Our high streets need new ideas.

We don’t know about you, but at Things HQ we keep coming across the phrase ‘high street crisis’.

It featured in at least five BBC headlines in 2018.

And the stats do sound gloomy – in the last five years, 1 in 12 shops have closed in England and Wales – even the big guys like House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer and New Look have had to close some stores.

But we think we should rephrase. Isn’t this more of a high street opportunity?

An opportunity to develop more creative, homely & human neighbourhoods for everyone?

Because everyone is kinda done with buying more stuff.

According to the trends, we’re spending more of our money on doing things, not buying things. We’re spending more on going to the theatre, the cinema, eating out, exercising…

And as IKEA’s Steve Howard famously said, we in the Global North have really reached ‘peak stuff’.

And we need places that help us belong.

In a UK where 1 in 5 adults feels always, often or sometimes lonely, investing in spaces for meeting, sharing, and feeling part of a place, is really quite important.

According to the Office of National Statistics,

People who feel that they belong less strongly to their neighbourhood […], who have little trust of others in their local area, reported feeling lonely more often.

Luckily, an explosion of civic activity is already reimagining our high streets

Quietly, amidst the doom and gloom of plummeting sales figures and emptying high streets, a groundswell of civic activity is reinventing underused spaces around the UK. Local people and organisations are coming together to create shared spaces to cook, mend, grow, make, design, sell, care and celebrate. To name a handful of examples near us in London:

  • Ivy House – a pub and live music / comedy venue bought and run by local residents in Peckham

  • West Norwood Library & Picturehouse – a beautiful cinema-cafe-library-event space under one roof, designed with local people, and delivered through a partnership between Picturehouse Cinemas and Lambeth Council

  • Space4 and East London Printmakers – workspaces cooperatively run by the artists and small business owners that use them

  • Herne Hill Station Hall – a once-empty space above Herne Hill train station, now being transformed by locals into a hub for sharing ideas, skills, tools, books & even freshly-grown veg, enabled by a partnership with Network Rail & Southeastern

  • Upper Norwood Library Hub – once a fully council-funded public library, now a thriving community-led one, home to Crystal Palace Library of Things, repair parties, code clubs, sewing classes, arts & comedy festivals, local advocacy meet-ups as well as the more familiar book-lending and computers

These are the spaces where real friendships are formed – not just loose online ‘friends’ or followers – but positive interactions between hundreds of people everyday. Between old and young, between those with a whole range of abilities, between schoolchildren, councillors, mechanics, teachers, mothers, grandfathers – joyful, rich cross-sections of our neighbourhoods.

But sustaining such spaces isn’t always easy…

We at Things HQ have run several community spaces like these ourselves in the past. We remember often asking ourselves questions like:

  • How do we bring a whole mix of different local people through the doors – rather than just 1-2 narrow demographics?

  • How do we find time to develop innovative ideas, when a lot of the time we’re busy fixing the leaking roof, listening to Janet who always wants to chat, or writing that report?

  • How can we be less reliant on grants and donations?

Library of Things: A ready-made, tried & tested ‘lego block’ for shared high street spaces

Library of Things brings a diverse mix of people into local spaces to share useful items and learn practical skills.

For an individual living nearby, what might start as a simple transaction (“I’ll pop to my local library / sports club to borrow a projector / lawnmower”) can result in a longer-term transformation (“I’ve joined a mending meet-up / made new friends / become more involved in my neighbourhood”).

Read more about how borrowing works.

For the host space, Library of Things brings:

  • Footfall: 5000 additional unique visitors per year

  • Impactful community activity: A borrowing kiosk with 70 high quality Things that people can access just when they need them – and a platform for practical skills events & training – creating hundreds of community participation opportunities (and environmental benefits too!)

  • Ongoing revenue: A meaningful contribution to outreach & marketing budget (guaranteed in years 1 & 2, profit share from Y3 onwards)

  • Indirect financial & non-financial support: Access to our networks & knowledge – in areas like participatory design, volunteer recruitment & retention, corporate sponsorship, crowdfunding…

The best bit? The team running the host space doesn’t need to take on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of making borrowing work. We at Things HQ take care of sourcing and maintaining the Things, the borrower support and the paperwork – so that the team can do what they’re already doing – local outreach, programming events & keeping the building warm and welcoming.

Read more about how this works.

The criteria for hosting a Library of Things

The host space might be a community library, a hub on a housing estate, an arts and cultural centre, a cinema, a sports facility, a pub, a makerspace…

The host space needs to:

  • Have existing footfall

  • Have collaborative decision-maker keen and able to join the local Library of Things Initiator team

  • Have 10m x 1.5m space available along a wall for the Library of Things ‘smart borrowing kiosk’

  • Be able to guarantee 15sqm space for at least 2 years

    Be publicly accessible ~40 hours per week, with a front-of-house staff member present in the building – to answer occasional light-touch questions

  • Be able to demonstrate financial stability

  • Be welcoming to everyone in the neighbourhood

Know a space that could host a Library of Things?

Read more about starting & hosting a Library of Things here, put yourself on the map at the bottom of the page & then share this blog!

Want to take it further? Join one of our monthly tours at Crystal Palace Library of Things – or drop us a line.