Bright Sparks…

Do you still have a large former-department store sitting empty in your #highstreet place…?

🤔 Are the discussions rolling on about re-purposing, future uses, splitting up, conversion…?

Meanwhile you’ve a big, deteriorating, wasted space creating negativity, when instead…? Meanwhile…!

✨ I was lucky enough to make a long overdue visit to the brilliant Sparks Bristol and see an illustration of what we could be doing with these vacant spaces while the thinking goes on.

Ground floor #retail, information sharing, resident engagement & more with a climate, equality, wellbeing focus. Upper floor #workspace, performance space, workshops, classes…?

💡 An inspiring example of collaboration and innovation, and one I know that council, #BID, #community and #property #placemaking friends are watching closely.

It’s very well worth a look.

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Every picture…

Here’s a first, I think 🤔

🤳🏽 Out & about in a #highstreet location and got back with just one picture of a vacant unit in my phone library.

…and it’s not that there weren’t any others.

🎨 It was just that in Bedminster, Bristol our #placemaking attention was totally taken with the number and variety and quality of #streetart and #shutterart examples.

…which sparked 4 thoughts:

  • Did they help to create the important impression that the place cares, which makes such a difference…?
  • In a very practical sense the #art on lowered shutters meant you could not tell whether the unit was vacant or just not yet open. Compare that to seeing a run of blank shutters…?

🖌️ There was a lot of tagging. Typically in a town or city centre that’s seen as graffiti, anti-social behaviour. Here it blended in – at least to the visitor – and could just have been a signature on the artwork.

  • And on ‘promote’ – there looks to be enough to catalogue and create a trail by map & app to bring people here just to enjoy the creativity. An added and valuable draw to benefit it’s businesses.

For council and BID colleagues thinking to add to the wall art in their places and initiate a project where they have a run of blank shutters, there’s learning for sure.

📸 Here’s just a few of scores of examples. Thanks Jason Thorne for an insightful tour.


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A place agent…?

Should a #highstreet place, a town or city centre, have its own commercial agent…?

…like an individual empty unit has but for all the vacants in that location.

🤔 It’d be interesting to hear what #property and #placemaking colleagues think…?

The idea would be that:

  • they support the agents with individual properties listed but take an overview of every vacant unit in a place and promote them all to would-be occupiers rather than just one or the small subset as happens now;
  • they’d do this taking into account the current mix of uses and what’s missing, and could go out – as a place ambassador – to recruit for target types and to fill gaps;

🔐 incoming tenants, especially those like new independents or arts & crafts, creative, culture or community organisations not used to securing units, would have a helping hand;

  • …and it would mean that properties which don’t have agents instructed – and this can, according to #TheVacantShopsAcademy data, be as many as 40 or 50% of them – would at least have some proactive marketing.

💷 There’s a complication I guess when it comes to the financials if the unit already has an agent, but dual-agency arrangements are out there so we know there is a way that can be worked out.

What do you think…?

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Reasons to be…

“What reasons are there for optimism about our high streets…?”

🎤 It’s a question I was asked at a panel event this week, and every day since we’ve seen examples from different places that well illustrate my answer.

You could include in that just from recent threads I’ve seen:

  • the ongoing ‘Our Union Street’ initiative in Aberdeen;
  • 📹 a mayor – council collaboration in Barnsley town centre showcased in a new video;
  • Grimsby’s 2025 Group;
  • 💡 Sparks Bristol;
  • Dolphin Shopping Centre, Poole;
  • the latest update by Gainsborough’s Townscape Heritage Initiative.

…and more, no doubt. Case studies that #placemaking and #property colleagues would add.

My actual response at the forum in South Gloucestershire, which is one of our #TheVacantShopsAcademy locations that have had and are beginning work on delivering elements of their ‘next steps’, started with this:

“The strongest reason for optimism here is that you’re on the case.” 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

One of the (many) really frustrating things about the ‘death of the…’ narrative is that it’s swamping sooooo much good, proactive, partnership working and projects that are making a difference in our town and city centres.

🫣 True, we are still seeing places that aren’t yet underway because of other priorities, lack of capacity or funding, or in some cases a belief that tackling vacancy “is just an agent-landlords thing”. And if you don’t start a journey…

But still.

🤔 What are your reasons for #highstreet optimism…?

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A platform shared…

Two brilliant #placemaking case studies.

The Oxford Road Stories. Hat District.

👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 Thank you Reading, Luton.

Often on these threads we talk about arts & crafts, creative, culture, community, history, heritage as part of the ‘next steps’ narrative for town & city centres tackling #highstreet empty shops issues with #TheVacantShopsAcademy, as potential use type options to fill target vacant units, and as crucial to improving perception of and pride in place…

💡 …so it was inspirational to be able to share a platform at this week’s Heritage Trust Network event with Donna Pentelow and Marie Kirbyshaw as they described those two initiatives.

I believe council, #BID, civic society and other local teams working on this issue will find much to learn from.

🎨 The art of the possible it was, literally, and really helpful to follow with my outline of our ‘audit, engage’ approach, emphasising the importance as a strategic first step of getting the backstory and understanding the barriers to let of vacant units in your place.

What these two illustrate are some of the very practical ways places can play a part in overcoming those barriers, the importance of #community involvement, and how a range of ‘look’ improvements can help too.

🗣️ Do check them out, and please share your stories of projects that are strengthening the vitality of individual streets and bringing landmark buildings back into play…!

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It’s Evolving. Isn’t it…?

🤔 What do you think…?

Rarely a week goes by it seems without some ‘analyst’ or other trying to secure themselves media coverage with a cheap ‘death of the…’ shot at the #highstreet.

This week was no exception…and the ‘study’ was, as ever, littered with nonsense.

📸 I’m lucky enough to have #Oxford city centre nearby and a trip in is always rewarded with insights. Even just as an observer now, not running ‘audit, engage’ as we did here in city centre manager days.

By chance, it had actually been one of the places to feature in this week’s gloomster output mentioned above, but out & about, in just one small section, you can see the reality and themes we’re exploring for #TheVacantShopsAcademy locations…

  • #hospitality moving into a building it now shares with #health services;
    🧀 three #indie businesses in a landlord-split space that was once occupied by a national #retail brand;
  • upper floors converted, in this case, to hotel use;
    🧑🏻‍💻 re-purposed workspace being readied;
  • and more new openings ahead.

It’s challenging here as in all our town and city centres. We’ve all work to do. The balance of what’s possible varies but…



🗣️ Do you think…?

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Feel very lucky…

…to have the opportunity to be starting work with two special towns.

🤳🏽 Running the ‘audit, engage’ phase of our #TheVacantShopsAcademy approach in Abertillery and Tredegar for Blaenau Gwent Council, but reflections on a first visit were about the strengths that this focus on the #highstreet of each has to draw on.

🎞️ Awesome, must-visit settings, striking #heritage buildings, a visibly strong sense of community, and for one town, a unique place in our collective history.

Both have challenges for sure as do all the places we’ve been commissioned in, but we’re really looking forward to heading back soon and bringing together agents, landlords, businesses, community and council in the place partnerships that we know get the job done quickest and most sustainably.

🤔 For #property and #placemaking colleagues who know one or both towns it’d be great to hear from you…!

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Vacancy. From 23 to 3 in 18 months…

This brings back memories.

🪜Just 10 years ago when our sign went up over the #popupshop which was to play a significant part in the revival of a street and with it the whole town centre.

📉 Flashop Wantage, the community space which soon opened opposite and a second pop up across town together helped create the momentum that saw the number of vacant units there drop from 23 to 3 in 18 months.

Our subsequent tackling #highstreet empty shops issues projects in neighbouring towns all had at least one pop up as part of their story too.

💡…and this week we’ve been talking to #TheVacantShopsAcademy locations about how the model would work now:

  • To occupy currently empty units;
  • Give target businesses a chance to make a start, test their idea for real and build the track record and confidence they need to go on and secure a unit of their own longer term;
  • And importantly to create the momentum that takes others from empty to let in the weeks and months ahead.

🔑 Back in 2013 there were a limited number of case studies to draw on, now there are many, like there are questions:

  • How many units should you have…?
  • Who takes the lease…?
  • What should rent levels be set at…?
  • Should it go to one business or several…?
  • Is it best run under a single brand or those of its occupiers…?
  • Which types of business do you target (or rule out)…?

And more.

Ten years on we’re still convinced it can be a key element of an ‘audit, engage, encourage, promote’ approach.

🤔 What – #property and #placemaking colleagues – do you think…?

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Our Union Street

“Together, as a community, we can…”

“…we want to brighten the street, fill the units, use the space, tell the stories which lie behind our famous granite walls, and fully engage the people of Aberdeen in this urban revival. And we are already taking steps to meet these objectives.”

👏🏻 Great to read the latest update from the team at Our Union Street in Aberdeen.

It’s a really interesting and current case study of working together in a place, and one I’m sure others are following for potential lessons they can draw.

Aberdeen is an awesome city and I was very pleased to have been able to play a small part in the early stages of this journey to restore Union Street to being its strong and sustainable heart.

I learned a huge amount and continue to do so.

💡 Engagement with and in Our Union Street has been extraordinary, as the update reflects: “Since we launched in March, the public response has been overwhelming, with over 10,000 ideas submitted to our team. Those 10,000 ideas became 17 themes – and, today, those themes have become five action areas that we will spend the next few years delivering against.”

Here’s wishing all those involved the very best going forward…!

🤔 It’d be interesting to hear from #highstreet #placemaking colleagues with similar initiatives underway where tackling vacancy is a significant issue…?

📸 And from one memorable visit with Aberdeen Inspired a year ago now…

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Are your vacancy numbers what they seem…?

It’s happened again.

📉 Third time in recent weeks we’ve shared the ‘audit, engage’ data for one of our #TheVacantShopsAcademy locations and shown a different picture emerging than the one from our first walk-see there.

The number of #highstreet units in this location listed as ‘empty and available’ is one third lower than the original headline vacant figure.

🤳🏽 Just to explain. We log all units that appear vacant then check their status with #property agents and landlords to see if they’ve let, are ‘under offer’ or aren’t proactively being marketed because they’re refurb or development sites.

Of course the figures include some units that looked vacant and actually weren’t – but that in itself is a lesson about the robustness of data based just on observation. They tell a more complex story, but there are positives in the mix.

Interest. Investment. New openings.

🔑 Of course it’s challenging still and there’s work to do, but what’s encouraging is that here, as in the other two locations, the majority of the units we’re talking about have let in recent months, with #hospitality (mostly in this case) and #retail among the uses.

It emphasises again why we believe so strongly in places – whether that be council or BID or the two together – taking charge of their own vacancy numbers and not relying for policy and project decisions on the national narrative.

🤔 Do contact us if empty shops are an issue in your place…?

📸 Meantime, took a break from the desk to check what’s happening in Oxford, just as an observer these days. And tho we’re not 💯 across the back story of these units as we were in city centre management, there do look to be some positive signs here also…!

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