How to reclaim empty spaces.

One social enterprise is helping transform unloved places, opening them up to small businesses and budding creatives.

An empty building is a waste of space. The Big Issue’s Fill ‘Em Up campaign has encouraged the refurbishment of unused or derelict buildings: a great way to boost housing supply and re-energise neighbourhoods in decline.

We’ve highlighted a lot of the good work going on to breathe new life into old buildings, and have urged government to do more to help groups willing to bring light to some of the nation’s dark corners.

One London-based social enterprise is showing just how much can be achieved with a bit of imagination and persistence.

Meanwhile Space has forged a series of ground breaking partnerships with local authorities, public bodies and companies to create a series of pop-up arrangements for young entrepreneurs.

At Loughborough Junction, for example, the organisation devised a deal with Network Rail to rent out the string of empty arches under the railway as workshops and event spaces (pictured above).

In total, the organisation’s projects have brought a staggering 130,000 square feet of empty space into use. It has also created 230 jobs in the process, giving many people their very first opportunity to grow their own business.

Emily Berwyn, director of Meanwhile Space, says many property and landowners are keen to allow others temporary use of vacant sites.

When we started there were so many empty sites sitting there, doing nothing, waiting to be opened up and given amazing opportunities,” Berwyn explains.

Owners get to make use of their building, and local authorities are interested in the economic impact of having more active places in their area,” she adds.

Thanks to a fair rent policy set by the social enterprise, the tenants who open up pop-up stores benefit from rents between 50% to 80% of market value.

From the tenants point of view, it gives them a chance to get started, take risks and grow, whether it’s in that space or somewhere else.”

Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of The Big Issue Group, has helped finance the work of Meanwhile Space, impressed by the ability of the social enterprise to get things done.

Here are just a handful of Meanwhile Space’s current projects.

Blue House Yard

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The development of an unused site next to Wood Green station in north-east London saw Jan Kattein Architects build a series of colourful workshops and studios for young creatives to make and ply their wares. Art, crafts and food markets now regularly take place in this newly-hip corner of Haringey.

It’s great example of a local authority that has a “meanwhile” strategy for temporary space to retain creative industries to deliver more jobs,” says Berwyn.

Queens Parade

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This project saw the transformation a series of vacant retail spaces in north-west London’s Willesden Green. Having negotiated a lease with the landlord in 2012, Meanwhile Space encouraged new businesses to set up in the unloved suburb, and soon helped turn it into top shopping destination.

We’ve had so many different people setting up there – soap makers, hairdressers, vintage clothing, a florist, a screen printing a group, a kids clothing brand, a juice bar,” explains the Meanwhile Space director.

Central Parade

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A former council building, Central Parade has become one of Walthamstow’s most vibrant, mixed-use cultural centres, featuring a series of shops, studios and exhibition spaces alongside a popular bakery-cafe that acts as the parade’s focal point.

There are lots of different things going on there, but they’re all looking for affordable space in the area,” Berwyn says. “It was a great way for the council to see if those kind of creative activities were viable.”

Rock House

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A semi-derelict sixties office block Hastings on the south coast has been received a new lease of life as a community space – a radical scheme that combines living and working. Containing new flats with capped rents, the building also acts as office space and hub for all sorts of local groups.

It’s been such an interesting collaboration. It’s very encouraging that a building can secure affordable housing, along with work space and other uses. The community has been at the centre of everything there.”

The above article by Adam Forrest first published on in Nov, 2017.