Hicksville

There are places I really want to go. Towns and cities that hold some interest, usually through connections to a favourite record, a much-loved book, a moment in history. My list includes Petra in Jordan, and Berlin, (I’ve never been to either) and a return visit to Detroit. It now includes Hicksville, California.

Hicksville is a cluster of caravans forming an adhoc village for artists in the Californian desert. There’s the western-themed The Pioneer, the space age The Integratrailor, The Sweet which is 70s kitsch and (best of all) The Lux. It’s inspired by The Cramps. Add in  a solar heated saltwater pool, ping pong, fire pits, an archery range and free wifi and it sounds rather fabulous.

I really think that we’re underusing caravans; we know they make a great art gallery, but I think their potential to create temporary community, activate empty spaces and take good ideas from one place to another is largely untapped.

Now – how can I justify a work trip to the Californian desert?

 

 

I don’t live in Margate, Mary

Portas High Streets“Some locals are concerned about negative TV portrayal, restrictive filming contracts and confusion about whether or not I’m working for the government or not” says Mary Portas over this shot in last week’s Mary Queen of the High Street.

It’s a quote from me in Retail Week. I am not a Margate local, as Portas’s voiceover suggests. I live 180km away, in a town facing a whole different sea.

My comments were made not as a nimbyist local, but as a professional working in the same field as Portas. That’s why people like Retail Week ask me for comment. Portas knows that, of course, as she included lots of my work in her High Street Review for the government.

Exploring Newcastle, New South Wales

‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’ TS Eliot

P1050553There are three answers to the question (often asked) ‘yes, but what do is your actual job?’ The first, the most honest, is that I’m a social artist. The second, for people who wear suits, is that I’m a consultant. The third, the most secret, is that I’m an explorer.

I’ve been to dozens of towns and cities across Great Britain, discovering insane buildings in Leeds and unusual history in Coventry; I have spent a few short days in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, places that let DIY culture get under the paving slabs; I’ve wandered through an Italian village that was like Portmeirion without the rain. The furthest I’ve been in my exploring, though, was my recent visit to Newcastle in New South Wales to take part in the Creating Spaces conference.

It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since I first found out about Renew Newcastle and the work of Marcus Westbury and his team.

P1050864Newcastle is a post-industrial town, that just a few years ago had a seriously hollowed-out city centre. Hunter Street was full of empty shops, and other buildings were emptying out too. But that changed, and by 2011, Newcastle was on the Lonely Planet Guide’s top ten list. And 106 Renew Newcastle projects later, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a problem that needed fixing.

Newcastle’s city centre (the Central Business District or CBD) is long and thin, a familiar enough layout for anyone from an English seaside town. This city centre is of course off-centre, the geography skewed by the harbourside to the north and the beaches to the south. Hunter Street is the spine, stretching parallel to the harbour.

At Newcastle East is the headland of the harbour, stunning beaches, magnificent sunrises, old warehouses turned into holiday apartments and an Art Deco sea bathing pool. Near this end of town is the Hunter Mall, the main shopping area of Hunter Street. This is where Renew Newcastle has had the biggest impact.

P1050730It’s an area of beautiful heritage buildings, glorious Art Deco facades against deep green trees and impossibly blue skies. Buildings are grand, and proud, and show that Newcastle was a rich, industrial city. Think Leeds or Manchester, but with brighter skies and clearer air. The ghosts of old businesses are everywhere; plaques mark banks that have traded for 100 years, shop names are found in ghost signs, and there are more significant enterprises who carved their name in stone. There are ghosts too, of the failure of salvation by brick; the skeletal remains of an ambitious, million-dollar scheme to encourage a street market to appear.

P1050725There’s also an impressive amount of street art. Vibrant murals, quirky quotes like Facebook inspirational memes gone real world, and creative flyposters are sprinkled along the Hunter Street spine. The best are the works curated by Street Art Walking’s Simone Sheridan, and they add colour and draw you up side streets as you walk.

But Hunter Mall doesn’t have many empty shops, though. Not now. These have been replaced, first with temporary projects brought in by Renew Newcastle, but then by other businesses.

Projects like Make Space, a collective of female makers who fit the shop around family, and vintage photobooth hire company Strip of a Lifetime, and roller derby stickermaker NataLickIt are finding new uses for old spaces. They’re pioneers, opening up the city for the entrepreneurs that always follow.

And follow they have, here like anywhere else in the world. Newcastle is starting to get its share of cool cafes and hipster coffee shops. A national chain tried to move in, piggybacking on the creativity, but was ignored. People stuck to the independents and the chain closed and left town.

And perhaps more importantly – Renew Newcastle graduates, having tried and tested in temporary premises, are now going full-time and filling spaces.

P1050907Renew Newcastle has a good track record of encouraging start-ups, with workspaces like The Bank of Ideas and Studio Melt, studios like Shannon Hartigan Images, and beautiful, quirky shops like Alie Jane as living testament, but that’s not its aim. Renew Newcastle set out to achieve the activation of empty buildings, maintaining them and improving the look of the city centre while that post-industrial future is worked out.

The real achievement though is discovering that post-industrial future as part of the process. Newcastle is now a vibrant, creative city, where artist-makers, graphic designers, illustrators and software developers alike are making new products for export to a global market. And at the same time, improving the place where they live and make it an attractive destination for a worldwide audience who like architecture, and heritage, and creativity, and culture, and good cafes. And the great beaches don’t hurt, either.

Thank you, Twitter

P1050456I’m sitting on a train and we’ve just passed through Croydon station. This would be unexceptional if it wasn’t for the fact that this Croydon is surrounded by unfamiliar, darker green trees and bold pink blossoms. This is Croydon, New South Wales and I’m on the way to Newcastle, New South Wales, after a day in Sydney. That place is an incredible city. Clean and smart and cosmopolitan and cultured and lively and frankly, beautiful. I felt outclassed.

I have spent most of my life feeling poor. From growing up on a redbrick council estate to my married life spent in rented homes, I’ve never felt as if there was spare money. I’ve always been very aware of my place, having come from the poorest part of a relatively well-off town. As a consequence, never went to university (to be honest, nobody at my 6th Form College expected the pupils like me to go to university, regardless of our academic ability). And I have never travelled. Apart from a couple of childhood holidays to Paris and Scharnitz, Austria, and a fortnight to visit my sister Sinead when she was working in the States, I had never really been abroad. Until the last couple of years.

Because, since the recession kicked in, I’ve been to Belfast (twice), to Amsterdam and Rotterdam (twice), stayed in idiotic luxury in Stresa, Italy and am now in Australia for seven days.

I’m surrounded by the familiar (this train, having passed through Croydon and Ryde, will stop at Cardiff before arriving in Newcastle). But I couldn’t feel more like an Englishman abroad. Over the past few years, as well as travelling abroad, I have seen more of England than in the thirty five years before. I have come to feel at home in Coventry, Leeds, London, Rochdale and Margate – to have favourite cafes and shops I must visit when I’m in town – to be able to bump into friends in streets hundreds of miles from home. I am more in love with England, and proud of my country, than ever before.

So how do I get the privilege of travel? I could credit years of work as a community organiser, talk about the long hours that come with being self-employed, have to mention good friends and family who’ve supported my cunning plans. But really, it’s all thanks to one, simple service. Without Twitter, I wouldn’t be here. It’s built connection, collaborations and friendships. It’s broken down the barriers and meant a boy from a smalltown can be as loud as the metropolitan elite. It’s amplified good ideas and opened up new ways of working. It’s put me on trains and planes. Thank you, Twitter.

Breakfast on the BBC

P1040821I’ve started 2013 with two appearances on BBC Breakfast, promoting the work of Revolutionary Arts – but perhaps more importantly, talking about some of the people we work with.

In the first, I visited BBC Breakfast’s Salford studio and spoke to Jon Kay and Louise Minchin about how #riotcleanup led to starting #wewillgather. It was an overnight trip for a few minutes in the studio, but a great experience. Louise Minchin nearly choked to death, live on air.

In the second I visited an empty shopping centre in Reading to meet some zombies (and business reporter Steph McGovern). A short interview, but I managed to mention East Street Arts, who are doing great work with empty shops and offices across the UK. And the Retail Ready People programme, which helps young people reinvent their high streets. This time, the producer got locked in her hotel room and they had to break the door down.

Now, it’s not my fault – but maybe the BBC will think I’m jinxed and not ask me back.

2012 – trains, boats and planes

London 2012The year started in spectacular style, standing on the roof of BBC’s Bush House, broadcasting on the world service, and watch the most incredible firework display London has ever seen. And it didn’t really slow down after that.

I’ve visited London (forty times), Brighton (sixteen times), Enfield (five times), Chichester (three times), and Bedford, Coventry, Guildford, Leeds, Lewes, Littlehampton, Manchester, Margate, Portsmouth, Rochdale (all twice). Add time in Amsterdam, Bexley, Eastbourne, Halifax, the Isle of Wight, Rotterdam, Salford, Shoreham, Southampton, Streatham and Stresa in Italy and it’s been a good year for travelling.

I’ve been out of Worthing on 105 days in 2012. That’s trains, boats and planes all covered. I’ve stayed in hotels that are amazing in Stresa and Margate, appalling in Leeds, and lots that are completely forgettable (Travelodge, Premier Inn and the like).

I’ve been to eco-build BedZed, spent a day on a coach trip around the M25, held a birthday party to celebrate 150 years of Worthing Pier, attended the opening of the London 2012 Olympics in a VIP seat as a guest of the Prime Minister, and been to my first football match since the early 1980s (Team GB women, in Coventry. They lost).

I’ve been on the news a few times, in the papers quite a lot, and made a brief appearance on the Antique’s Roadshow with a shepherd’s smock.

I’ve written the introduction to a book for The Caravan Gallery, published Pop Up People, and in sixteen days writing I wrote Pop Up Business For Dummies. I’ve talked about town centres and empty shops a lot, opened pop up shops in Brighton and Enfield with Retail Ready People, launched #wewillgather in the Houses of Parliament, and talked about agile working, frugal leadership, social media for social good and community organising.

Everywhere I’ve been, it’s as the guest of people doing amazing and inspiring things to make the places they live better. Thank you all for inviting me.

Worthing Borough Council’s empty shop

In 2009 and 2010, the then-Labour government gave grants to 107 towns and cities around the UK, totalling £2.6 million.

Those funds were to encourage councils to try, test and experiment in their town centres as the recession hit. So how was the £52,000 given to Worthing used?

Around £44,000 of the funding paid the rent and rates for two years use of 40 Ann Street, Worthing as a co-working space.

A new Community Interest Company called Worthing First was set up to manage the project. Directors include Conservative councillor Noel Atkins, former councillor Peter Bennett and Carl Clarke, the then husband of the council-funded Worthing Town Centre Manager. A final director was Jim Cunliffe, director of 19 other companies and a man also involved in managing events for the Worthing Town Centre Manager.

The building had been in use until shortly before Worthing First took over, as a design and print studio.

They appointed a manager for the building, and opened after an extensive refurbishment and applying branding to the shop’s windows. However, the project failed to attract interest and closed its doors after only a few months.

Worthing First have, however, paid up front for two years use of the space which has sat empty (although their website says they have ceased trading). Their lease will expire in January 2013.

So Worthing Borough Council’s empty shop funding paid to keep a shop empty for two years.

nb: Two small changes have been made; Worthing Town Centre Manager has asked that it be made clear that she has since divorced Carl Clarke. Worthing First asked me to amend ‘have continued to pay for the space’ to reflect the fact that, in front, they paid rent for the whole two years up front.

Bid for me in Nepal charity auction

4500 women a year die in childbirth in Nepal, and nearly 5% of babies  there die before they are a year old. In a patriarchal society, women and girls do not get the food or medical care they need and the Green Tara charity is working to change this.

Staff at Brighton’s Evolution store have organised a fundraiser for the charity.

On Friday 2nd November from 7.30pm, staff from the store will take over the Brighton Buddhist Centre and hold a fundraising raffle and an auction of skills.

You can bid for yoga sessions, help with your gardening, a tennis lesson, childcare, a DIY handyman, photography, a guitar tutorial and much more. The stand out, though, has to be a fifteen minute one-person show about death, presented in your own home.

I have offered a coaching session for anyone wanting to open a pop up shop, with a copy of Pop Up Business For Dummies thrown in.

To bid for me, a show about death, a violin lesson or for somebody to cook a meal for you, head to the Buddhist Centre on Friday evening or drop a sealed bid in to the Evolution shop in Bond Street.

David Cameron on #wewillgather

“Dan Thompson showed the best of Britain by helping organise the clean-up operation after last summer’s riots. He also demonstrated the power of the internet as a force for good: bringing people together to make a difference in their community. That’s why I’m delighted that the Innovation in Giving Fund has been able to support Dan to launch #wewillgather. This site will make it easier for people to stand up and join others to make a difference – I wish it every success.”

David Cameron, September 2012

Pop Up Business For Dummies

“Take a look around, and you see pop up cinemas and pop up cafes, pop up shops and pop up workspaces. And even those establishments that have been around a long time may suddenly have the word pop up in front of them. What’s going on with this pop up phenomenon? What are pop ups and why have they become so popular?”

Pop Up Business For Dummies follows on from the Empty Shops Workbook and the Empty Shops Toolkit which I’ve written previously. Condensing 12 years experience of using empty shops and managing pop up projects, it  provides the most up-to-date, in-depth guide to devising, planning and delivering a pop up shop yet. It’s out in October. You can pre-order it on Amazon here or from lovely bookshop The Book Ferret.

You can also read a sample chapter here.

On the Isle of Wight

The Isle of Wight is an interesting, and often contradictory, place.

On one hand, it’s untouched 1950s seaside working class holiday territory, all ice creams with flakes and Kiss Me Quick hats (and no, not a lazy writer’s stereotype – they’re for sale in the Delicious Cafe in Ryde).

On the other, it’s places like Cowes, where the streets are stuffed with the accents of the ruling class, posh girls in Oxford lacrosse team shirts, and the shops are all White Stuff, Joules and Fat Face. Of course, there are still some useful shops, especially if you have an expensive yacht in the harbour, like ship’s chandlers Pascall Atkey. And like every town on the island, there’s hardware store Hurst, with distinctive H-shaped doorhandles.

The island is undoubtedly beautiful, with great scenery and towns which have, on the whole, been untouched by the worst of late 20th century development. High streets are full of small, quirky shops with great display windows, curved glass, tiled doorsteps and original features. Walls carry the traces of old signwritten adverts. There are pockets of emptiness, like the top of Ryde which has been cut off by an unsympathetic traffic layout. But these are isolated and could, with a little political will, be reinvented as destinations in their own right. Arreton Old Village, for example, has played on its antiquity, proudly boasting to be ‘100 years behind the times’.

There is a wealth of creativity on the island, led by people like the Isle of Wight Makers Network, Quay Arts and clothing-company-and-cafe Rapanui. And the way that quirky, boutique shops have spread from obvious locations like Cowes towards more traditional towns like Ryde shows that there is a commercial drive, too. The island’s towns look great, have potential by the plastic bucketload, and aren’t in bad shape to start with. Vacancy rates are below the national average, for example, and there’s a strong pop up culture, with a tradition of shops (including high-end boutiques) opening for the summer season or to match local events. Of course, the place is also known for a string of festivals, creating whole pop up towns a few times a year.

But there’s one contradiction holding the island back. And that’s the attraction to and fear of ‘the mainland’.

From the northern side of the Solent, it’s easy to be envious of the islanders. They have a great lifestyle,  property at a reasonable price and a fantastic place to live.

From the island, though, things are different; there’s a feeling of isolation, a sense that problems faced are unique to the Isle of Wight, and a nagging belief that things must be better ‘over there’. But the truth is, the Solent is tiny and with fast Red Funnel connections, it’s easier to reach the bigger island to the north than ever before. And of course, social media enables even closer connections without getting on a boat. There are great partnerships to be built with arts, cultural and creative organisations that are a short ride away and organisations like the Isle of Wight Makers Network and Quay Arts are doing that.

An end to isolationist thinking and a simultaneous celebration of the island’s local distinctiveness show a great future for a special place.

Thanks to Sara at Isle of Wight Makers network, staff at Quay Arts and to Red Funnel for supporting my visit to the island.

Pop Up London

We have neglected the public space in our towns and cities for too long. The gaps between things are a playground. Previously belonging to a mixed crowd of free runners, urban artists and open air sleepers, the wider population are starting to reclaim these civic spaces.

This is often started with a series of temporary interventions which inspire future use or become permanent themselves. Gabriel’s Wharf was a set of garages temporarily reinvented as shops, but has become a key part of London’s riverbank life. It’s a rare space given over entirely to small, independent shops, galleries and cafes in an area where property prices are high. More importantly, it’s informal, creating a courtyard that’s at once full of life but also calm and quiet.

Just along from that community-led public space, the big boys are starting to reinvent their spaces.

The solid concrete architecture of the National Theatre is being softened by a series of temporary interventions. There’s a pop up workshop, housing a programme of workshops from June til September. And Propstore is a riverfront bar made from old sets, scenery and props. It’s a good looking space, as long as you forget the craziness of building a pretend empty building in a city full of real ones.

And the Southbank Centre has been transformed with a series of pop up parks, cafes and artspaces which take the site right back to its original Festival of Britain beginnings.

There are new steps and gardens opening up access to rear of the Hayward Gallery, and a temporary street food cafe. Stages, gardens, art installations, tents; every corner of the Southbank Centre site is reinvented, and invested with new meaning. The pop ups bring colour, life and creativity to the Southbank Centre, and are complemented by signs, banners and flags that show how good the brutalist concrete can look when it’s cared for.

All the temporary interventions have highlighted how underused this key site is, and how much potential there is in neglected public spaces around the site. It’s hard to see the South Bank ever returning to being just solid,  bricks-and-mortar establishments now.

Low country (Part II)

It’s amazing how much of a city you can see in a single day, if you put in the legwork and the city has a decent public transport network. Amsterdam does, and in Maurice Specht I had the perfect city guide.

Cycle store
Cycle store

The intercity train from Rotterdam where I’d stayed the night beforewas a good start – double decked with seats more spacious and comfortable than anything in the UK. And plenty of spaces for bikes, too. Every station has huge cycle racks, housing hundreds of bikes; so big in fact that a regular complaint is that the edge of the cycle parking is still five minutes walk from the station.

In Amsterdam itself, the bike is king. Beautiful, rusty and battered sit-up bikes are ridden down cycle paths as wide as the UK’s roads and it means the city’s traffic has a human face.

Signs
Signs

We started with the short ferry ride from Central Station to the Noord district, home to Tolhuistuin and a growing creative community. While we couldn’t get inside Tolhuistuin– a jumble of old municipal architecture reconfigured for creative use, with open spaces full of ad-hoc structures used for events – we were given a much more warm welcome at T-shirt print studios Tees Me. We were literally passing and were dragged in off the street and offered coffee in the offices of what is essentially a web-based business. There has been a concerted effort to give these businesses space in the Noord, and mixed in amongst neat residential housing are small studios and galleries mainly selling online. There are odd corners of craziness too; one street of tiny, brightly-coloured wooden houses stood out as worth exploring.

Concrete jungle
Concrete jungle

The creativity of Noord is a huge contrast to our next stop, Bijlmermeer. This area of the city was planned post-war; it’s all big city blocks and a maze of spaces that on a plan might have seem structured but in real life are insane. Motor traffic is raised on roads at first floor level, with pedestrians, scooters and pushbikes at ground level. There was a street market selling the same jumbled stuff as any UK street market, with foodstalls and street barbeques billowing smoke across the maze of precincts. This wasn’t the future people planned. It’s a confused jumble, an illegible space that’s the the wrong scale for people to live. It reminded me of nothing as much as the dystopian refugee camp in the final scenes of Children of Men. We never even found the place and the person we were looking for.

Block
Block

The beautiful ‘Plan West’ estates from the 1930s might well have been what the Bijilmermeer architects were inspired by. But here, the vast city blocks felt very comfortable. Each unit of housing and flats took up a whole city block, and was finished with small details like art nouveau tiles and elegant house numbers. Blocks look subtly different, and there are details like clocktowers, balconies and the like that give the buildings an organic feel. The blocks have wide streets between them and neat, well-designed squares spread around them. The squares have good public space, and are used for events throughout the year. Shopping streets are cared for, with bike lanes and tram tracks meaning cars are the transport of last resort.

Paving slab
Paving slab

However, last year a jeweller was shot on the main shopping street here, Jan Eef, and the fear of crime and the sight of empty shops led local residents to start the ‘Ik geef om de Jan Eef‘ campaign.

It’s a simple, elegant and well designed campaign, bringing local residents, community groups and shopkeepers together to show they care for their local street. There’s a neat branding, applied to paving slabs along the street, and a number of the empty spaces are being used for pop-up shops under the same banner. It’s made people aware, in a very simple way, that their local street is worth having; a lesson that many UK high streets learnt the hard way.

Equally inspiring was the project which housed the meeting I was attending. A converted shop just round the corner from Jan Eef house Groen Gras, an events company which employs young people as stage managers, technicians and stewards when it delivers events for the city council. It has given hundreds of young people worthwhile and well paid employment and staged events attended by tens of thousands of people. While a lot of projects aimed at getting young people back to work have good intentions but no way to deliver, Groen Gras is really changing lives.

And that seems to be the spirit of Amsterdam; the spirit of can-do optimism that our own prime minister David Cameron wants to see more of in the UK. Who’d have thought that Amsterdam, with its obvious reputation for cannabis and prostitution, might just be the best Big Society inspiration we can find?

Low country (Part I)

Flirting with Rotterdam
Flirting with Rotterdam

The visit

My father visited Amsterdam in the early 1970s. He took a grey rucksack and a dark red sleeping bag (which I remember still being in the house when I was a child, kept like sacred relics). He slept in the Vondelpark, and his boots were stolen.

My visit was altogether more comfortable – flying from Gatwick early on a Thursday to be in time for a symposium titled ‘Space For Connection’ at Buurt Flirt in Rotterdam in the afternoon, followed by local food and pale beer and an evening in good company. Watching the city’s late-night cyclists, girls sitting side-saddle on the backs of their boyfriends’ bikes, will be my enduring memory of Rotterdam.

Friday was spent exploring Amsterdam with Maurice Specht, visiting the north of the city and Tolhuistuin, heading south to the Bijlmermeer estates, exploring the ‘Plan West’ estates planned by Berlage and finally talking with community leaders at an event hosted by Groen Gras. A late night flight back to Gatwick finished the short visit.

Making space for connection
Making space for connection

Rotterdam

Rotterdam is one of the most perfectly person-sized cities I’ve ever visited, despite housing over a million residents. It’s a beautiful mix of small, intricate buildings and pocket-sized public spaces and it makes the perfect playground for pedestrians, public transport and pushbikes. It’s a city that is neat and tidy and cared for, even in its scruffiest corners.

Binnenweg is the city’s longest shopping street, laid out in the 15th century but largely surviving in its pre-war shape. At the heart of the city it’s fairly vibrant, with cafes where beautiful girls with beautiful tattoos serve coffee and cool boutiques like Hub Shop sell the products of cottage-industry designer-makers. But as the long ribbon unwinds towards the suburbs, there are more empty shops.

Buurt Flirt are occupying one of these, using it as a community arts centre and sharing it with a screenprint workshop. It’s a funky little space, with big tables and plenty of chairs meaning there’s always a space for people. There’s a constant supply of more of that strong, fresh black coffee and biscuits served from a counter made of bashed-together old timber. Every space in the small shop is used, with one photographer even exhibiting on the ceiling. I felt at home; it was strangely like walking into one of the Workshop projects I’ve run in the UK.

Screenprints and clothespegs
Screenprints and clothespegs

The thing that really make Buurt Flirt work though is not the furniture or the art; it’s the people. If Janneke, Aletta, Nachet and Marieke are representative of the people of Rotterdam, it’s a warm and smiling city where people are looked after. The event they hosted – ‘Space For Connection’ – was all about conversation and creative people finding ways to support each other, whether through empty shops, the backyard of the Chez Moi tea shop or using social media.

And as long as people like Buurt Flirt continue to care and connect, Rotterdam will stay creative and full of life.

Ich liebe Rotterdam.

Rethinking Worthing

Studios at Splash Point
Studios at Splash Point

Worthing’s got almost everything it needs to be an interesting town. It’s a collection of villages – Broadwater, Goring by Sea, Worthing old town and Durrington – which still have their own identities. It has some great buildings, mainly from the period between the wars when England saw new housing springing up like dandelions at the roadside. It has history – recent archaeological digs have dug through medieval Titnore Lane to find Roman buildings built over ancient roundhouses.

What it doesn’t have, though, is a clear identity. The tourist brochure produced by the town council clashes with the stuff produced by the town centre manager. There’s nothing to tie Worthing into the Sussex-wide picture, which focuses instead on picturesque Arundel, wealthy Horsham and heavily subsidised Chichester.

And Worthing doesn’t have an achievable masterplan for the future either. The existing masterplan has been nibbled into nothingness. The new swimming pool, currently under construction, has seen so many minor changes and shifts that it’s a perfect metaphor for how good development can turn bad for want of a few thousand pounds.

I’m not one to moan, though; I’m one that likes to do. So this year Made In Worthing will deliver an alternative tourist guide and a grassroots masterplan with 100 steps to make Worthing better. In the past the annual festival has showcased new work; this year, it will be based around a series of workshops, discussions and explorations which will help to make new work in a single weekend.

A pop-up ThinkTank on Saturday 24th September is the middle of all that activity. It will happen at FlashBang, Royal Arcade: artists, writers and photographers explore the town, create a website and plan for Worthing’s future.

A number of guests from outside the town have been invited to visit; each will be given a special local tour guide to show them round before the thinking starts. The thinkTank will be open for the public to pop in and contribute. The ThinkTank are Sophie Collard, Lloyd Davis, Leanne Foster, Gez Glover, Dougald Hine, Masa Kepic, Mark Scott-Wood, Dan Thompson.

And you, if you’d like to join us.

Thoughts on a new Manifesto for High Streets

This is just a draft of a new manifesto for High Streets. Trying to condense all we’ve learnt from ten years of working with empty shops into a few short, sharp points. What do you think?

Manifesto for High Streets:

Restore original fronts & features

Revive independent shops

Reinvent old buildings

Reclaim public space

Remake town centre management

Recycle empty shops

Laughing in Peel Precinct

The square could be a filmset. There’s a pub on the corner, a row of shops (flats above), a park and the Oxford Kilburn club, the school a few doors down. An empty film set now, waiting for the crew, lights, actors, props. A script, of course, and a script.

All London life is here. The whole estate, eleven blocks, 170 floors, tilts up from the square. Rises from the central point, a CCTV camera post, out to the edges – the broad sweep of the train tracks out of Euston, the gentle terraces and Tin Church of Kilburn Park Road. Rises, packed with people; more people than the architects, throwing out the better standards of the Housing Manual 1949 in favour of high-rise living with a bonus for each extra floor built can ever have imagined.

The estate is like Babel after the fall, everyone speaking a different language: English, Somali, Arabic, Portugese, Filipino, Amharic, Yoruba, Albanian, Urdu. And where there should be a noise, a joyous noise unto the Lord, a babble… instead is silence. Nobody talks, everyone walks quietly, quickly. Heads down, hoods up.

Except for two beautiful girls in headscarves, giggling and smiling, chatting and texting, meandering through this and that. They’re the life of South Kilburn. The point, the purpose. Despite the crushing weight of the tower blocks tilting in, the paranoia of the CCTV camera in the centre of the square, the fear of the shops’ shutters, they’re laughing. Happy to be here, today, in Peel Precinct.

Getting down in the hole

I spend a lot of time thinking about regeneration. It’s a creative process, turning failing towns into interesting places, and I like creative processes. So like every other one, whether it’s drawing or performing poetry or presenting to a film camera, I want to understand how the thing works. What are the right tools, where do you make the first mark, how do you finish the thing?

My hometown has been my nursery slope. Worthing’s been suffering for years, a gradual loss of any sense of place or purpose, and as I’m always plugged in to grassroots community activity, I’ve been watching from the front line. I’ve got my hands dirty, time and again. Literally, cleaning drains backstage at the local theatre, stripping the shabby wreck of a cinema, carving a new cinema out of an old scenery workshop, clearing shops of debris and rubble to make community spaces.

About fifteen years, the council stopped seeing Worthing as a tourist destination and said the town was a business centre. There was no action to back this up, no new business parks or office buildings. Just words on the boards at the town’s gateway.

So since then, it’s been neither one nor the other. The folly of that lack of focus is demonstrated by the fact that while the recession has wiped out a few large employers locally, like Norwich Union and Lloyds TSB, there’s been no investment in tourism and the town can’t capitalise on the rising number of stay-in-Britain tourists.

But Worthing hasn’t reached rock bottom yet. We have a masterplan, and an active regeneration team who are taking exactly the right approach, doing what they can and supporting people as they start small, sustainable initiatives; pushing for better quality and long-term thinking.

That team has helped the planning department to drive up the quality of new developments developments, with decently designed social housing replacing old pubs. There’s a new village of retirement flats in the town centre where there was once a dated art college. On the seafront, the site of the burnt-out Warnes hotel has become a swish and stylish Art Deco block of flats. The ever failing Guildbourne Centre had a minor revamp a few years ago, and cosmetically looks much better – although it still has a completely empty first floor. The historic Dome Cinema is safely restored, even if the Trust managing it aren’t thinking comprehensively about the spaces they have and consequently the building’s massively underused. Along the seafront there’s a cool beachside cafe next to half a dozen art studios carved out of old beach chalets. Next door, there’s a new and truly landmark swimming pool planned, to replace the crumbling concrete Aquarena.

The bigger projects, like the massive, empty Teville Gate quarter, and building new colleges to replace antique huts and 60s architecture, haven’t even made it to the starting line.

But all of this all fits the narrative I’ve understood for regeneration. When I was involved in a huge masterplanning effort in the town, one of the planners said Worthing just needed ‘urban acupuncture’ – small pressure at key points to revive the town. I thought that made sense, and that the projects I’d been involved in – that historic cinema, the beachside cafe and studios, a crumbling old theatre – would be the pin pricks the town needed.

After working on projects in empty shops and seeing towns across the country this year, I’m rethinking that idea though. I’d always thought that the caterpillar, wrapped up in its cocoon, transforms into a beautiful butterfly. It doesn’t. It dies in there, rots away, and something new and beautiful is made from the rotted flesh. There are distinct stages, not a constant process.

I don’t think we can start regeneration while the town’s heading down, and turn it around that way. I don’t think the caterpillar transforms into the butterfly. I thought it did, we could, but I think maybe we need to reach the absolute bottom, and stop, and contemplate where we are.

There’s a story Leo tells in The West Wing. A man falls in a hole. A doctor and a priest can’t help him – they won’t get in the hole. But the man’s friend come along and jumps in the hole too.

“Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”

I’m thinking back to the Brighton I knew as a child; a run-down, shabby seaside town with no place or purpose. It had to sink really low; that pushed property prices down, allowed people to think creatively about the spaces available and how to use them, and allowed a meteoric rise from failing city to special place.

And looking at Margate, where an absolute decimation of the town centre has led to new, fresh thinking and focused action. Margate, with its magnificent old town, will thrive in the next few years.

A bushfire clears the ground for new growth. Plants have adapted, with extra shoots that push up quickly after a fire and seeds that need the heat to germinate. The Eucalyptus even encourages fire, with oil-filled leaves, so that it can start new growth and spread.

I suspect that the people that usually start a town’s renaissance, the artists and writers, the entrepreneurs and visionaries, are the same. They need the clear ground and the heat. They need to get down in the hole.

In the past few years, Worthing has started to fill with refugees from the property wars in Brighton and London. I suspect that this is a false dawn; it looks like a new, comfortable, middle class rebirth but really these people, on the whole, want to dress Worthing up as Brighton’s younger brother or make a London-lite, with Starbucks and Gap. I don’t think that will ever work. I don’t think people living in the town are feeling a shift, a change of culture. Trying to imitate Brighton just makes it clearer we’re thirty years behind them, in terms of regeneration.

I want to see Worthing become a better Worthing, not an imitation of somewhere else. Give me a burnt space, clear ground, a fresh place to start from. Jump down in this hole with me, will you?

Tell me about Oswald Denniston

A week ago, I joined a small group of other people running organisations exploring meanwhile projects and temporary spaces, to see how we could work together and collaborate.

One of the ideas I put forward was a touring project, creating a local history exhibition in one week. Underpinning the week’s work with artists would be workshops, meetings and mentoring – so that while publicly the project would end in a one day exhibition, underneath it even more artists would be introduced to the skills needed. Quick thinking – swift marketing – speedy planning. All essential when the opportunity to use an empty shop may come around quickly and be gone in a week, but not skills that every artist can understand.

So a week later, with support from the Meanwhile Project, I’m running a live project in Brixton called ‘Tell me about Oswald Denniston’.

Oswald Denniston was a passenger on the Empire Windrush when it docked at London in 1948, and in the early 1960s became the first African-Caribbean trader in the Granville Arcade, now known as Brixton Village. He passed away in 2000, after becoming a pillar of the local community during a life which took in signwriting, market trading, cycling (he was the first black cyclist in the Herne Hill Cycling Club) and reciting epic verse.

We’ve taken a small unit in Granville Arcade (nowadays known as Brixton Village), set up tables and chairs, and we’re ready to talk about Oswald. It’s a battered, dirty unit among the busy food stalls and near the ‘Brixton Party Shop’. It used to be Taj Textiles; Oswald’s stall in Granville sold fabric. I like that coincidence.

Come and join the conversation at Unit 73, Brixton Village on Tuesday, Thursday or Friday and see the finished exhibition, featuring work by artists including Alice Angus and The Caravan Gallery’s Jan Williams, on Saturday 6th February.

Empty shops in Shoreham by Sea

I’ve probably made some old Tory very happy today; I got on my bike in search of work. Specifically, hunting down empty shops to use in Shoreham-by-Sea.

In the Empty Shops Network’s home town of Worthing, the Borough Council has forged a partnership with neighbouring Adur District Council, which means that our empty shops money covers Worthing, Lancing, Shoreham and Fishersgate. And we’re looking for a big, flagship project in Adur, so I’ve spent the day cycling to find likely sites.

I was actually born in Shoreham, in the maternity unit in the old workhouse. I’ve worked there a lot, as a founder member of the Beach Dreams festival and as sound man for Richard Durrant. I’ve exhibited in, got married at, and floodlit the outside of, the Church of the Good Shepherd on Shoreham Beach – and once, notably, heard the Vicar’s confession. I lived on Shoreham High Street, in a flat above a charity shop, with views across the mudflats towards the houseboats. And I partied quite hard on the houseboats a few times, too.

So I know Shoreham well, and it’s sad to see it suffering. There are a few empty shops, and a downmarket Woolworths clone in the old Woolworths. In a small town, those few empty shops really have an impact.

Saddest of all, though, is a monumental building in the middle of historic Shoreham town, which looks like it’s been bought for redevelopment. It’s an odd bit of architecture, vaguely arts and crafts-ish; striped brickwork, odd detailing, hints of turrets and towers.

There are four shops at street level, and the front two facing onto the old war memorial and church yard are suspiciously bunker-like with thick walls and small windows (pictured). One of them’s empty. Behind them, down a side street, are two more shop units, both more traditional but in poor condition. Both of these are empty.

Above it all is the old church hall and parish offices, and from the state of the building and the boarded-up doors I’d guess these are empty, too.

I’m not sure what the plans for this quirky architectural oddity are, but I’d like to find out more about the building – and I’ve got a site visit later this week to start exploring and planning. Can we bring a bit of temporary use to Shoreham town centre, perhaps some community shenanigans like The UpMarket project we ran in Worthing? It would sit well amongst the great little independents, scattering of cafes and delis, and a flea market in the old Tarmount Studios – all of which make Shoreham well worth a visit.

Hopefully…

Worthing vs Lewes – what makes small towns tick?

What makes towns tick? I’ve been visiting a lot of town centres on the quest to fill empty shops. Why is Lewes such a lovely place to spend time, while Worthing feels a bit of a wasteland?

It’s more than just built environment, although has something to do with it. Yes, Lewes has lots of history, beautiful old buildings, and is wrapped around some very curvaceous hills which makes the whole place feel exciting. But Worthing has plenty of nice buildings too, especially around the fringes of the town centre – Warwick Street and Brighton Road, Montague Place and Liverpool Terrace, even the bottom end of South Street and the Royal Arcade. There’s lots of lovely Deco and Art Moderne, some quirky Victorian, a bit of eccentric Edwardian, and even some quite chunky, urban Brutalism that I like.

But still, something’s missing. Partly, it’s the quality of shop fronts and shop fittings. In Lewes, the shops feel as though they’ve been there a hundred years without significant change – things feel old, and loved, and trusted – like heirlooms passed from father to son.

I visited a jewellers in Lewes, using a carefully, conscientuously converted butcher’s shop – he was proud of the marks the meat cleaver had left in the floor, and had made his work benches out of timber, blown down in the 87 gale, cut from trees that used to belong to Winston Churchill.

In Worthing too many shop fronts are cheap, and plastic, and the insides of many shops lack character. If it doesn’t feel like the shopkeepers love their own property, it’s hard for us as customers to feel much affection I think. There are exceptions – Pestle & Mortar in Portland Place could have been there fifty years, and Bookstack’s bonkers furniture collection makes it feel lived in.

But more importantly, it’s about stories. If you’ve lived in a town long enough, the place is alive with narrative. In Worthing, where my family have been for generations, I can tell you stories about my dad’s old record shop and where he used to sit selling IT; his father’s time working in an electricity showroom or guarding the gasworks against the IRA in the 1930s; the plots of land his father and grandfather owned, sold to The Corporation.

But sadly, Worthing’s shops don’t carry the same history. I’m sure only a handful remain from my childhood. Where are Bentalls, Gamleys and Allans the stationers? What happened to Optimus Books, Kinch & Lack for school uniform, even Woolworths and Sussex Stationers? Faced with a lack of continuity, it’s hard to love a place – it becomes a collection of retail units, not a tangled mess of shops and stories.

Lewes wears its history proudly, like an eccentric old uncle in waistcoat and pocket watch; and like the old uncle, it will tell you great stories if you ask.

Towns like Worthing need to rediscover that sense of place, the special corners, the stories and songs that weave a town together to make a community.

Best Shops in Britain: Secondo, Brixton

Customer in Secondo, Brixton

I spent 2009 looking long and hard at empty shops, and where the high street was going wrong. The best bit of all that work was finding the bits where the high street gets it right; the Best Shops in Britain.

While I was sitting in Brixton’s quirky Secondo, I Tweeted that I had found my new favourite cafe in London.

Secondo, though, is much more than that. It’s a vintage clothes shop with a well-stocked bar (a whole cupboard for whisky), a choice of coffee, delicious cake and great company.

There are racks and racks of vintage clothing, with quirky and cute alongside classic cut suits. Shoes, bags, hats … the full works. And lots of it. None of this silly habit some secondhand shops have of just racking out a few nice items. Lots, so you have to get stuck in, rummage and explore.

There are tables and chairs dotted about amongst the racks, so shopping doesn’t have to be hard work. Big comfy battered armchairs too.

I was offered a choice of coffees, without any pretension – just straight coffees with great flavour tips. I had something very chocolately. And was given a free slice of carrot cake as well.

It’s also the kind of place where you can’t help but talk to other customers, although my conversation about a chinchilla fur coat got surreal when a complete stranger (pictured) said it was the kind of coat you’d have to have sex on… like I said, the kind of shop where you talk to other customers.

So what makes Secondo such a success? It’s more than a clothes shop and more than a cafe – it’s more than the two combined. It’s a little bit of lifestyle, a place to spend time rather than shop. It’s on a fairly bleak street (at least when I visited on a cold Wednesday) and it offers a little pocket of warmth and friendship. This is – on a small, independent, off-high street level – destination shopping.

Oh – and the staff are brilliant too.

The Empty Shops Agenda*

The a, b, c, of Empty Shops

“The fact that the trees are in blossom very briefly is what makes them important to us.” Tim Anselm (The Beekeepers blog, 1st Apil 2009)

This is an agenda for people using empty shops, slack space and setting up meanwhile projects, looking at the when, why and how of empty shops based on years of experience. It’s also an attempt to make it clear that not every project is perfect for an empty shop. These are special places, and the meanwhile shopkeepers are special people.

a. Embrace The Meanwhile

Like the Buddhists say, it’s about living in the moment. Right now, there’s lots of empty space and all the experts agree, by the time I finish writing this sentence there will be even more. 1000 shops a week are closing. When we’re out of the current recession, there won’t be as much.

Enjoy it while you can – move quickly, be agile, and think on your feet, or you’ll miss it. Grasp the nettle, grab the moment, and embrace the meanwhile. What did you do in the recession, daddy?

b. Find The Character

Using empty shops for temporary pop-up projects is about much more than getting an idea onto the high street for cheap. The best projects are celebrating the local, finding the distinctive, engaging with the character of empty spaces, exploring new ideas and exciting the neighbourhood. As such, they are useful for community groups, local authorities and central government wanting to address a variety of different agendas.

These projects and the places have their own character – find it and embrace it, don’t try to make it look like everything else on the street – or like everything else you do, either.

c. Enjoy The End

The success of an empty shop project may be measured in many ways. It can increase footfall for a neighbourhood, supporting local traders. It can raise the profile of a community event. It can bring together a new partnership, whether that’s a group of excited, inspired and engaged individuals or a working relationship between organisations and authorities.

And it’s quite alright for a project not to work. Like Becket said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Empty shops make great laboratories for new ideas and new businesses. And– in a week, a month, or half a year – it will all be over. Look forward to the end, it means it’s time to start planning a new project.

*well, it was a manifesto – but that’s a bit ranty. A polite agenda, maybe.

Written as part of the Empty Shops Network project