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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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