Meanwhile uses are far more than a nice-to-have during estate regeneration projects. An influx of people, projects and energy to fill space which would otherwise be empty can smooth the process and improve outcomes in the short- and long-term.
If supporting communities is important for housing providers in normal times, it should be even more so during regeneration projects. Work to upgrade buildings and to create new homes is always disruptive, no matter how worthwhile the scheme and how carefully it is delivered. But while the physical disruption is visible, the disruption to local social ties can be just as significant but less obvious.
Well-managed meanwhile schemes can make regeneration processes less painful for residents and maintain their commitment to the overall project. Even if they have to put up with building work and house moves, meanwhile schemes that make good use of buildings that would otherwise be boarded up can help them continue to feel at home, know their neighbours and feel proud of their community. And choosing the right meanwhile uses can improve eventual regeneration outcomes, ensuring that new homes are provided in an area which has a sense of identity, and with an existing sense of community, rather than having to build up these things from scratch: making the new homes more attractive for new and old residents alike.
So how can housing providers use meanwhile projects to maintain community through change? Where spaces have come to the end of their previous use, they can sometimes be used temporarily for new ones, such as pop-up shops, temporary gardens and homes for property guardians. All of these uses can support communities in ways that matter.
- Safety and security
Above all, meanwhile use contributes to security. When an area hosts a meanwhile project rather than sitting empty, it continues to look and feel lived in and appreciated by residents and visitors. This makes it far less likely to be targeted for antisocial behaviour and crime, and any problems that do occur can be quickly identified and dealt with.
Residential meanwhile projects are particularly effective for this – well-managed property guardians. They understand that their role is to be great neighbours and to report any undesirable behaviour, so they help to deter crime and anti-social behaviour simply by coming and going.
When a building is kept full of life right up until the date when it is due to be demolished or refurbished, it never gains a reputation as a place where non-residents can get away with bad behaviour. The housing provider cuts down on security costs while maintaining flexibility, since property guardians can be asked to move on at much shorter notice than tenants.
- Access to services
If homes are decanted or businesses moved out of commercial units in advance of regeneration, empty buildings can be a barrier to accessing services. Even if services are geographically close, residents will be less likely to access them if they have to walk through a threatening area dominated by boarded-up houses and shops. Placing property guardians or facilitating pop-up uses of commercial spaces can prevent this, making areas feel fresh and welcoming to all.
- Social capital
Placing property guardians or facilitating meanwhile projects brings more people to an area and gives remaining residents a reason to come out of their homes and get involved. And on top of this, meanwhile uses often attract incomers who are motivated to get involved and who want to get to know their neighbours even if they’re only there temporarily, and this can create new bonds and relationships which are advantageous for all.
Placing property guardians in decanted homes rather than boarding them up means that footfall is maintained in local streets and shops, so chance encounters between new and old residents can occur, allowing everyone to feel that they live in a place where there are people to say ‘hello’ to on the way in and out. This is especially important for isolated, vulnerable residents, for whom these kinds of brief conversations can be their main interaction of the day.
- Community stability
A core of long-term residents who are committed to active involvement in the community are crucial to create friendly neighbourhoods, and meanwhile use is no substitute for that. However, creating contexts such as pop-up community centres or hosting events where it’s possible for remaining residents to get involved during a period of flux allows those who have long-standing relationships with an area to continue to participate in local life, rather than retreating into their homes.
- Sense of place
Periods of change are a perfect opportunity to experiment with new uses for old spaces, and to imagine how new spaces could be used differently. When the originally-intended use of a place comes to an end, it’s a chance for communities to come together to create something new. This can mean creating murals, or turning commercial spaces into new kinds of community venues, or holding events on sites where previous buildings have been demolished. This is a potential source of pride, and gives people a chance to put their stamp on a place.
All in all, meanwhile projects from pop-up shops to property guardians are a source of fun and colour during times of change, but they are far more than that: they should be an indispensable part of a good regeneration scheme.
Katharine Hibbert is founder of Dot Dot Dot Property Guardians.