At the start of 2009, the term “slack space” began to pop up in the news. In the post-Christmas slump of January, which followed a lacklustre shopping season, shops around the UK began to close. A year on, retail vacancy rates across the country stand at 12%, with some areas registering up to a quarter of all retail space as vacant, according to the Guardian.
Slack space projects are a reaction to this trend. Creatives who don’t have the means to rent space at full price seek out unused shops and negotiate short, free or low-rent leases on the space to put it to good use.
Last week I visited HERD in Brixton Village Market, across Atlantic Road from Brixton Market. This 1930s covered arcade is targeted for redevelopment, along with the overground rail station it sits underneath. HERD have inhabited a double-wide storefront space there for 3 months, and their tenure is now coming to an end.
I was there to visit one of the HERD members, photographer Suzie Blake, who showed me around HERD’s soon-to-be vacated space and around the neighbouring Brixton Village.
In a sense, the rising vacancy rate in UK retail space is good news for creatives like designers, artists and other small-scale businesses who often can’t handle the overheads that go with having a shop. The risk that comes along with having the same chains on every high street in “Clone Town Britain” is that when the mothership goes down (e.g., Zavvi, Woolworths, etc.), all the franchises crash as well. This is one reason why the recession became instantly visible on high streets in early 2009.
Empty shops means fewer people having a reason to pass by, which means less footfall for the other shops that remain. With projects like HERD, the presence of the artist and designers adds colour and a bit of cool unpredictability to the retail neighbourhood, which is certainly an incentive for people to visit.
For the creatives, slackspace projects offer cheap visibility – a workspace where they can see and be seen, and add some much-needed colour to the community along the way.