Posted Dec 15 2023 | By Robert French

Opportunities for social engagement through meanwhile use

As part of our architectural contribution to the Manchester International Festival over the summer, Levitt Bernstein held a Glass House event which explored the question: What makes a great city?

During this event, an important point raised by one of the speakers was how to engage with communities and importantly, exactly when should this happen? This point is something that needs to be reflected on more by the architectural community, given the increasing levels of social isolation felt within communities adjacent to new urban developments. It is recognised that the current processes of development still leave behind segments of the community - often unintentionally, but nevertheless amid increasing awareness of this issue.

In this essay, I want to reflect on the potential for Meanwhile use as a unique opportunity for designers to further engage with communities. This is based on my first-hand experience of Meanwhile use in the area I live in. Meanwhile use, or “transitional urbanism” as it is named by the GLA, is a process for adding social value to a space, or areas of vacant or underutilised land. Exactly how to measure these benefits is less well defined, yet there is little doubt they go beyond simple monetary indicators.

This story concerns the car park at the Stretford Mall, in Manchester. The car park has seen little use in recent years, amid the slow decline of the mall as a piece of town centre retail estate. The mall is set for redevelopment with the inclusion of much needed housing and a reimagined retail space. For the meantime, however, the top floors of the car park are practically barren and rarely used.

A few years ago, the car park was transformed into a car-free environment as part of a collaboration between the mall, Transport for Greater Manchester and Subvert MCR, to promote active transport. Skateboarders, cyclists, rollerbladers and scooters, any vehicle that could be pushed up a ramp was there. The event was heaving with people of all ages and demographics from Stretford. These groups were attracted to the event because, crucially, the space was no longer a car park - it was a place to play.

While there was a clear drive to promote greener healthier travel options, it was also inclusive of broader community needs. The event was initially conceived as simply “car free play”, however as different groups came forward to be part of the event, the brief expanded. A roller disco with DJ, a bike maintenance workshop, cycle safety and skateboard tutorials were also on offer. The environment was playful and exciting, bringing some life to the vast slab of disused concrete. This Meanwhile use enabled the engagement of groups from the community who might not have been so easily involved in other forms of events.

Since then, the car park has been a skatepark and a cinema, and there were plans to create a rooftop community garden, along with a social space with the possibility for live music events, which sadly were thwarted as the new development of the mall commences. Nevertheless, the example of Stretford mall shows that Meanwhile use can offer a unique opportunity to better understand a cross section of community, as spaces change. It brings out reinvigoration, joy and importantly, opportunities for collaboration. It is the point at which the possibilities for reinvention of a space are realised, made possible by community directly interacting with it. This makes it a highly inclusive process and is something that helps galvanise a community.

Repurposing and reusing the familiar sets in motion a transitional state for a space, offering playful and exciting opportunities for communities to engage without prejudice. We as designers should be involved in this part of the process more, or at the very least observe this cycle of a place. That way we have an added opportunity to understand who we are designing for and directly impacting.