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Colonizing England's Vacant Shops


As online shopping, out-of-town malls, and economic recession conspire to keep shoppers away from England's town centers, high streets up and down the country are taking on a snaggle-toothed, downtrodden air. The collapse of major chains like Woolworths and the pressures on independent traders has left many of the United Kingdom's shops standing empty, but increasingly artists, craftsmen, and community types are finding ways to keep these vacant spaces from desertion.

For Dan Thompson, helping to get empty shops back into action has become a full-time job. The founder of the Empty Shops Network, Thompson says that the United Kingdom has seen a surge in pop-up shops, galleries, and community spaces that tap into a wider national mood: “There's a DIY movement going on with more and more people setting up their own events ... you get knitting groups setting up in pubs and cafes, [gardening] groups, people are really engaging with their local community. It's a huge shift in the national culture.”

More a movement than a formal organization, the Empty Shops Network has a website offering advice on setting up and running projects, while its Facebook page and events pages feature dozens of plays, artists' markets, exhibitions, and children's activity centers from across the country. Thompson and other longtime collaborators also set up projects of their own, including inviting 40 charities to colonize an empty carpet warehouse, using their allotted spaces as they wanted—whether to showcase their work, sell goods, fundraise, or recruit volunteers.

With an estimated 12 percent of high-street shops currently vacant, landlords, and estate agents are often happy to see their empty properties in use, while neighboring shops benefit from having more people around. Local councils and even the Government have drafted in Thompson to advise on strategies for using empty spaces.

At the moment such projects are usually temporary and are run for the love, not the money. But Thompson wants to go further than this: “We are aiming for a degree of financial sustainability. I've always believed in fair trade for artists,” he says. “In the U.K. lots of people still want artists to do things for free, for exposure. You wouldn't ask a plumber to work for free. You have to pay artists and creative people."

As such, they are hoping that some projects go on to become sustainable small businesses. "Look at it that's what happened in Brighton," he says. "It's become the foundation for the whole city's economy. There were lots of empty shops going cheap there 20 to 30 years ago and it's led to this whole scene of artists and independent craftsmen.”

The simple fact is that the way we shop has changed, and will probably never return to the way it was when town centers were built. Projects like this form a kind of virtuous circle, providing affordable exhibition and selling space to creatives while adding much-needed variety to areas dominated by big brands and "for rent' signs. With pop-up projects numbering in their scores rather than thousands, they won't save the high street— but they do generate debate into the ways that this can be done.

Thompson says that the challenge is how to bring a sense of character and surprise back to the United Kingdom's high streets, to redesign them as pleasurable places that people head to for more than just shopping: “We've got to change the way that we use town centers,” Thompson says. It's hard to disagree.

Image: Coleshill High Street Buildings, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from pikerslanefarm


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The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

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"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

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The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.





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The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

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