Meet the Londoners who are setting up new pop-up villages in London's empty building sites

Thousands of the capital's building sites that are waiting for planning permission are lying empty. Resourceful Londoners are striking deals with developers to use the land for pop-up community spaces with free allotments, food trucks, art spaces - and silent discos.

Pop-ups — short-life businesses in temporarily vacant shops and spaces — have become a conspicuous part of our cityscape, and now resourceful Londoners are ambitiously extending the trend to empty buildings and derelict plots of land awaiting redevelopment.

With the capital undergoing a property boom, thousands of sites requiring planning permission lie fallow when they have the potential to become so-called “meanwhile places”. 

These are types of areas that sometimes wait years for construction work to begin that can, in the meantime, be used as community gardens, outdoor theatre venues, art galleries, music halls, workshops, children’s parks, nurseries and allotments.

It can mean everybody wins — the community does not have to live with an eyesore, while developers save money keeping these sites safe while earning brownie points for allowing their land to have a useful purpose. 

A triangular patch of industrial land in Fleet Street Hill, moments from Brick Lane and Spitalfields Market, was an intimidating and unkempt space of use only to drug abusers, down-and-outs and fly-tippers. 

Flanked on two sides by train tracks, the site was owned by Network Rail before being snapped up by developer Londonewcastle, which recently acquired planning consent for a mixed-use project of homes and offices for start-up businesses, due to commence next year. 

Meanwhile, the plot has been transformed into Nomadic Community Gardens, a one-acre multi-use site with 100 free allotments, events and  performance spaces, a caravan café and a public park adorned with street art and sculpture. 

 James Wheale, 33, the energetic force behind Nomadic Community Gardens, says: “When I approached Londonewcastle, I had no architect’s model or fancy brochure to show them, but they believed in what we were doing.”

Wheale negotiated a temporary-use lease for peppercorn rent, was given £1,000 to get the ball rolling and put £7,000 of his own money into the not-for-profit social enterprise company.

He is an eco-activist, inspired by “urban agriculture” projects in  European cities such as Berlin and Amsterdam that try to improve quality of life and bring social change to communities.


How Londoncastle's Fleet Street site will look when developed

After leaving school at 16 to become a building labourer, he later trained as a carpenter making theatre sets before going to university in his early twenties and getting involved in green politics.

The company is called Nomadic because it moves on to other brownfield sites once the temporary leases lapse, using the experience and skills acquired, and the contacts and knowledge of the processes gained.

“There are dozens of volunteers and, apart from the allotment users, we get hundreds of visitors every day, especially at weekends when there are walking tours of the area,” he says.

“The central function is food production, but we run workshops teaching DIY skills. We hold concerts and  networking events and have become a recycling centre for local goods and materials. We have people from all walks of life, from accountants to young out-of-work people.”

Hayley Edwards and her mobile cafe at Nomadic Community Gardens

Beneficial to everyone
Hayley Edwards, who runs Roving Café from a Piaggio van parked at the gardens, says: “The place is so full of life. There’s a big mix of people and the atmosphere and energy are fantastic. People pop in to watch the graffiti artists, while parents bring their kids to play in a converted fishing boat.”

PC Murray, of Spitalfields and BanglaTown Neighbourhood Police Team, says it reduces anti-social behaviour. “It’s had a positive impact on the community. People have helped turn bare land into an urban oasis,” he adds.

Nomadic Gardens’ lease expires in December, when Wheale and his team will move on to another site in Canning Town. East London and Docklands are ripe territory because of the number of housing developments in the  pipeline. Londonewcastle will be building 34 mixed-tenure low-rise homes at the Fleet Street Hill site. A new public square will link with a new pedestrian route from Brick Lane.

“We are talking to other landowners and developers to promote meanwhile uses,” says sales and marketing manager Natalie Hall. The company has a track record of freeing up pre-development land for community and cultural uses. Its White Cube-style project space in Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, is a notable arts and exhibition venue. 

Plans have been submitted to build 80 warehouse-style apartments on the former printworks, and the site will continue to have a gallery space.

A "silent" disco at Hadley Property Group's site in Camberwell

The art of the matter
Camberwell Arts Quarter is an upcoming scheme of 164 flats, comprising new builds and retained warehouse-style conversions, as well as artist studios and shops. It will also offer 43 shared-ownership flats.

Hadley Property Group received planning consent last February, since when the site’s dilapidated warehouses have been used for fashion shoots, music videos and art installations.

“We wanted to tap into the creative vibe of nearby Camberwell College of Arts. The buildings offered an edgy  and vibrant urban backdrop, and have been really well used,” says Hadley’s Matt Rimmer.

There are also meanwhile spaces at Hale Village in Tottenham, where there is a rolling programme to build more than 1,000 homes. Lee Valley Estates, owner of the 12-acre site, is considering “mobile” homes for people in housing need on parts of the site, while infrastructure is installed.

“It’s a sensible and cost-effective solution,” says chairman Michael Polledri. “The homes could be stacked up like shipping containers and plugged into all the services.”

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