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Changing the face of empty space



We need to think of empty spaces as blank canvases, rather than shadows of what they once were, argues Fiona King of Healthy Planet.

Empty retail spaces in the UK have hit an all-time high of 14.6%. We hear about retail giants shutting down or going out of business with increasing frequency.

Companies that were once household names like HMV, Woolworths and Blockbuster have closed down, leaving behind empty shells and a correspondingly sorry-looking high street.

It seems inevitable that we might mourn the loss of the wonderful diversity of our high streets. But, what if we began to view this phenomenon in a different light? Perhaps instead of fretting about what is lost, we should see the potential presented by these empty spaces.

Although it is never pleasing to see businesses go under, perhaps this is the beginning of a different kind of diversity on the high streets- and we can apply this logic to all empty spaces, not just retail. Factories, warehouses and offices are all up for reinvention but, in order for that to happen, people (including owners, councils, and communities) need to see beyond the obvious and begin thinking in fresh new ways.

The reality is that empty spaces, whether residential or commercial, can have extensively detrimental impacts on the surrounding community – an effect which is particularly compounded when multiple abandoned properties crop up in close proximity to one another. Empty units can be unsightly, harbour pests, devalue local property and attract anti-social behaviour, as well as signify a loss of amenity and a floundering local economy. Nobody likes to see boarded-up windows and the proverbial tumbleweed blowing across a once bustling town centre.

One possibility for these empty spaces is for regular charity shops to move in, retailing and selling on second hand wares and goods. However, why not go one further and kill three birds with one stone, making worthwhile use of an empty space, benefiting a charity, and giving a big boost to the community in one step?

In lieu of permanent occupiers, ‘pop-up shops’ are becoming increasingly popular in empty retail units. These shops are transient, able to move in and out of properties at short notice. A prime example of this phenomenon is demonstrated by the charity Healthy Planet.

Its angle is refreshingly simple: to collaborate with landlords nationwide to reach a solution which benefits everyone. Working with a legitimate charity, landlords are able to receive rates relief when they move into empty spaces. But there’s more to it than that. The situation can be win-win from all perspectives.

Healthy Planet is best known for setting up Books For Free centres in empty retail shops or retail warehouses. The idea is that good quality books are rescued from going to landfill or pulping and then given away completely free to the local community. These centres are often established in collaboration with another charity partner, as happened with Furnish in London’s W12 shopping centre.

Over 30 of these centres have been established across the UK in city and town centres to date, and over 3m books have been re-homed in the process. This initiative is particularly valued in areas where disposable income is low, giving individuals and communities the access to literature they might not have otherwise. The centres often bloom into community hubs, becoming essential places for people to meet and socialise with no obligation to part with hard-earned cash. And thus, a previously ‘useless’ empty space becomes something invaluable.

We need to revolutionise the way we think about empty spaces. Think of them as blank canvases, rather than shadows of what they once were. A space represents an investment, one of materials, of time, of resources. Utilising our existing resources is the key to becoming a more efficient and more sustainable society.

It seems counter-intuitive to even consider greenfield developments whilst the power of existing spaces lies dormant, waiting to be tapped into. Of course, the UK’s empty spaces are in variable states of disrepair (some requiring more devotion and imagination than others) but ultimately, armed with the right attitude, the vast majority of spaces are ripe for reinvention and present the opportunity to benefit our wider society.

Retail spaces give businesses a tangible presence in the community, rather than an ethereal existence on the internet, and that is not to be undervalued – and other spaces are just as valuable. An empty office block in a high-rise building could house a budding social enterprise that just needs that bit of space to get their team together and get their business off the ground. An empty warehouse could house a collection of artists, or stage a play that engages the community and benefits actors who need the exposure. Out of small things, big things begin to grow.

Recycling and reuse does not stop at plastic bottles and egg cartons. We also need to view our empty spaces as a recyclable commodity and give them another lease of life.

If you are a landlord or a social enterprise interested in working with Healthy Planet via their Healthy Spaces initiative, find out more here.

Fiona King is an environmental management graduate currently working for Healthy Planet as a marketing and social media executive.

Further reading:

A sustainable high street

Ethical consumerism’s long journey to the mainstream

Greening the High Street