Space reclaimers

Communities are using meanwhile leases to transform derelict sites where development has been put on hold, Jez Abbott reports.

Easter Curve: community resource on former railway land
Easter Curve: community resource on former railway land

The Moveable Feast in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, should not have been and probably would not have been but for the dreadful economy. The derelict land on which the community allotment now stands was lined up for houses. But The local developer was playing a waiting game. That land would continue to fester until the construction market picked up, making building more profitable. This was when landscape architect Nicole Collomb and friends persuaded the developer, Roost, to let them use the 0.25ha site for something completely different.

The site, now clear of mounds of rubbish, weeds and the obligatory supermarket trolley, is level and divided into neat plots of industrial-sized growbags on pallets and planters. Well-known graffiti artist Ben Eine gave the spray treatment to one of the boundary walls while downpipes to adjacent houses - also owned by Roost - will be rigged to butts for watering.

Collomb was given a £1,700 grant from the Women's Institute, but she also had help from a higher source. The Government's so-called "meanwhile leases" gave the Moveable Feast an even bigger push. The meanwhile leases were launched by Labour in 2009 to help revive empty shops and sites as well as prevent high-street decline (see box, p26).

Community horticulture

The policy makes it easier to change land use temporarily and, though new, meanwhile-lease gardens join a longer line of community horticulture movements such as guerrilla gardening and edible bus stops that tap into increased awareness of modern food production with experimental but pioneering projects to transform knotty urban sites.

"Rather than set up a nice ladies' gardening club, let's take a derelict site and turn it into something positive for St Leonards," says Collomb. "This is a dense urban area with a fair amount of deprivation. There are no town-centre allotments, waiting lists for those further out are very long and many local people live in gardenless flats.

"There is no reason you can't do this elsewhere," adds Collomb, who will have to in a year or two and is already in talks with Network Rail for a nearby site. "The model can be replicated - plant beds on pallets can be moved by forklift," adds Collomb, a former head of public-space management at CABE Space and a member of the "slightly alternative" Wonky WI.

She has no doubt that meanwhile leases are essential for making temporary use of derelict or vacant land and used the meanwhile project - - set up by the former Development Trusts Association, now called Locality, and funded by the Government for lease templates and guidance on their agreement with the landowner.

"It is good but has limitations such as not being allowed to sell the produce. We also had to get planning consent for change of use even though this was temporary, which adds to the cost of the garden. I think the biggest barrier to getting agreement to use these sorts of sites is the concern of landowners that it will affect later applications for planning consent.

"It also takes a leap of faith for landowners to allow locals to take over a site for their own uses. There are risks, but benefits too. We cleared a site of fly-tipping and made a secure boundary while the landowner gained good publicity. I would like planning authorities to provide reassurance, encouragement or even incentives for developers for temporary uses."

Green-space consultant Sid Sullivan agrees: "Local authorities should encourage meanwhile leases because they put pressure on owners, particularly developers, to do something with land that otherwise can fester and spoil communities. Planners surely want sensitive development on what amounts to vast amounts of land.

"Research suggests around six per cent of all brownfield and open sites are being banked by developers and landowners until economic conditions get better, which is an astronomical amount of space. With all this talk of climate mitigation, it seems absolutely shameless not to convert land into green, productive spaces wherever possible."

Sullivan also suggests that local authorities should publish lists each year showing the amount of land being held by developers, its current state and how long it has been empty. This, he says, would begin to raise awareness of what could be done to improve the local area and act as a stimulus for locals and green-space professionals to landscape urban areas.

Transforming spaces

The Department for Communities & Local Government had awareness-raising in mind when it freed up £500m to facilitate meanwhile leases in 2009. It has no figures on how many spaces have been transformed, but community interest company Meanwhile Space, which bills itself as "the voice of the meanwhile movement", estimates that more than 250 spaces have been transformed.

Some 24 projects were rolled out in the first year, including Bradford Urban Garden, a site earmarked for a shopping centre deferred due to the recession. Growing PlacE16 came about when Canning Town & Custom House Regeneration Programme in London offered temporary use of land that was eventually to form part of a new town centre.

The then communities secretary John Denham said on an inaugural visit to a meanwhile garden in King's Cross led by charity Global Generation that there was a need for more land for green spaces. The initiative tapped into the surging interest in grow your own and could act as counterpoint to worry about the rising cost of food and long allotment waiting lists.

Anther space, the Eastern Curve, formed part of the Making Space in Dalston project that won last year's Landscape Institute president's award. The abandoned scrap of railway land was identified as one of ten projects to receive London Development Agency funding for redevelopment. Within eight months, the site was transformed into a flourishing resource.

"The project is also a fantastic example of temporary use of land with a meanwhile arrangement in place," says Landscape Institute policy director Paul Lincoln of the 0.25ha site with trees, herb and vegetable areas led by landscape architect J&L Gibbons. "It has allowed the space to be enhanced for the community until more long-term development solutions are finalised."

What surprises Lincoln is not that one meanwhile landscape should win a top design award but that the job lot of them has emerged as anything but a fringe movement for those with alternative lifestyles. Blue-chip titan Canary Wharf Group welcomed a community space earlier this year at Wood Wharf, as did penthouse residents and yacht owners docked nearby.

The design, a result of a competition for design students run by the Landscape Institute, was given life when Canary Wharf Group agreed to build the garden themed on the great British summer. Wild flowers, paths, grass and trees in planters beside red umbrellas proved an instant hit with locals when it opened in early summer.

"What I really like about this space by Alick Nee and Danny Mitchell is it's been done by a hugely influential landowner who clearly thinks it's worth the effort to make a site attractive. It's a good example of bringing redundant land into use and making it a public amenity. It also adds value because Canary Wharf can offer another attraction to the boat owners."

Nee sums up his creation's charm to the high fliers, residents and office workers of Canary Wharf: "Britain is famed for its changeable weather, its washed out Wimbledon and surprise summers. Our design celebrates this, from the wind and the wet to beers on the beach, with a picnic lawn and screens all under umbrella-like canopies."

There is, however, a downside to meanwhile leases from Canary Wharf to St Leonards, says Lincoln, echoing a sentiment from Collomb, who says: "The risk for the developer is that you build a garden that's so beautiful local people won't want it turned into flats. This could prove a real barrier to creating this sort of thing."

Meanwhile leases

So-called "meanwhile leases" formed a key aspect of the Government's Looking After Our Town Centres document, launched by the Labour Government in 2009. It included an empty shops revival plan designed to prevent high street decline.

The Department for Communities & Local Government wanted to make land available for locals to grow produce. The definition of "meanwhile" is the temporary use of property for a socially beneficial purpose until it can be brought back into commercial use.

Meanwhile-lease agreements make it easier for the tenant and landlord to agree to short-term use or until a commercial tenant is found. The tenant does not have the right to take possession of the land while the lease can be terminated at any time with a short notice period.

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