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[re]defining Meanwhile

How does the traditional notion of private ownership shape what we mean by ‘meanwhile’? How might LiveSpace reimagine what we mean by “meanwhile”?

“Once you recognise that land in limbo is a resource, an asset rather than a liability, then actually it’s inexcusable to simply be in denial about it and do nothing about it” Chris Baines

The UK has seen enormous land price inflation, initially this was thought of as a catalyst for growth and regeneration, but actually the increase has put pressure on the economy, suppressing investment and causing­ a housing shortage (Parvin, 2018).

As we transition towards climate justice, the built environment plays a vital role. Currently, large areas of land are left vacant due to the temporal and spatial fluctuations inherent in capitalism (Madanipour, 2017, p.1093). Our economy, with its cycles of investment and disinvestment, gives rise to large amounts of disused space within our cities. Meanwhile spaces expose potential opportunities to reuse rather than rebuild.

What is Meanwhile space?

Meanwhile, by definition, is “the intervening period” (Meanwhile, no date). Meanwhile space is defined as the “short-term use of temporarily empty buildings such as shops until they can be brought back into commercial use”. (Stevens, 2020) As Peter Bishop states, a city is “never complete, always adapting” (Bishop, 2020). He ascribes three dimensionalities to urban design; what happens before (the context), what happens next (the sequential) and what happens in between (Bishop and Williams, 2012). Bishop argues that temporary activities are therefore an intentional interim. Meanwhile spaces act as vital cogs that when engaged, form part of a much larger, complex system; a city.

Rebar, a collective, temporarily activated a parking space and on-street parking meter (Hou, 2010). By ‘renting’­ this piece of the city they created a ‘park’ that served as a Meanwhile space. Once two hours had passed, the parking space was returned to its former condition. Such “temporary appropriations for legitimate community use”, of land made vacant by development and redundancy, challenge how we value space within communities — and this is the essence of Meanwhile space.

Figure 1: PARK(ing) by the collective Rebar, 2005. This small parklet has become a model for reclaiming land within cities known now as ‘Park(ing) Days’.

What is land?

“Mud is a natural structure. Land is a social structure.”

Land is not just the ground we stand on but a complex system of “social contracts, legal and market frameworks that confer usefulness — or rights of use” (Parvin, 2018). In London, sites can remain empty for many years due to lack of commercial potential and the lengthy timescales of the planning process (Latham, 2018). Local authorities and developers own most vacant sites within London, yet “only one of 33 London borough councils publishes a database of vacant property and only one council keeps a list of groups interested in vacant spaces” (Latham, 2018). What would be the incentive for private land to be included in LiveSpace?

What is land ownership?

According to traditional notions of private ownership, land is judged according to its market value. The perception of an area, rather than its ‘inherent value’, is a key driver of price (Crean, 2020). The rebalancing of the inherent and market value of housing stock occurs slowly, weighted by ‘desirability’ (Crean, 2021). Meanwhile space creates a new type of ownership in which land is not only an asset, due to its flexibility, efficiency and affordability, but also a platform, that gives the community a voice. Meanwhile space refers to the 3D space within the LiveSpace grid, which sits on the 2D plot of the land. In Meanwhile ownership, you own what is on the land, in the space, during your agreed time frame, and not the land itself.

Figure 2: Meanwhile spaces add value through flexibility, affordability and efficiency.

Could we redefine what is meant by Meanwhile spaces by creating more effective community uses and challenging land value inflation? LiveSpace is a model that seeks to subvert traditional methods of ownership. It views land and buildings as separate and emphasises value in vertical segmentation, unlocking space not land in three-dimensions.

Misalignment of the definition “Meanwhile”

In 2014, Nick Clegg promoted Meanwhile spaces, in order to “match entrepreneurs and community groups with local authorities and landowners to find temporary uses for vacant buildings and land”, in the hope of encouraging interaction with residents and the community (Clegg, 2014). Meanwhile spaces have a powerful potential to create short-term value from underused or unused land and buildings, and to transform landscapes (Hatherley, 2019). However, for some communities, the term has become associated with gentrification and disenfranchisement. In addition to this, local authorities can be cautious of Meanwhile space because they associate them with the risk of squatters and other damaging social problems. As Nicolas Bosetti argues, “one of the main barriers to Meanwhile space is the perception that hoarding a site is safer” (Latham, 2018).

Bosetti, one of the researchers for The Centre for London thinktank, published a document outlining how, despite a boom decade for Meanwhile activity, London landowners’ overriding perception is that these spaces create considerable liabilities for a small reward (Bosetti and Colthorpe, 2018). Fran Tonkiss describes Meanwhile space as “good”, due to the ephemeral and temporal materiality of “business as usual”, and “bad”, as it promotes a ’low — or no cost’ culture (Tonkiss, 2013). What is our role as architects in navigating this fluctuating landscape?

Meanwhile spaces are often not prioritised within the planning process, exposing the slowness and rigidity of the current system. LiveSpace argues that applications for Meanwhile spaces must be reviewed in a time-sensitive and flexible manner, and granted similar rights to permitted development. The Nightingale Hospital, where a temporary change of use was licenced under a permitted development order during the current pandemic, proves that this can be done (Branson, 2020).

LiveSpace defines Meanwhile space in relation to the fourth dimension; time. This model contests traditional notions of placemaking as long term, permanent strategies that “create structured, prescriptive use of space” (Milliken, 2014). Meanwhile space sits “in-between” the process of placemaking, adding value through flexibility, and characterised by “spatial interventions and events, closely related to the concept of informal urbanism in post-colonial theory” (Mehrotra, 2008).

However, Meanwhile activities that are planned to occur in the short term, in reality can last for many years. Another issue is that currently, the landowner benefits from Meanwhile space due to the traditional terms of ownership. And what if Meanwhile acts, inadvertently, as a form of resistance to reclaiming back land for community use?

The misalignments of perception of such spaces suggest the need to redefine this term.

Current ownership & Meanwhile spaces

“The homes we need in the places we want to live in at prices we can afford, so that all of us are free to live where we can connect our talents with opportunity” (Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2020).

The ownership of spaces determines physical access to them and what is on them, and involves maintaining, controlling, and generating revenue (Pasquini, 2017). The traditional sale of land is unsustainable in the long term as it is highly subject to speculation on land value uplift, which prices out small self-builders and incentivises minimal quality and performance (Parvin, 2018). In the UK, there has been a shift towards a private property-based society in which land is a commodity. This has created the class of rentiers, who “create nothing, make nothing, do nothing; they just passively accept the rewards of ownership” (Frase, 2016).

Could Meanwhile space be an act of resistance? (Leyssen, 2018)

As outlined in the paper Property Rights/Property Wrongs: Micro-Treaties with the Earth, western legal systems are based on “accumulative concepts which inform a specific relationship to the land: (Banville and Lapalme, 2020)

  1. If you are not right-bearing, you are owned.
  2. 2. Ownership is expressed through (written) contracts between sovereign and autonomous humans.
  3. 3. Earth is the “background against which humans live out history” (Mills, 2016).

What would happen if we considered ownership as a practice of “treaty-making” rather than private possession? DML argues that we must rethink our existing relationship with land, emphasising the responsibilities of owning land rather than just the rights (Banville and Lapalme, 2020). When discussing urban assets, he states that private ownership is not an “inevitable destiny but a conscious political choice with many different alternatives”(Banville and Lapalme, 2020). Within an altered relationship, the ownership of a home and the land is an act of deep reconciliation, a “practice of care” (Banville and Lapalme, 2020). The LiveSpace platform shifts Meanwhile spaces into being about more than just land itself. If space is a commodity and these spaces add value for the community, the terms of ownership change. Value is derived from what occurs within the 3D space. The landowner does not benefit because they own the land; the temporary activity occurring on the site adds the value. Consequently, Meanwhile spaces would encourage responsibility and more effective practices of care.

The majority of Meanwhile spaces are publicly owned, as can be seen in the Mayor of London’s Small Sites Programme, an online platform showing sites in London (of less than 0.5 acres) available on a leasehold basis “with peppercorn rents and a 50% recapture on land value uplift”. (Small sites, no date) To the public and local developers, the concept of land economy is complex, and LiveSpace seeks to build on models currently in place, and to create a transparent and accessible online platform that shows registered land that can be accessed through a new form of ownership.

LiveSpace challenges the notion of ownership as it looks at property ownership in a less conventional sense. It allows us to rethink existing relations to land value, what happens on the land, and the value of the space. By acting differently to traditional ownership, and by maintaining the land as affordable, it enables such sites to be activated for many years, and this leads to better land value. LiveSpace will give homeowners more flexibility, and property ownership will change over time as Meanwhile space occurs on plots on a domestic scale that are less attractive to developers, creating a power shift. The LiveSpace model will then work as a permitted development expansion, so homeowners can either rent out or build up. Furthermore, there have been substantial changes to the “class use” of buildings, an early example of which is WeWork. Due to the pandemic, we see an increase in work-from-home culture, which will create a large amount of disused space. Permitted development legislation will give rise to greater flexibility of use change, transitioning available space into units (Crean, 2021).

Figure 3: Permitted development and the LiveSpace model.

The idea is that the LiveSpace mechanism would work by disconnecting buildings from the underlying land. In this demarcation, a building is treated like a consumer durable with a given life, leading to a “components-as-a-service business model”(Parvin, 2018). Bruno Latour argues that objects, and the built environment, have agency and are elements within a network “always in the making”, known as the actor-network (Latour, 2008, p.262). His ideas demonstrate how Meanwhile space can become a form of resistance.

Land Value — What is ‘value’? What is valuable to society?

It can be argued that land is separate from what sits upon it; therefore, obtaining planning permission inherently increases the value. If the cost of land is not in play, what are the benefits of Meanwhile space occurring on the land? Currently, landowners have no incentives; value is derived from speculative inflation rather than improvements. As Churchill said, all landlords need to do is “sit still and watch complacently”– land captures value (Churchill, 1909). Yet the value of land changes in response to Meanwhile space. Centre for London’s report on Meanwhile space argues that it adds value in three ways; “efficiency — the benefits of avoiding vacancy; affordability — the benefits of adding affordable space; and flexibility — the benefits of doing projects on an interim basis” (Bosetti and Colthorpe, 2018).

Affordable Land, a research project completed by OpenSystemsLab, looks at councils leasing plots to individuals or organisations at a fixed, affordable price, rather than selling it to land traders (Parvin, 2018). As the land remains council-owned, the land value is fixed, increasing only by inflation, thereby reducing speculative land grabbing. The land is locked at the inflation rate, and money cannot be made on the land, only on the buildings on the land. The landowner has access and the right to use the land, but value does not come from the land itself (Parvin, 2018). If we argue that land value is not created by landowners but by the community; there is a demand for this new land (from people who are caught in private rented accommodation and cannot afford to buy) which would be made accessible through LiveSpace. The LiveSpace mechanism would work in a similar way to Affordable Land.

Figure 4: Ownership model, adapted from Affordable Land by OSL.

LiveSpace looks at a different way of conceptualising land ownership through land lease. In leasing the land for a fixed time, for example ten years, individuals need to make something more modular, promoting a ‘leave no trace mentality’ and encouraging circular components. This has the potential to promote a culture of recovering the value from our existing homes, driving a new market of reuse — “every home is a warehouse of its parts” (Parvin, 2018). This leasing method does not lend itself to land extortion, which happens in more traditional models where there is no control over what is built on the acquired land — in which, over time, the land value increases as the house deteriorates. One of the property system’s current issues is landlord incentives to invest in property maintenance. LiveSpace would prevent this from happening. With a short-term lease, ownership is maintained over land and what is on the land, meaning there is greater flexibility and control over space.

Socially, Meanwhile space “unlocks underused space for the benefit of community cohesion, placemaking and enterprise” (Meanwhile Space CIC, no date). The model allows neglected space to act as a testbed for both the community and developers, trialling future development opportunities and easing the transition of such developments. Community Land Trust (CLT) organisations work with residents, communities and stakeholders to provide “genuinely and permanently affordable homes” (JTP, 2018). In 2012, the Mayor of London secured a portion of St Clement’s redevelopment as London’s first CLT. JTP, as architect and masterplanner, worked with the East London CLT and residents to create a cohesive community, selling homes to local people at a price linked to local average wages (St Clement’s, 2011). The Richardo Community Foundation was set up to own the freehold of the site at St Clement’s, and it spends any ground rents on good works in the neighbourhood and “ensure[s] the site remains in community ownership in perpetuity” (Ricardo Community Foundation, no date). When I spoke to Cindy Dos Santos, the Senior Architect involved in the project, she said: “Throughout the process, Shuffle festival organised Meanwhile spaces on site. The largest was that attended by Danny Boyle, which included golf, exhibitions and secret cinema” (Dos Santos, 2021). The facilitation of a Meanwhile-use festival, by the enterprise Shuffle, “reanimated dilapidated buildings and reacquainted local residents with the previously closed off space”(JTP, 2018). When I interviewed Charles Campion, Partner-in-Charge of Collaborative Planning at JTP, he emphasised the social, economic and environmental value of community involvement due to their local knowledge and expertise, which in combination with the architect’s expertise “always pays dividends” (Campion, 2021). He discussed how community involvement is not always a smooth process and said that people in the St Clements project welcomed the changes as the site had “laid empty for 12 years and people do not like seeing that as it does not have a physical heart for the community” (Campion, 2021).

LiveSpace will give the community power to ensure the mutual benefit of the local authority and the community. As architects, we must ensure community-led design, working collaboratively with our professional knowledge.

Meanwhile spaces, the temporary activation of underused sites within our city, will act as testbeds for communities and allow opportunities to flourish. However, the model is not guaranteed to be successful as its economic viability cannot be determined in the long term due to lack of existing data. Our role as architects is vital in ensuring these small changes aid regeneration. Reuse is an essential aspect of the city, and we must consider the broader impact of our work (The Architects Code: Standards of Professional Conduct and Practice, no date). Meanwhile space retains value at the inflation rate with no loss or gain in value on the land — ownership within the space is not defined by monetary value but by other forces such as the community. The relationship to the land is less about the landlord and more geared towards land use and societal benefits. This therefore raises questions about who determines what is valuable? Governments (local and central) can influence behaviour through legislation, which gives us an insight into what society considers valuable. When discussing this with Hector Crean from OpenSourceLab, he talked about how today’s laws, which are so entrenched in the system, reflect a previous society with outdated values (Crean, 2021). So, which specific legislation, at both a central and local government level, will promote what we deem valuable today? Green bonds, which encourage green finance and “internalise the externalities of climate change into the economic system”, are an example of the kinds of incremental attempts to create a system of change in which LiveSpace corroborates (Crean, 2021).

FIgure 5: LiveSpace model gives authority to the community/use rather than the landlord.

Meanwhile space is inherently tricky to define concisely. As the built environment is never complete and always adapting, the definition must be fluid. It could be reimagined as the non-permanent use of space to allow the community to reconnect. By challenging our relationship to land and notions of value, LiveSpace proposes a new form of ownership that gives the community authority. Small changes, such as taking responsibility for land, will contribute to climate justice.

References

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