(Empty) Space for Creativity

I recently gave a short talk at the symposium following the Atrium’s empty shops project. This is a write up of my notes for that talk.

I’ve lived in Cardiff for half my life. I’ve steadily fallen in love with the city since I first arrived and have been lucky enough to live everywhere from Cathays to Penarth and worked from Fairwater to the Bay. And as a result it’s the only UK city that I can ever see myself living in. Berlin, Tokyo, Melbourne and San Francisco all appeal to me. But I’d take Cardiff over London, Manchester, Birmingham or Edinburgh any day of the week.

It feels like a deeply creative, positive, ambitious city. I don’t want to anthropomorphise it too much, as a city is a complex mix of psychology, geography, sociology and history. But whatever it is, it’s working. Cardiff is a city that feels like it’s going places.

But at the same time, this recession is hitting the high street hard, with PricewaterhouseCoopers announcing 20 stores are closing every day in the UK. And Cardiff has shared as much of the burden as most. A wander around the first floor level of the Capitol Centre on Queen Street is a perfect example of this, with more empty units than occupied ones. But with ThinkARK doing a brilliant empty shops project last year, the Cardiff School of Art and Design using an empty space in Morgan Arcade for their degree show, and obviously the empty shop project by the ATRiuM, it seems clear that there’s scope to be using these spaces for something positive.

Instead of this recession being something that curtails the creative industries it could, as recessions have many times in the past, be taken as an opportunity to do things in a new and exciting way.

It’s almost certainly a statement a decade out of date to say that the internet has changed the way we come together. For creatives it is perhaps annoying that the homogenisation of mainstream global media now means that many shops, clubs and pubs seem to cater for the generic permatanned high street fashion junkie.

But the flip side is that social networking means clustering is easier.

In other words those who are into knitting and goth rock find a way to come together as brothers in arms with coder geeks who like hip hop. And it so much easier to find each other using social networking and social media, to create a coalition of independents, so to speak. Individuals are always difficult to cater for, but we can find solidarity together. And we can use this affiliation to make use of these empty spaces, whether it’s to display art, show films, work on community ideas, or create social enterprises.

I’ve already written about why I believe strongly in the importance of a physical hub or co-working space in the centre of town or the bay, not least because creatives have been shown to bring regeneration to areas they populate. A space that could cater for photographers, designers, developers and the like. All together. But for schemes like this to happen we need to use our full range of creativity, because no-one is going to throw money at these problems any more.

There are lots of schemes out there to aid us in creatively using space around us.

For example, the Atrium’s project was made possible by the co-operation of 3Space, there’s a great co-working hub in Culverhouse Cross, you can get involved with public art in Cardiff, find out more about the empty shops movement or find someone else who wants to co-work with you.

We shouldn’t rely on schemes, funding, or support (although admittedly we often do need the co-operation of local council and government when it comes to public spaces or buildings), but instead we should think unrestrictedly creatively about what we can do.

I’ll leave you with two great examples of out-of-the box, blue sky thinking (don’t worry, I’ve already slapped myself for using those phrases) when it comes to empty spaces.

Firstly, New York’s Highline which is a disused section of overground rail track – the kind that runs about ten metres above street level – which, instead of being torn down to make more space for building on, has been converted into a mile-long elevated park. Simple, but beautiful.

The Highline, NYC by Howard Walfish

And secondly The Summit (brought to my attention by Plastik’s own editor, Marc Thomas), which is a cafe that also operates as a co-working space for the startups of San Francisco. A world class cafe downstairs (with lots of power outlets and free wifi, of course) is complemented by a suite of flexible office space upstairs that is supported by a number of venture capitalists. It understands that entrepreneurs meet over coffee and laptops, and seeking to offer some structure to that process if it’s needed.

It’s creative use of spaces like this that allow spaces, people, communities and ideas to flourish. I believe Cardiff is at a tipping point, and we have all we need at our fingertips to take advantage and make brilliant things happen.

Neil Cocker is a local entrepreneur & consultant and has his own startup. You can find out more about him via NeilCocker.com, follow him on Twitter or see his About.Me page here