. The basis of the network is a belief in 'Open Source' - the source code for projects is shared freely through online resources, meaning that many can access the skills they need, and this approach has contributed to making the use of empty shops a widespread and sustainable practice.

It's an approach that has also allowed a flexibility labelled 'Agile' after the Agile Software movement. Taking an agile approach allows people to test ideas rather than just plan, respond to change and opportunity and build partnerships as needed.

The Open Source and Agile approaches have also led to small, informal clusters of activity in geographical areas, where projects can both inspire and learn from each other.

This reflects the way that, since the UK government adopted the idea, use of empty shops has become commonplace across the UK; both for artists as trailblazers, but also more commercially as businesses have created pop-up shops. These range from small, local enterprises to major international fashion brands creating headline-grabbing concept stores.

In 2010, Converse created a whole suite of pop-up offices and workspaces in the popular Seven Dials area of London, just to promote their next season to buyers and industry insiders. In December 2011, ebay launched a five-day pop-up store on London's Dean Street, showcasing products that visitors could buy via their mobile phones and a QR code. The project was devised by marketing company Shine.

Empty Shops 2.0

Since the government backed the idea, there has been more funding available to projects wanting to reuse empty shops. This included a range of grants given by central government to local councils, and a dedicated fund held by Arts Council England.

This funding and the recognition for the sector's work  has allowed far more in-depth projects and has provided a framework for development. As creatives have worked with local communities, they have devised, made and delivered projects with real engagement, and pushed the boundaries of art, interrogating town centres and introducing more innovation in empty shops.

This new wave of projects - a leap on from hanging work on bare walls that compares to the leap on from web publishing to social networking - has been dubbed Empty Shops 2.0.

Finding spaces that are available

Typically, the empty spaces that are available for arts and community use aren't located in prime retail spots. They are down side streets or in secondary retail areas with less footfall and little commercial viability. They're forgotten corners of towns. The units are often small, shabby and outdated so have little use for modern retailers. Many are left with the debris of previous tenants, with windows painted white or covered in old newspaper.

Finding the right location for a project will involve walking town centres and mapping spaces, and then trying to find who owns individual properties. Helping to build the strength of the empty shops sector are websites such as Spare Place which helps to map spaces available, and organisations such as 3 Space which helps to broker deals between landlords and community organisations.

This is valuable work. The UK's town centres are typically owned by a mix of small, often local landlords, larger developers and trusts who may be holding property portfolios across the country for their asset value alone, and local authorities. In one area of the Empty Shops Network's home town Worthing, around 100 landlords were identified by the local council.

Local authorities in the UK

There can be up to three levels of local government in the UK: town or village councils, borough or district councils made up of various towns or villages, and county councils made up of many boroughs or districts. All hold different property portfolios for different reasons, have different strategies, plans and agendas, and have different funding available. A key skill for people approaching empty shops projects is to be aware of these different agendas and offer projects that dovetail with the differing needs and expectations of the different local authority officers.

Letting agents are often the most direct route to accessing and using a property. However, the letting agent wants to find a long-term commercial client and suggesting a temporary, rent-free tenancy to the owner is against their own interests. To engage with letting agents, projects must offer some clear benefit; for example cleaning and maintaining run-down shop units.

So potential users have three challenges: first to find a space, then to negotiate an agreement to occupy the premises, and finally to bring the space back to a useable condition. These can, as we have seen, be overcome with creative thinking and commitment. But this is, of course, above and beyond devising a project in the first place - and finding the funding for it.


Temporary tenants inspire new use

One key benefit that can be promoted to landlords is that temporary projects open the units to visitors, maintain them and introduce the space to visitors who may become long-term tenants.

One regular visitor to The UpMarket, a mixed-use community project in Worthing, was Adam Stafford. The UpMarket brought together around 50 mainly small, local charities, and gave them space to both sell second-hand and vintage goods and showcase the services they provide. Artists were also given space to exhibit at regular markets, and students from the local college created site-specific work in the shop's store rooms and warehouse. The UpMarket was open for six weeks before Christmas and welcomed 12,000 visitors.

Stafford, who visited a number of times, is the managing director of a web design and search engine optimisation company called Fresh Egg. Struggling to find office space, he was inspired by the space he saw and negotiated a lease before spending £500,000 refurbishing the space. As well as offices, it includes a boardroom with Damien Hirst artwork, a canteen, a games area and a gym.

Without the temporary use, he would never have considered the building, which now houses 80+ staff who work with clients in Europe, America and Australia. As well as bringing this one building back into use, the staff are regulars at nearby cafes, coffee shops and bakers, so the project has increased trade for these small businesses too.

So while there is a clear benefit to the reuse of empty shops, the current wave of Empty Shops 2.0 projects has a further benefit as a trailblazer for new ways of using town centres.

Empty Shops 2.0 projects are defined by three things: they are interactive and engage with the community, they use technology to mix online and offline experience, and they involve reinvention of the physical space.

Mash up

Key to this is the way that Empty Shops 2.0 creates a mash-up of existing things to make something new.

Empty Shops 2.0 projects are typically built by small, agile partnerships and creating a mash-up is a logical outcome of partnership working.

The Our Place, Your Place project in Taunton brought together partners working in regeneration, the arts and heritage.

The partners created a temporary museum, with professional displays created by the local museum's curators and design staff. This venue hosted a range of events, initially exploring archives and heritage before moving to present-day life in the town and finishing with an exploration of the area's future regeneration.

Events included talks, presentations and drop in sessions with museum experts. The whole project also tied in with the BBC's 'History of the World' campaign, which saw a visit from Time Team presenter Mick Aston.

A particularly successful project was one to capture local memory, with people's personal photos scanned and copied on site and 'I remember...' slips completed by visitors.

Pioneered in temporary projects, this mash-up approach is becoming mainstream. Crafty in Belfast is a tea room, antique shop and art gallery combined and occupies an empty department store; London's Rough Trade is a record shop, book store and cafe which hosts live music; the SoCo Music Hub in Southampton is a recording studio, rehearsal room and education space in a near-derelict shopping centre. Curatorial team Collate Presents have described this as "hybrid architecture".

Whatever the term, it is an excellent tool for community engagement that has long been the mantra of the arts in the UK.

As many projects happen in secondary retail areas and therefore have low footfall, this engagement is even more vital. Empty Shops 2.0 projects have to bring visitors to an area as well as engage with any passing footfall.

Meeting the locals: Workshop 24 in South Kilburn

South Kilburn, an hour's walk north of central London, is an estate with complex social problems, which can be summarised as having large, diverse immigrant communities, and many transient residents. In addition, the estate is mainly made up of tower blocks, built from the late 1940s until the mid 1980s and the whole area is being regenerated, with some blocks pulled down, some refurbished and many new developments filling the spaces in between. South Kilburn is in a constant state of flux, and constant change creates uncertainty and prevents people building community ties.

In the middle of the estate is a 1960s shopping area, Peel Precinct; the only shops left are a newsagent and a sandwich bar with offices, light commercial and community projects occupying the other units. The precinct has low footfall, and the police have removed all seating to stop people loitering in the area.

Workshop 24 was a project run by the Empty Shops Network with the last funding from a regeneration charity.  South Kilburn Neighbourhood Trust was one of the last Labour government's flagship New Deal For Communities areas, managing over £50m of funding over a 10-year period,  and it closed down on the day that Workshop 24 shut.

Over four months, Workshop 24 hosted 20 small projects, running 84 sessions, for 750 visitors, and made 1,000 cups of tea. The British obsession with cups of tea was actually the key to the project's success; people were initially suspicious of a new art project, run by people from outside the estate, but offering visitors a cup of tea was a quick, easy way to start conversations and break down barriers.

The projects themselves varied in size and scale, and often overlapped, creating a buzz of activity around the shop. There was a community patchwork made, encouraging older visitors to stop, sew and talk; there were guerilla gardening projects, involving students from a local college who used the precinct in their lunch breaks; there were community writing projects which took poets from the shop into local schools and community centres; and artists were commissioned to paint the shops shutters, provide illustrations inspired by the precinct and make short films about local life.

Everything was collated on Twitter feeds using the hashtag #workshop24, enabling people outside the shop to track, share and contribute to the multiple projects taking place. In addition, the project used a multi-authored Tumblr website, creating an online presence which was not just a promotional tool but also a document of four months' life in South Kilburn. This online presence also helped to bring visitors from outside the immediate area to the shop.

Workshop 24's community engagement has left a legacy of creative people thinking about developing future careers, and shown paths into work. This fed artists into a new project, South Kilburn Studios - ironically converting and then occupying the offices left vacant when the New Deal For Communities staff were made redundant. And Workshop 24 left ideas for future projects including one that may see abandoned allotments brought back to life. Finally, Workshop 24 has demonstrated a possible future for Peel Precinct, which could make it again the heart of South Kilburn's community.

Bringing in visitors: temporary use in Coventry

Coventry is a small city in the UK's Midlands, whose medieval streets and buildings were badly damaged by Luftwaffe bombing, leading to a post-war rebuild that saw a range of planning and architectural innovation. The city centre is a small area (about 20 minutes walk from end to end) neatly contained by a ring road. The centre is made up of a network of pedestrian precincts, civic spaces, small arcades and a covered market. An unusual legacy of the post-war development is that Coventry City Council owns about a third of the city centre shops.

The city has a rich and vibrant arts economy, and innovative companies such as Talking Birds have explored the city with site-specific works that blend performance, visual arts and digital elements. A number of arts organisations have also used unusual spaces, particularly empty shops, for temporary projects; the leader in this field is Coventry Artspace, a studio based in a former youth club which provides arts development services for the city council.

Theatre Absolute is a small company with a national reputation, particularly for new writing and the production of new plays. Inspired by store front theatre in the USA, the founders approached Coventry City Council and negotiated an 18-month lease on a former fish and chip restaurant in the covered City Arcade. This arcade had been identified in the council's Void Space Strategy as a key location, and had already housed a number of arts exhibitions and residencies alongside community use by groups like the Scouts.

Theatre Absolute's shop front theatre was the first in the UK, and brought visitors from across the country to the city. The venue was used as a space to write new work, rehearse and test those ideas, and stage premier performances.

It was so successful that Theatre Absolute have negotiated a three year lease; like The UpMarket in Worthing, temporary use has inspired a long-term use of the space.

Conclusion: The end game

The movement taking place in empty shops across the UK shows a way forward which benefits local communities and business alike - but it does involve a shift in thinking about town centres.

Since the 1950s, the British town centre has been primarily a space for commerce, dominated by the needs and aspirations of the retail sector.

Before this, town centres were spaces for civic pride, community events and communal activity - markets and marches, parades and displays of civic pride. Business and community were not separate entities, but worked together; and the local business community were philanthropists, funding civic projects such as parks, hospitals and concert halls.

The British Government is currently trying to encourage such philanthropy again and, with the 'Big Society' agenda, simultaneously trying to encourage local communities to take ownership of the management and delivery of community services.

The Empty Shops Network shows a way forward for philanthropy, the Big Society and community ownership; not excluding retail, but making it part of a mixed use of town centre spaces, and making business once again part of the community.

In short, it's time for people to own the High Street again.