Recycle empty buildings: save green spaces!
An increasing number of empty buildings litter our cities and towns. Typical is the old Odeon building in the centre of Newcastle. Once the proud venue of Paramount Pictures, it became part of the Odeon Cinemas chain. But now the building has been standing abandoned and decaying for years, the cinema itself now part of the ghastly ‘Gate’ leisure complex on Newgate St. Indeed it might be suspected that it is hoped in certain quarters that the building will pass the round of no return and simply ‘have’ to be demolished.
Such empty properties are not, of course, confined to city centres. There is, for example, old World Furniture store just off Gosforth High Street in one of Newcastle’s inner suburbs. Once it was a garage (hence the bollards to stop cars from stolen from the forecourt) but then it went through various guises before ending up as a discount furniture store before it was abandoned (upstairs houses a fitness centre).
In some cases, charity shops have taken over the vacancies. Elsewhere stores of the Poundstretcher variety have filled them. But often the buildings just stand empty, literally and metaphorically a waste of space. In Newcastle, empty units are even beginning to spread in parts of the Eldon Square shopping mall, until recently a consumerist Mecca.
Here and there ‘Business Improvement District’ initiatives have been tried. Often they make little difference. The combined effects of the ‘Credit Crunch’ and its aftermath, the pull of out-of-town shopping malls, extortionate property rents, and the rise of Internet shopping have all dragged down one traditional high street after another. ‘Collective’ activities like cinemas and pubs have further suffered from the shift of many leisure activities inside private homes.
Independent greengrocers and fishmongers have been especially badly hit. The big supermarket chains now sell 97% of all food, some 75% by just the top four. Independent retailers, from bookshops and newsagents to fishmongers and greengrocers, have been ground under, replaced by what has rightly been called ‘Clone Town’ Britain.[i]
In some cases, notably the Post Office, facilities were closed by deliberate acts of vandalism to break up a valued public service. Libraries, local council offices and public swimming pools have disappeared from many High Streets and adjacent areas too, further robbing communities of what should be their heart.
In some areas, chains like Tesco and Sainsbury’s have opened neighbourhood mini-stores, sometimes joined by other types of chains such as Starbucks and Subway. All extend the ‘cloning’, entrench over-powerful monopolies and drain monies out of local economies. In the former case, the trend towards self-service checkouts further reduces employment opportunities. The supermarkets are also directly implicated in the colossal waste of food in Britain (some 8.5 million tonnes each year), not least by their special offers, ‘deals’ that tempt customers to buy far more than they can possibly eat.
Yet as the end of last year, it was reported that the big food retailers aim to increase trading space by almost 50% as biggest store opening programme in British retail history (equivalent in size to 500 football pitches). Tesco alone is already opening new UK shops at a rate of almost three a week. Despite the rhetoric about curbing edge-of-town sprawl, many are scheduled for out-of- town sites. The supermarkets are clearly banking on Britain’s rising population levels to boost overall consumer demand.
It will create even more empty property in town, More than 25,000 shops have closed since 2000 and more will join them. Land ownership patterns, pseudo-liberal trading policies (in practice, very ineffective laws against monopolies), and weak and being further weakened) planning laws have created a situation that the reforms proposed by Mary Portas, TV’s Queen of Shops and advisor to David Cameron, will do little to reverse.
Peak Oil and its growing impacts will eventually curb the above developments. But, in the meantime, we are saddled with large amounts of empty property. It is not just the waste of building resources. It is also the blight cast over entire neighbourhoods. One solution is, of course, is to encourage its conversion to housing, thereby reducing the pressure fro greenfield development.
However, there are other creative solutions. One is to provide public monies to take over key sites like the Odeon building and use them for so-called Community Economic Laboratories. Under one big roof would be gathered a hub of ventures that point the way to a sustainable, human scale and needs-oriented economy: food co-ops, food storage facilities for local growers, a health centre (in the tradition of the famous Peckham Experiment of the 30s[ii]); tool libraries (how many of us own tools we use once every ‘blue moon’?), law centres, credit unions, recycling/ reuse facilities, share schemes (transport etc.), adult education…
The key thing is the bringing together of disparate but directly related activities, some of which already exist but are scattered all over the place into one convenient and very visible location. ‘Iconic’ buildings in central business areas are therefore ideal. Such initiatives surely offer more hope than simply letting rack and ruin spread. [iii]
[iii] Examples include: