Culture

ReSpace empty buildings to give communities more opportunities

Award winning model for reusing empty buildings can be replicated across the country say judges

Last month, a tiny not-for-profit made up of voluntary citizens won a prestigious award at a ceremony in London’s ‘Crystal’ venue. Nominated for the Innovative Spaces category, they beat a luxury hotel chain and a Russian Institute for Urban Development and went on to then receive the Overall Winner for the Sustainable City Award 2019!

Deputy Mayor for Energy & Environment presents award alongside London Assembly Member, Jennette Arnold

The judges’ decision was influenced by the capacity of the ReSpace model for reusing empty buildings, to be replicated across the country. They were also impressed by the ability to create so much positive change and lasting impact using no money.

ReSpace Projects was established in London in 2015 by a small group of citizens who wanted to demonstrate that issues of waste and inequality could in part be resolved by simply sharing resources. At the time, there were an estimated 8,000 homeless people in London – and around 80,000 empty residential buildings.

The Hive’s ‘pay as you feel’ supermarket from surplus food - and tyre totem pole!

The founder of ReSpace Projects, Gee Sinha, experienced first-hand the way in which people can live on society’s waste, from empty buildings to food and furniture – and the way in which people’s circumstances can change: He lost his parents, his house and his successful job in marketing in quick succession and found himself homeless. He then lived in a squat with friends and was able to rebuild his life, but realised that he felt the need to try and change the system that clearly wasn’t working for the majority.

Gee convinced a developer in Hackney who had an empty office block awaiting redevelopment, to lend his building to ReSpace for six months. The group set up a showcase building called Hive Dalston, which went on to achieve staggering results; this ‘independent social space’ became a community hub that hosted hundreds of events for free; housed people, fed, entertained and informed for nearly three years!

Packed out screening of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

Crew behind the cafe serving free lunch

The Hive sometimes hosted up to seven events a day, run by a volunteer crew of people from all walks of life; One member had joined when sleeping rough. By the end of the project he had been offered the role of Building Manager and the Hive had paid for his training in security - he now has a steady income.

International planner and author, Charles Landry, speaking at the first ReSpace Conference, ‘holistic urban regeneration’

In the two years since the Hive was returned to the landlord for redevelopment, ReSpace have been advising and resourcing a number of projects across London and further afield, in Romford, Peterborough and Southend. Their latest project is back in Hackney’s Dalston, where another office block had been vacated for redevelopment.

Music jam at the Craftory Newham

Live art in progress at one of the New England’s ‘Art Out!’ events

In just three weeks the collaborators using the space now include artists fusing plastic bags to create a versatile and flexible waterproof material; carpenters, weavers, jewellery makers, art therapy, sustainable fashion designers and a dominoes club that doubles up – incredibly – as a church! A room that two months ago was a solicitor’s office, has even become a pop up Angolan restaurant.

Innovative sustainability workshop reusing plastic bags to create new materials at Zero LDN

One of three looms rescued from landfill and brought to life at Zero LDN

The most inspiring thing about these projects, is the level of mutual respect that people seem to instinctively show one another, when people are trusted to share space and resources. However, Gee acknowledges there can be people who cause problems for open source, community projects of this nature;

“Our projects are attractive to – and welcome – vulnerable people. It’s really why we started. Often people are searching for a community or looking for a chance to start out with something or make a difference to their local area. Vulnerability comes in all shapes and sizes – and sometimes people can bring a strong ego to a project, which can negatively impact other volunteers and collaborators.

We are tolerant and compassionate, but we do put the project first. Sometimes we might ask someone to take a short ‘holiday’ from the space, signpost them for help – or ask them to come back when they’re feeling better. We’ve just put a sign up on the front door of the Zero LDN project in Dalston which says, “Come with love or come back later”. It’s not perfect but it certainly helps these projects keep the vibe positive.”

Planning sessions for a performance about clean air at the Tate

The social and environmental benefits of ‘respacing’ are clear to any visitor – and there’s no doubt that this system of reusing society’s waste for communities and social groups is a substantially more efficient way of managing our resources. So what is next for ReSpace?

Eco-friendly workshops for children - making bee hotels and tote bags from old t-shirts!

“We hope that in the near future ‘respacing’ will be the standard, rather than an alternative. Being so successful at the Sustainable City Awards was a fantastic achievement – and we hope it will give building owners such as developers and local authorities, even more incentive to let us take care of their empties.”

Follow ReSpace Projects on Twitter or Instagram @ReSpaceProjects to follow their adventures or visit their website for more information www.respaceprojects.org

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