What to do with Oxford’s empty shops?

Emma Gordon, Makespace Coordinator on being part of a community-led and grassroots call to put empty shops to better use. Photos by Youssef Sida.

Last night Makespace Oxford attended the “What to do about Oxford’s empty shops”  community discussion group at Open House on Little Clarendon Street and what a turn out! Starting from a little post on facebook by two concerned citizens, it gathered so much interest it became an event and that event was attended by at least 130 concerned individuals and even a sprinkling of public officials. In fact, there were so many that Common Ground the neighbouring co-working coffee shop stayed open especially so that we could spill over into their space for the event. Aptly both Open house and Common Ground are in what were once empty shops.

As Makespace Oxford’s business model is based around finding ‘meanwhile spaces’ to turn into affordable space for organisations working on social and environmental justice issues –  we have obviously been thinking about the topic of empty and underused spaces a lot. Where are they, who owns them, how does one go about persuading landlords to make them available and of course once you’ve got them, how do manage them and make sure they make the most difference to the most people? All of these questions and more were on the table at last nights event.

Topics up for discussion included “How could artists, creatives and makers use empty shops?”, “What can we do with Cornmarket Street?”, “How can we build skills training and development?” and my personal favourite “How do we take things forward?” The 130 were encouraged to dip in and out of the various topics depending on what inspired them.

I was struck by how much good conversation and constructive knowledge there was surrounding each topic. It felt like an enormously broad range of expertise and points of view, all coming together to flesh out the landscape in quite intricate detail. There are precedents elsewhere in the country, there are those that have been working on this for years, there are those in the council willing to listen, there are small businesses and organisations chomping at the bit to make their ideas happen, there are idealist who see it all in the wider context of empowerment and economic growth for small business and there are organisations like ourselves, trying to broker and facilitate the nuts and bolts of it. What a team!

The seed has been planted, the soil is fertile and there is expertise, energy and enthusiasm a plenty for moving the concept forward. Not even a day later, we have a Public Facebook group and a means of communication. Attendees were encouraged to take on a particular executable action and there will be enquiries made in all directions to try to gather the information we need to take things on to the next level.

At Makespace we’ve recently managed the lease and supported Open House to transform from an idea into a reality. The action point we’re taking away is to try our hardest to talk with the landlords and owners of more empty and underused shops and then do everything we can to make it easier for small, innovative and purpose driven organisations and individuals to access them.

We’re excited to be a part of such a vibrant group and looking forward to seeing where this wave of energy gets us, watch this space!