People don’t universally love new places. New developments are typically seen as soulless, manicured or too perfect. This is a particular struggle for areas dominated by corporate offices, where workers ship in and ship out on commuter trains with little reason to engage with the communities around them.
‘Meanwhile’ space has the potential to radically change this pattern by inspiring new connections and even long-term relationships between a place and people.
The list of incredible meanwhile spaces is long and varied, from the fun of Vinegar Yard – a huge outdoor yard for beer and hot food on the site of a future life sciences campus – to the natural swimming pond that appeared in King’s Cross well before the offices were completed. Slipping into that fresh water, surrounded by tall rushes and construction cranes, was a wild experience.
Meanwhile space can achieve wholesale perception change of a place – including a workspace – precisely because it makes it less perfect. Instead of polish, meanwhile space brings enriching experiences.
But is there a way of making the wonders of experimentation at meanwhile sites a permanent state – and one with long-term viability? If the innovative, edgy and fun are only given temporary space, it perpetuates the feeling that innovation and culture are only welcome for a short stay.
Giving and taking not only destabilises the creative lifeblood that makes urban places such a draw; it also leaves cities confused about what these places really stand for. There’s an opportunity here to shift our mindset forever; to recognise that meanwhile spaces create many levels of value – plenty of which align with goals like ESG.
At its best, meanwhile space adds powerful, long-term value that invests in communities and inspires lasting change. Simply put, making meanwhile spaces permanent makes good business sense. Just look at the Silver Building and what it’s done for the Royal Docks. Originally a derelict Carlsberg-Tetley structure full of pigeon droppings, it’s now a buzzing creative hub, full of artists and makers from diverse backgrounds all enjoying affordable workspaces.
Building manager Projekt has already opened a second location – this time permanent – in part inspired by the success of the Silver Building. This creates social value, economic value and is hugely advantageous to those with vested interests in making Londoners re-evaluate what this part of the city is all about.
Value can also come from making the thrill of the temporary permanent. Rotating pop-ups mean there’s something new there all the time.
Industry City in New York exemplifies this. An early 20th-century behemoth shipping and manufacturing base, it was defunct for a long time. But now it is home to more than 500 companies, 50 retailers and restaurants, green spaces and lots of public art. In 2020, plans were rejected to rezone Industry City and transform the site into the usual shopping and offices, such was the deep sense of local attachment.
Consequently, the core value of Industry City remains: that it’s a little different each time you visit. Other businesses around have benefited, too, from the uplift – now it’s a place where people actively want to work.
At a time when firms are trying to tempt people back to the office, this has become more critical than ever – and could provide a competitive edge for those willing to embrace it.
With the increasing price of materials and greater demand for sustainable construction, we could see a loss of appetite for meanwhile space. But the opposite should be true. There is no better investment than in changing how people see the places you’re creating or operating in: it’s how to beat the market.
Meanwhile space may be the magic ingredient in the alchemy of creating places that feel special; that are rooted and alive, not perfect.
Simon Yewdall is strategy director at place and brand agency DNCO