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Meaningful Meanwhile: citizens not customers

How can we use meanwhile use to create long-term change?

The Marmalade Festival sounds like a farmers market stocking all things jams and preserves but in actuality, it is an Oxfordshire-based celebration aiming to create positive change by bringing together community organisations, local authorities, educational institutions and citizens. 

The Footwork team landed in Oxford on the final day of the Marmalade Festival to attend Makespace Oxford’s event ‘Unlocking Space for an Inclusive Economy’, based on the  groundbreaking pilot project ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire’.

Image courtesy of Footwork

The ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire’ programme is rooted in spatial injustice, and seeks to combat the negative impact of buildings lying vacant in between uses. The programme does this by ‘reanimating’ empty buildings and bringing in community organisations as tenants with affordable rent, at between 20% to 80% of local market value.

The programme ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire’ was curated in December 2020 by a collaboration of Oxfordshire’s five district councils, led by Oxford City Council. Together, they secured a £1.9 million capital grant from Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP) through the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government’s ‘Getting Building Fund’.

With the key objectives to tackle rising vacancy numbers, bring people back to the high street, create quality jobs, foster an inclusive economy and lower barriers to access. 

Over the course of two years the programme succeeded in:

  • Agreeing 28 leases

  • Reanimating 3,344 sqm of space

  • Housing 100 organisations

  • Creating 200 jobs

  • All with an average lease length of 2.5 years

The mammoth effort by the Meanwhile in Oxfordshire team cannot be underestimated. Working collaboratively with partners, a shortlist of 350 appropriate empty buildings was identified, throwing light on the systemic nature of the issue of vacancy. 

One of the keys to a successful ‘reanimation’ of a building, was the identification of a landlord who is sympathetic to the goals of the programme and is amenable to going on a collaborative journey. 

A challenge that was ever-present across the programme was the balancing act between providing low rates to residents, predominantly non-profits and arts groups, whilst also breaking even. 

From a resident’s perspective the programme has allowed activities to snowball as many opportunities have been unlocked as a direct result of having access to an affordable and secure space.

Image courtesy of Footwork

The Hub and Spoke Model

With the work of the programme spanning 16 towns in the county of Oxford, the team created a ‘hub and spoke’ model to try to ensure physical and social support structures between each distant space. The model connects larger, multi-resident hub spaces to a series of smaller, single resident spaces within a neighbourhood. 

The central hub was designed to create a critical mass of activity, energy and support which would inspire the unlocking of additional spaces in a neighbourhood.

Whilst acknowledging the difficulties in ‘reanimating’ a space in each neighbourhood, has this interwoven and mycelial model been the key to programme successfully housing 100 organisations with 631 organisations applying for space?

Image courtesy of Footwork

So, how can we use meanwhile use to create long-term change?

With meanwhile use being inherently transient, how can we harness the benefits experienced to create permanent, systemic change? Within groups, a dynamic World Cafe-style workshop followed, deep-diving into this challenge. 

Conversations ranged from language and perspective - can we change the way we think about and value property? What would be the tangible drivers for widespread mindset change? What happens when we talk the language of landlords from a viability perspective? 

Finally, conversations concluded on the need to view people simply as citizens and not customers, and to measure value through activity and not reduce it to transactions. 

The tactic employed by the Meanwhile in Oxfordshire programme is ‘meanwhile use’, but their agenda is long term community place-based renewal. To achieve spatial justice ‘meanwhile use’ must be a catalyst for building power locally, as well as moving towards community ownership.

You can read more about Makespace Oxford’s work on the ‘Meanwhile in Oxfordshire’ pilot programme in their impact report

Thank you to Andy Edwards (Programme Lead for MiO and Makespace Oxford Executive Director) the Makespace Oxford team, and the panellists:

  • Penny Lawrence, former Makespace Strategic Director

  • Tawio Oluwatuyi: Resident (Taiwil Fasjion)

  • Helen Bailie: Resident (Sabali Pots)

  • Neil Wild: Wild Property Management

  • Alex Lui: Makespace Oxford

  • Steve Weitzel: Oxford City Council


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