top of page

A temporary fix? Making meanwhile use work harder. 

by Emily Berwyn, Executive Director, Meanwhile Space

15th November 2023

With numerous stakeholders and potential pitfalls, it’s no secret that the term 'Meanwhile Use' can present a whole host of questions for landowners. How do you make a genuine addition to a neighbourhood? What does Meanwhile actually mean? And is it ever really worth it? Keen to explore whether or not Meanwhile use is still a relevant and positive tool in managing transition for local people, Meanwhile Space recently hosted an industry event at our affordable workspace site LJ Works.


Having seen a lot of change in the industry over the last 15 years, Meanwhile Space has a flexible and fearless approach to tackling challenging spaces, solving problems alongside and in partnership with our clients and stakeholders. We hosted this event to explore some preconceived ideas about the topic that people may have. This can be financial, social, policy wise, or Meanwhile as a general ethos. An open and frank discussion, this was not about navel gazing and patting ourselves on the back. This was about facing some of those challenging questions and fears from landowners, local authorities and delivery partners head on. 


Bringing together different perspectives from different sectors and with a varied experience of Meanwhile, both good and bad, the panellists included Blossom Young at Poplar HARCA, Michael Blake at Savills and Alex Lowry at Stephen Kane & Co. We tackled the challenges head on, with some excellent contributions from the very experienced audience: asking does Meanwhile bring value to developers beyond an obligation or a marketing tool, and how to remain fearless and flexible in our delivery, while also prioritising a conscientious and committed approach to the places we work. 

We defined what Meanwhile actually means to the panel, concluding it is not about a flash in the pan, or popup that brings most value to a place, but a careful and considered response to the opportunity that vacant space presents. There will always be vacant and underused space, in every town and city in the country, and there will always be communities that want to make use of it. I see our role in helping make that use happen, overcoming barriers to achieve something unique and interesting for a community to be proud of. Meanwhile Space is conscientious and committed to the areas it works in – creating bespoke solutions tailored to the needs of the local area and informed by dedicated research. Equity and access to commercial space is a primary driver of good Meanwhile use projects, and working in partnership with local people to inform, test, develop and grow ideas that create distinctive and unique places is really where the most impactful opportunity of Meanwhile sites.


Taking risks was a huge discussion point, with Neil Kirby from Southwark Council also contributing from the audience, saying he is keen for local authority officers to recognise the importance of taking risks in an increasingly risk averse environment. How to maintain an approach that is creative, flexible and fearless, to be able to tackle challenging spaces with tenacity when costs have rocketed, and all spend and actions are scrutinised alongside partners, is a real issue for many of our public sector partners who feel unable to take the same risks they were previously able to. By virtue of the kinds of buildings and sites that are typically available for Meanwhile use, many of them are problem buildings, challenging or small sites, or there is a market failure of some kind. This means we may be able to use them, but it is not straightforward, and highly likely we will be required to work together as a team with our clients and stakeholders to solve problems in unexpected ways. When these risks are carried solely by Meanwhile Space, it is too much to expect of a small social enterprise, but together we are greater than the sum of our parts, each bringing different skills, experience and perspectives to get the job done. When this partnership working is successful, as Southwark proves with the Hithe, and Lambeth showcases with LJ Works, it can transform vacancy and dereliction to deliver extraordinary benefits to local people and the neighbourhood.


Saving the much-debated question of does Meanwhile ultimately cause gentrification for last. Surprisingly this was the simplest for the panel to agree on - that it’s about the intentions and approach of the Meanwhile use. When we take a confident and spirited approach to Meanwhile solutions, prioritising community, consultation and communication gentrification is less likely. If the focus is on helicoptering in different, trendy uses and prioritising profit, it will lead to a rapid change in a neighbourhood. Meanwhile Space and our passionate team of experts have a strong track record in this area of taking a slower, organic approach to Meanwhile that is driven by the needs and wants of local people, but our approach costs money rather than generates short term income. All panellists agreed Meanwhile is a necessary tool in managing positive transition for local people, and that delivery partners like Meanwhile Space could be more forceful in demanding appropriate recompense to deliver projects to ultimately enable us to do more. 


Where this subsidy comes from, who ultimately benefits and how partnerships can work together to deliver the best projects is perhaps a topic for the next event in the new year. The hour’s discussion certainly flew by with the conversation only just getting started.

bottom of page