Making Space for Art, Making Space for People

Gemma Dean from Creative Land Trust explores our changing places

“Previously bustling tourist hotspots have been emptied of people, high streets without customers, shops closed, theatres and cinemas dark. And with that came a very different urban landscape.”

The Building Centre’s ‘Empty Spaces’ project called for photographs of streets, urban landscapes and buildings during lockdown, to record what a city looks like void of people. This was an opportunity to look at our buildings and urban spaces, appreciating their design features and role in the urban landscape. Yet observing this surreal absence of people in buildings makes it clear how spaces change with the energy of the communities that are using them.

This article looks at how through increased emphasis on social impact, the commercial property industry is seeking to recognise this contribution of people and culture to places.

Changing Places

People change how they use a building over time, no matter what the original design concept was behind that building. Covid has brought this ongoing change of use in property to light and there has been a shift (some say acceleration) in how we look at the office, high streets and other commercial property types. New London Architecture (NLA) refers to this as an ‘Office Revolution’ and the government has set up a task force of placemaking experts to focus on the UK’s high streets. In reimagining these spaces there is an increased emphasis on the importance of social aspects and how buildings can serve communities. Buildings in all sectors are being demanded to become experiential and to not only protect but enhance our wellbeing and that of the planet. This goes beyond the aesthetic response or functional layout and impacts both the individuals within the buildings and the local communities. All of this highlights the increasing recognition of the importance of people in making a place great.

Making Space for People

Across London, Local Authorities and Councils are already putting policies in place that bring these social factors to the fore. This is in addition to examples in planning of Section 106 agreements and Community Infrastructure Levies. One such example is Newham’s Community Wealth building agenda, lobbying for a more fair distribution of wealth through decisions relating to the people and businesses occupying buildings.2 Locally to Brixton, Lambeth has set up a Future Workspace Fund whose aim is to grow innovation led sectors and “deliver outstanding economic return and social value for residents”.

Making Space for Art

The London Plan 2021 specifically refers to the provision of affordable workspace for cultural or social value and its ability to generate economic and other opportunities. Creative Enterprise Zones, such as that behind the Make It in Brixton campaign, are Greater London Authority Initiatives established in 2018 to provide designated support for creative industries and cultural hubs.

Through their creative production, artists can provide a record of and visceral connection between people, their culture and their place at any given time. There is a transformational aspect to art, in the way it connects people, increases empathy and can drive societal shifts. This is seen in the work of the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago, founded by artist Theaster Gates. Or as summed up by artist, Emmanuel Unaji, that “through a pure unfiltered voice on issues important to them, [the arts are] often a reflection of issues in society or underrepresented communities.”

At Creative Land Trust, we recognise the need for an affordable and reliable space for artists to work in. ii Making these spaces available has positive impacts for the artists and the communities they work with, and this extends to London as a whole. While we recognise that not all communities, businesses and artists are the same, the policies and investment that make this work possible are all focused on improving quality of life in some way.

Investing in Places for People

The commercial property industry is increasingly aware of this dance between people and place. This is evidenced through the emergence of innovative social impact investment models that move beyond traditional financial structures. Legal & General (L&G) are offering business units, rent free, to support local high street investment in Poole. Major retail and leisure landlords, including L&G, Land Securities, British Land and Hammerson are all offering new leasing models with more flexible incentives. Social Impact investment company Resonance and Patron Capital launched ‘the world’s first’ Gender Lens social impact fund in December 2020. And at Creative Land Trust, we are developing a social impact investment model that will provide investors an opportunity to invest in London’s creativity, people and places. These innovative investment models are putting people, both their needs and the power of their contribution, on the same level as financial considerations, recognising a broader and more long term economic potential for property investment.

This doesn’t even scrape the surface of what is happening in the residential sector with new models for providing homes. But we are seeing residential developers such as Mount Anvil, Catalyst Housing, U+I plc and Telford Homes to name but a few, taking a more holistic view of their commercial space and considering how commercial tenants can become good neighbours.

Recognising Context

We are all learning when it comes to defining social value and delivering social impact in property. These definitions of social value are currently being driven by the respective missions of organisations supporting it. The UK Green Building Council (UK GBC) launched an industry guide on measuring social value in February 2021 highlighting that at least 23 definitions of social value already exist and that this concept is still evolving.” Their emphasis is on additionality and context. While it is natural to seek clarity and wise to look for systems to observe progress, an NLA think tank in April 2021, endorsed a level of openness in measuring social value. Otherwise there is a risk that programmes are prescribed without recognising the real needs of locals. Unless we start somewhere in attempting to recognise this aspect of the built environment, we will miss out on the potential long term cultural benefits. Over time, and through increased examples of success, this will hopefully become a more intuitive integration into business decisions.

Making a Lasting Impact

The interface between people and place has long been debated in architecture. This debate is now also taking shape in the investment and planning realms of the commercial property industry. The creative industries, through their ability to connect and innovate, can transcend societal shifts and provide physical artefacts of our culture. Without creative industries, it would be difficult to knit together the dual role of buildings as physical and social spaces. No matter how it is measured, recognising this social and cultural role has the potential to improve the quality of life for all around us. The commercial property industry is paving the way for this to become embedded in investment considerations through innovative models and positive impact.

Gemma is Head of Development at Creative Land Trust, a charity established to secure long term, affordable space for artists and creatives, ensuring a vibrant and prosperous future for this critical industry, enriching communities and strengthening London. Creative Land Trust acquires properties, either freehold or leasehold, and leases these to expert studio providers at a rate that sustains affordable rents to artists. More information at

Gemma’s career spans the real estate finance industry, having worked on European commercial real estate transactions in banking and advisory roles at international firms based in London. Throughout her career, she has contributed to sustainability strategies and she recently studied cultural entrepreneurship at University of London, Goldsmiths College. She has a Masters in Real Estate Finance & Investment, is a Member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and serves on the Development Board at the Albany Theatre, Deptford.

Payment for this article was contributed to the Make It In Brixton content fund, supporting financial stability for practising artists.