Penny Humphrey: Unlocking the value of unused spaces


Last week, we had the pleasure of hosting London think tank, Centre for London at our offices in Howick Place for an inspiring discussion around the value of meanwhile use.

This is the subject of a report due to be published later this year by Centre for London, which looks at the meanwhile economy in London and how and why it could grow.

Nicolas Bosetti and Tom Colthorpe from Centre for London kicked off the event with some of the findings from the #LDNmeanwhile project so far. They told us that as long as London is short of space – for experimentation, start-ups and community initiatives – meanwhile use won’t be a passing trend. In fact, it will play an increasing role in London’s economy.

I found this extremely heartening.

At U+I, meanwhile use – or what we like at U+I call worthwhile use – has always been part of our DNA.

We know a place’s people, its history and its culture shape and define it. If we ignore them, we risk creating places that are not authentic and do not work for the local community.

That’s why, where we can, we open up our sites to the local community from the minute we have access to them. Not simply by sticking a coffee shop on the site – although the power of good coffee is not to be underestimated – but by creating spaces and uses that will help explore the place and provide clues as to what could work in the long term in a specific place, what could release potential and bring positive change to a place and deliver long-term socio-economic benefits for the area.

This has never been more important. Closed sites that are boarded up by hoardings can create friction in already eroded communities, at a time when basic amenities like libraries, swimming pools and community centres are under pressure. This is why, from day one at a site, long before we receive planning consent, we develop unique worthwhile uses that bring people together, and meet the community’s needs.

For example, we have been engaging with the local community and council to collaboratively shape the regeneration of 8 Albert Embankment, the site of the old London Fire Brigade Headquarters.

Our research showed us that this part of Lambeth had one of the highest number of children on free school meals. So, in November 2016, we launched a brand new events space as part of our worthwhile use – The Workshop. The space is home to charities, social and start-up enterprises and artists, including a charity which focuses on providing educational support to children through a homework club.

And we’re also working drawing the community in by using the site as an exhibition space, featuring both a Migration Museum and the pop-up London Fire Brigade museum, which nods both to the site’s history and to its future as the site of London’s new, permanent, Fire Brigade Museum.

But the benefits of worthwhile use aren’t just for the now. Engaging in worthwhile use also helps us deliver value for local communities in the longer term, because we’re able to draw on the local community’s feedback to inform the final masterplan of our projects.

For example, at our site in Preston Barracks, our final plans for the site include a new 50,000 square foot incubator and co-working space for start-ups and SME businesses. So in 2015, we built a temporary, flexible work space for up to twelve start-ups as part of our worthwhile use at the site. We called the site FIELD.

The learnings from that tight-knit community of entrepreneurs have helped shape the final plans for the incubator space. For example, the start-ups at FIELD told us they loved working closely with and learning from each other, so we’ve revisited the floorplan for the site to help foster that kind of collaboration.

Ultimately, engaging in Worthwhile use means delivering schemes that are right for the community. And as Centre for London stressed it also means strengthening a place and growing the local economy. We see this in practice every day. The entrepreneurs at FIELD, for example, have gone on to create their own limited company, “Leftfield”, which aims to carry on where FIELD left off as their businesses continue to thrive.

That’s why for us, it’s not just meanwhile use, it’s worthwhile use.

We echo the view of Centre for London that these uses could play a much greater role in London’s economy. A chance to experiment and try things out, to create a runway to the future. We look forward to hearing more on their findings about the opportunity it presents this Autumn, and to seeing London’s meanwhile use economy grow for years to come.

Many thanks again to the team there and the many speakers and panellists for an informative and inspiring discussion.