The pop-up paradigm: They may not last for long but temporary shops are here to stay

Pop-ups have become a key feature of the modern British high street.

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The Independent Online

Head for your local high street, town centre or main road shopping strip. Wherever you stand – whether it's High St Kensington, London or Yorkshire Street in Oldham – you're likely to notice something. Just look at those empty shops.

As the double-headed demon of a crippling recession and a rise in internet and out of town shopping batters high streets and stores such as HMV, La Senza, Peacocks, Blacks and Past Times, the number of empty shopping units expands. And the more empty shops there are, the less appealing our towns become to visit. The less appealing a place is to visit, the less footfall it gets and the more neighbouring businesses struggle. Then they close down and before you know it you're queuing to get into a retail park.

A recent Government report called Understanding High Street Performance, which complements Mary Portas's report on high streets, points out the severe pressures that towns and retailers face. Shops have seen their rents, business rates and material costs rise significantly, while at the same time being squeezed by the supermarkets and online retailers. Add that to a crippling downturn and the result is that between 2000 and 2009 the UK lost 15,000 town centre stores. That means that one out of six shops lies vacant.

So what can be done with all this empty space? If retailers and other businesses aren't able to commit to five or 10-year tenancies and entrepreneurs are unable to risk thousands of pounds in what could be seen as declining areas, then are our towns doomed? Well it's unlikely to be that bad, but the British town centre requires major surgery. And one of the most effective ways of healing a town is also one of the most temporary.

It's the economic and artistic power of the pop-up that Dan Thompson is seeking to highlight in a new Arts Council-backed report called Pop-Up People. The report, which launches next week in Worthing in an old Allied Carpets store-turned vibrant company HQ for the firm Fresh Egg, will urge landlords, local authorities and budding entrepreneurs to test out pop-up businesses and to convince them that temporary shops can have as much benefit as long-term ones. "Pop-up People advocates something temporary," explains Sally Abbott, director of the Arts Council in the South-east, "and that's quite a challenge for agencies keen on long-term sustainable approaches. But there's absolutely room for both."

For Thompson, an artist by trade who rose to prominence last summer with his involvement in the post-riot clean-up, pop-ups matter because they can fail without disastrous consequences: "Pop-ups give people a chance to experiment," he says, "to try something new, to take a chance on something.

"We've got to reinvent our towns, we've got to work out what they're for, we've got to find new uses for empty shops. And pop-ups are a way to test ideas, to try things out and to fail. The report says 'failure is completely OK', we have to be able to find our way to what works by some things failing."

A good example is the restaurant world, a notoriously difficult industry in which to sustain a business. Some of the most hyped launches in recent months have succeeded because their temporality has increased their appeal. Good pop-ups, such as Meateasy, a burger joint set for a few months in a disused pub in New Cross, south London can drive customers to new locations too.

Thompson began to get involved in pop-ups through his art career a decade ago. Then, they were a good way of creating an exhibition space quickly and quirkily. In the preceding years the notion of the pop-up has risen in the national consciousness and – arguably – gone back through the other end of being "cool". He's aware of the associations some have with pop-ups but is adamant that they're not supposed to be a hip thing. "We found that pop-ups are widespread. We're not looking at places that are going to become hip. Worthing is not going to become hip, Bedford, Coventry... these places will always be Bedford and Coventry and that's where the interesting stuff is happening, in places that aren't ever going to become fashionable but in places where local people love their town and love what makes it special."

Two of those people are Kayte Judge and Erica Ross from Bedford. They spotted an empty development in the centre of town and cajoled its owners – the local council and a private landlord – into letting them use the empty units for free for a couple of days to host an art festival. They later returned for other events and founded the We Are Bedford scheme. A grant from the RSA and a lot of hard work enabled them to put the events on and focus attention on the empty shops. Judge suggests that their events were key to the units then being let on a permanent basis: "We knew that if we could fill it and bring it to life, and people could see that, then all of a sudden it's easier to sell. Those units were empty for a number of years before we came along – at least two years. And now they're pretty much full."

But pop-up culture isn't just about being artistic and independent. It's making sure that towns' energies are maintained in the worst of economic times. And if that means big brands taking on the characteristics of pop-up culture then so be it, says Thompson. "I don't think it has to be cool, Hoxtonite urban stuff," he says. "I'd love to see Tesco getting behind what we do as well – it shouldn't just be something cool and clever. In Worthing they built a huge Tesco and to get planning permission they had to build a community centre next to the store. But why not make it part of the store so that the community centre gets the benefit of the footfall? Then, rather than Tesco and the community centre being isolated, they're both part of the same community."

A great example of this retail mix comes in Boxpark, a temporary mall in Shoreditch, made of old shipping containers. But as well as featuring household brands such as Calvin Klein, Levi's and Nike, it also offers a space for a Mexican restaurant and up-and-coming clothes brands among others.

This mixture of the established and the new is a key part of why pop-ups matter, explains Max Nathan, an economic geographer at the London School of Economics: "Boxpark has got a foot in both camps because they do provide space for people you haven't heard of," he says. "If you look at high streets that work, like Marylebone – there's a strategy of getting as big a mix as possible. They have different rent levels, different terms, much more flexibility for smaller firms."

This lack of flexibility in high streets is one of the key things that sees them suffer next to well-curated out of town malls and places like Westfield.

One of the key messages in the Portas report is that town centre management teams should work to get a good retail mix and pop-ups, encouraged by discretionary business rates (as proposed in both the pop-up and Portas reports) are one way to tackle that. They're a way to test coffee shops where there aren't any, or to try out a craft shop.

The message from everyone from academics to artists to business is clear: empty shops are no good for anybody. Encouraging young people, budding entrepreneurs and local towns to offer theses spaces, whether public or private, on a temporary basis can be a key way to making our civic centres and other faded retail outlets healthy again. Anyone can fill these spaces, you only need one thing, says Dan Thompson; bloody-mindedness. "It's knowing you've got an idea and you want to make it happen and going out and doing it." The future of our shops might depend on it.

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