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Micro-Utopias is an ongoing collaborative research project that seeks to bring disparate practitioners together to uncover the power of radical space and consider alternative systems for future cultural and educational spaces.  We aim to inspire collaborations between practitioners and create opportunities for unconventional forms of research to take place.

Definition: Micro-Utopias

“Pockets of space which reject dominant ideas about how people should act, feel and think in contemporary life, and through this subversion become radical spaces of potential and possibility”
Over the next twelve months, we will be using this page as a blog, publishing work which interrogates, explores and expands this notion of Micro-Utopias. Our hope is that this blog can become a valuable resource for community groups, local authorities, cultural practitioners, architects, urban planners and all else who have a part in creating cultural and educational spaces within the built environment.

We are now welcoming submissions. We would love to hear from you if you have anything to share on the subject.  

If you would like to submit something, or talk to us about an idea, then please contact us at

hello.peoplesplace@gmail.com

Grow Tottenham and grassroots creativity in London


7.4.2019                Arman Nouri

The greenhouse at Grow Tottenham
*Image source: hirespace.com/Spaces/London/178271/GROW-Tottenham/Garden-dancefloor/Film-and-Photo

            As I arrive in Tottenham Hale on another hot, weekend afternoon, Ashley Road is particularly energetic. At Styx, a club across the road from Grow, a Pride-themed day party has been going on since 10am, with distant sounds of swirling horns and tribal drums welcoming party revellers, some of whom have clearly not slept. The Cause, located next door to Grow, are putting the final touches to an all-day open mic and barbecue set to start soon. At Grow, young artists are working outdoors on an installation for a festival. In the garden, I find Joe, who runs the café, lounging in a bath tub filled to the brim with water, enjoying the downtime in what has proved to be a frantic week.

On this particular afternoon, with the sun in full force and all three spaces open and alive, it is strange to think of the fact that soon they will all be gone. In fact, all of the buildings on this road will be gone; emptied and demolished to make way for a mixed-use development promising eight hundred homes and a brand new, state-funded digital skills college. The Ashley Road South development, as its named in official documents, is just one piece of the massive redevelopment puzzle currently enveloping Tottenham Hale. In the aftermath of the 2011 London riots which had their genesis in Tottenham, Haringey Council began plans to transform the area with the creation of 5,000 new homes and 4,000 jobs centred around the existing Tottenham Hale tube station. Hale Village, to the east of the station and one of the plan’s first developments, has already been completed. Ashley Road awaits next.

Located in an ex-mechanics depot, Grow is a meanwhile-use community garden and club in Tottenham Hale. After initially being drawn to it because of this unique mix of uses, my own relationship with the space began after throwing a party there. Houseplants, the name of the party which I have been running with friends for the past two years, usually takes place away from traditional club spaces; railway arches, high street shops and photography studios have all hosted our parties in recent times. In this sense,prides itself on finding unique and alternative spaces; those which are both physically and symbolically different from traditional club spaces. Grow Tottenham fitted the bill perfectly. At the same time, I was beginning to seriously consider ideas for this dissertation.a Masters dissertation.  I knew what I was interested in: grassroots, community-led cultural initiatives in a city being brutally configured by and for capital. Yet I could not articulate my desired approach. It was only really in June, after filling a dingy, low-ceilinged dance-floor with plants, strobes and two-hundred friends and strangers, that it became clear. Grow Tottenham fitted the bill perfectly.


Map. of the Grow Tottenham sight produced by Beep Studio
*Image source: www.beepstudio.co.uk/news/2018/3/26/grow-tottenham-launches

            Grow Tottenham is operated by Grow London C.I.C., a social enterprise set up with the intention of creating and managing sustainable green urban spaces for community gardening. The organisation was born in 2011 out of the ashes of the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to stop the Heygate estate in Elephant & Castle from being demolished. A few years prior, Paul McGann, one of the founders of Grow London, and a resident of the area at the time, became involved with the campaign. When the primary ambition to stop the demolition failed, the campaign transformed towards ensuring residents received a better deal than they were getting. 

 “After it became clear that the demolition was happening”, Paul says, “the campaign moved on to being about stopping them from cutting all the trees down, getting them to build more social housing, getting them to improve the design of what they were building. Basically getting a better deal for local people who were still living in the area”.

After the campaign put forward a series of specific demands to Southwark Council focused on returning some of the land back to them, the authorities agreed to give them space for a community garden. Initially however the project didn’t take shape in the intended way as a lack of resources and funding took its toll. Shortly after they moved into the original site there was a transfer of land ownership away from Southwark Council and towards the Australian multinational developers Lendlease. At this point it became clear that Lendlease were not interested in honouring the commitment to the garden. This coincided with increased public interest in the Heygate ‘scandal’ – as Paul refers to it as – and with the developers wary of stoking more controversy, the organisation was able to lay roots at its biggest and most-known location on the site’s eastern periphery at New Kent Road.                                                                     
Grow Elephant opened to the public in the summer of 2016, with a fully-functioning bar, café and event space hosting talks, film screenings and live music throughout the week. The bar, café and event space were key components as they allowed the project to generate revenue which the organisation could use to pay for staff as well as save for future projects. Yet almost as soon as this site had begun to attract a name for itself, Lendlease served eviction notices, forcing Paul and the garden to vacate within the year.



Tropics Cafe at Grow Elephant

*Image source: www.weekender.co.uk/business/tropics/

After a series of botched negotiations, Paul came across the current site in Tottenham, soon before their eviction from SE1 in September 2017. They were invited there by The Mill Co. Project, a social enterprise who work closely with councils and developers in identifying sites awaiting development before managing and leasing them as ‘meanwhile spaces’ to largely arts-based organisations and individuals. Upon eviction, Paul and the team moved everything to the Tottenham site for storage whilst work began on drawing up plans for the site. By the turn of the new year, the plan was put into action. As in Elephant & Castle, the garden was to be the beating heart of the project. Yet with more space to play with, not only was the garden to be bigger, but it would be complimented by a variety of other spaces and features, including a club, artist studios and a café. The successful combination at Grow Elephant of different spaces and features, namely a community garden and café, emboldened Paul to work on a similar model in Tottenham, albeit this time with a 200-capacity club and artist studios providing a different set of challenges and benefits. When spring arrived in March, the space opened its doors to the public in true Grow Tottenham style with a weekend of partying and gardening.

        Grow Tottenham is known to most people as two things: a community garden and a club. Whilst initially this pairing has been treated with scepticism for Paul it makes perfect sense.
                                                 
“I think the idea of combining a space where people can have a party and a garden is a nice idea. I think a lot of clubs are boring environments and one- dimensional. There is no reason there shouldn't be more variety and spaces you could have a party in”.

It is perhaps important to note that Grow London, the site’s operating company, was not set up to bridge the gap between partying and gardening. It was set up as a particular response to a set of issues, namely rising land scarcity, declining availability of outdoor space, as well as a perceived sense of alienation between urban inner-city communities and the natural and social environments they inhabit.


Posters from various club nights and music events that have taken place at Grow Tottenham

*Image source: www.residentadvisor.net

For Paul, community gardens are the perfect response to such issues. “I think having a shared garden works really well as a facility for people. If you take a space and grow your own stuff here and start to hang out you do become quite comfortable here. People become quite comfortable in the space and see it as their space and become quite comfortable socialising in it. Then it fulfils the role that a private garden will do and all the same things. It's as much social as it is functional”.

In recent decades, community gardening has proliferated in urban areas. With roots in US urban social movements of the late nineteenth-century, community gardens have long been used to address urban issues such as land scarcity, overcrowding and lack of state investment in infrastructure. In Tottenham, the situation is no different. There is a clear awareness that such open spaces are vital in overcrowded areas , inner cities where residents often do not have outdoor space of their own. Moreover, there is an understanding that community gardens such as Grow Tottenham offer vital social and health benefits to the local communities around them. Izzy, a gardening instructor who works at Grow teaching local school groups, is clear about the benefits that a community garden brings to areas.

“Anywhere a community garden pops up the community is enriched by it. I have seen a lot of community gardens that people benefit from. A lot of people who come there struggle with mental health difficulties, or they do a lot of work with young people who aren’t in school for whatever reason, and it sorts them out.”

In this light, a community garden such as Grow is about more than just growing food. As Izzy reiterates
   
“Everyone enjoys the garden but there is no pressure to be a gardener”.

        Whilst the garden is the core of the project it is only with the club, café and artist studios alongside it that the space comes into its own. It is in the relationships between these spaces where Grow’s dynamism and charm lies. For many of the practitioners and communities who have embedded themselves at Grow over the past fifteen months, it is exactly its many creative faces which makes it such a captivating place to spend time in. The variety of options available at Grow means that there is no pressure to do one thing, giving those who work within the space a unique sense of freedom. Ruth, an artist who rents one of the studios onsite, sees this as an integral characteristic of the space.

“With Grow, I feel like it’s been built and it asks people to come and do what they want with it. It’s a free space for you to use in whichever way you wish. There could be a party on a Saturday then I will work during the week and I can come see Izzy teach the kids about gardening. It’s great to see so many different things happening in one space”

The indeterminacy of the space clearly strikes a chord with Ruth, Izzy and the host of others I speak with during my time there. As a result, I began to think of Grow as a ‘loose space’, taking the cue of urban sociologists Quentin Stevens & Karen Franck. Their book of the same name explores how citizens around the world appropriate and adapt physical space to their own taste and making. In their eyes, ‘loose space’, is a vital tactic for individuals and communities seeking freedom and possibility within the confines of an increasingly homogenised and controlled urban environment. In their own words, ‘the indeterminacy of loose space, along with free access, opens the space to other possibilities: to activities not anticipated, to activities that have no other place, to activities that benefit from a relative lack of control and economic constraints’. Understanding Grow along these lines allows us to recast it as more than just a multi-creative space, but instead as a radical space of possibility and potential.

Setting up for an impromptu workshop in DJing
Credit: Author

Grow fits neatly into discussions of ‘loose space’. Yet if we are to situate the space in a broader context – the city – and explore the implications of Grow for wider debates – grassroots creativity in the city – there is another term we can also draw on. A year after Stevens and Franck set out their discussions of ‘loose space’, a book was published which put forward a similar, perhaps more radical concept: micro-utopias. Defined as ‘temporary manifestations of an ideal civic culture’, the premise of micro-utopias is that through small-scale experimentation it is possible to ignite new modes of thinking and being which challenge conventional wisdom about the way in which systems – be it capitalism, society or institutions – are run. By shifting the realms of possibility, it is therefore conceivable to disrupt, destroy or develop these systems for the better. The term has strong roots in participatory art, discussions of the commons and the writings of Buckminster Fuller. Fundamental to micro-utopias is that they need to be bottom-up and small-scale with participation at their core. Wood uses the term as an umbrella for an array of ‘interventions’; micro-libraries, community gardens and digital platforms for collaborative political decision-making are all cited as examples of micro-utopias in action.

The reason I like the term is that it is inherently forward-facing. Micro-utopias, whilst rooted in today, are mainly about tomorrow. As the blog entry on micro-utopias in Participedia states, ‘the theory of change behind micro-utopias is that if we offer a tangible glimpse or experience of a more desirable future, then people will be more likely to believe that such a future is possible and potentially participate in manifesting it’. If we apply this idea to Grow we can begin to see it as a model for how other meanwhile creative spaces could organised and operated. The other key point about micro-utopias is that their power lies in numbers. Whilst classical utopianism proposed one single monolithic entity, Wood argues that change can only be arrived at through a network of multiple micro-utopias.

Following from this, there are other micro-utopias in London we should talk about. DIY Space for London (DIYSFL) in South Bermondsey is certainly one of them. Operating from a warehouse a stone’s throw from Millwall and Old Kent Road, the cooperatively run social centre offers an inspiringly diverse, inclusive and radical programme spanning music, film, art, dance, performance, literature and more. Originally based in east London, they managed to secure their current site through a lengthy crowdfunding and volunteering campaign. As an example of a truly democratic, grassroots cultural space, You will find it hard to find a space in London with as much passion and ambition behind it as DIYSFL. Back over the river and closer to Grow we also have Total Refreshment Centre, or to its family and friends, TRC. Housed in a building which over the past century has been a chocolate factory, a gearbox factory and a social centre for the thriving local Jamaican community, more recent years has seen the space grow into a vital incubator for many of London’s emerging musical talents. Currently consisting of recording facilities, studios and event spaces, the space was also home to a club and live music venue until last year. Similarly to Grow and DIYSFL, it is a space where possibility, potential and participation is embedded into the bricks and mortar.

There are other similarities too: all three venues exist in former industrial buildings and play host to a wide variety of creative practices. Moreover, they are spaces which at their core have a community enriched by inclusivity and accessibility. To participate in these spaces is to become part of that community. There are no consumers within these walls, no passive recipients of culture, fun and entertainment. These spaces are made up of exactly the people who spend time there, making music, creating art, dancing, eating, singing, meeting friends, families and strangers. These spaces are  ‘loose spaces’ are vital for contemporary London because they afford communities the opportunity to experience art, culture and education in environments characterised by freedom and possibility; where economic obstacles do not stand in the way of creative expression and passionate pursuits. Yet with Grow Tottenham closing down in June, TRC operating in a reduced capacity since its clubbing heydays and DIYSFL in a seemingly perpetual battle for survival, it is clear these spaces are sensitive, both to time and the hard pressures of the built environment around them. 

        To understand Grow Tottenham as a micro-utopia we must explore the reason why it’s there and the reason why it will no longer be there next year. The irony of the situation is the fact that the very development which will force Grow and its neighbours to close their doors is in fact the primary reason they are here in the first  place.
                                                           
The sites which Grow and its neighbours, The Cause, currently occupy are being managed as meanwhile spaces by The Mill Co. Project - a social enterprise who work closely with councils and developers in identifying sites awaiting development before managing and leasing them as ‘meanwhile spaces’ to largely arts-based organisations and individuals. When I speak with Nick Hartwright, founder and CEO of The Mill Co. Project, he is full of praise for Paul and the project, clearly delighted that he is able to offer his meanwhile spaces to initiatives such as Grow. Yet there is also a frank admission that in a wider sense, the strategy (or lack thereof) around meanwhile spaces is suffering from huge deficiencies.

“A lot of people are trying to use meanwhile spaces either as a sort of place-making   strategy or a reducing liability strategy. I don’t think anybody really is truly looking at it as part of the process. It’s always a little bolt on. They (developers, local authorities) don’t really understand the long-term value of it”, Nick says. 

As a result of this short-sightedness, all parties involved are seen to lose out.

Nick continues, “you have people like Paul (Grow) who is trying to deliver a good project but he’s hamstrung because he hasn’t got the money to do it. People like the site owners aren’t benefiting as much as they could do because it does look too DIY, too shabby and it doesn’t get the proper engagement. The planners and the local authorities don’t get what they want out of it at the end of the day which is local people and communities brought along the journey rather than pushed aside by the regeneration wagon”.


Paul McGann and Stuart Glen in the empty lot right at the start of the project
*Image Source: www.haringey.gov.uk/news/studios-will-grow-you


The history of meanwhile space in the UK and the contemporary policy around it supports Nick’s suggestion. Since the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent decade of austerity-era politics, meanwhile spaces have become increasingly widespread. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, implored people to temporarily transform vacant lots into innovative spaces for the community.

Whilst initially meanwhile spaces were understood as a response to increasing vacancy rates on British high streets, in recent years their presence and diversity has proliferated. In 2019, meanwhile space is both Boxpark - according to the founders “the world’s first pop-up shopping centre” - as it is Grow Tottenham.  The basic premise is that meanwhile spaces, by prohibiting urban dereliction, providing affordable space for local businesses and individuals and ensuring greater revenues for the local economy, can help secure longer-term investment and interest in the given area. This particular understanding of meanwhile spaces positions them explicitly as a place-making initiative, especially in areas which are seen to need regenerating. Implictly, meanwhile spaces are seen only to provide short-term benefits given the fact that they are by definition finite. Critiques of meanwhile space often hone in on its use within placemaking strategies, with temporary, finite uses of space regularly advocated by urban planners and developers for their perceived role in leveraging the economic and social potential of a given area.

Paul, of course, is fully aware of the attitude to meanwhile spaces shared by developers and local authorities. When I ask him what he thinks of the fact that in just over a year Grow Tottenham will be gone (at least in its current iteration), he expresses equal parts remorse equal parts appreciation. He is honest enough to know that the transience of the site is the reason why he is here in the first place. Yet as the conversation proceeds this quiet sense of fortitude transforms into a tirade of grievances, aimed especially at the developers, whom Paul is worried will evict the project before the agreed end-date. 

“They love offering us space and then as soon as there is a conflict between the needs of the development team and us, when we become an obstacle...the decision is always determined what will generate most income”, he laments. 

Paul is articulating a clear and unavoidable tension at the heart of Grow as a meanwhile space. To what extent will the space’s artistic and social potential be allowed to flourish in the face of impending commercial gains? In other words, how long will Grow be allowed to stay when for the developers a significant amount of money arises from its departure? This is the question that hits at the crux of the matter. Whilst the contract with the developers Notting Hill allows Grow to stay on-site until January 2020, it also permits them to serve 30-day eviction notices at any point. This is what happened to Grow Elephant and there is no reason it can’t happen here.
                                                   
This tension appears to be an endemic quality of meanwhile spaces: they are constantly in crisis as key stakeholders conflict over their actual use value as publicly accessible spaces for social, artistic and cultural experimentation, and their potential commercial value. At Grow there is a clear understanding that this tension is an unavoidable consequence of the situation they find themselves in. As Paul, tongue-in-cheek, exclaims.

    “That’s how the world works!”.

The current approach to meanwhile spaces, as articulated by the London Plan, which positions them primarily as a place-making initiative, needs an overhaul. An improved approach would rest on two key pillars: first, there needs to be an explicit and expansive recognition of the root causes at the heart of the current dearth of permanent space for grassroots creative organisations; second, aplan for the use and development of meanwhile space must be formulated so we move beyond them being beautification tools in supposedly ‘derelict’ urban areas and instead see them as powerful opportunities for independent and bottom-up creativity to gain prominence in today and tomorrow’s urban landscape. A thorough and articulate exploration of what such a plan could look like is offered by Akil Scafe-Smith here. The key takeaway for me is that structured and meaningful community participation is fundamental. When this does not happen’, as Akil Scafe-Smith writes, ‘it can leave communities feeling disenfranchised and forgotten’.  

        So where to now? Grow Tottenham is set to close its doors in June 2020. They were meant to go on the 1st January but a six month extension was granted due to delays in the planning of the future development. Thankfully they have been able to stay not only until the end of their contract but also beyond. It is good news, of course, but the fact that they only found out their contract was extended a couple of weeks before their eviction date demonstrates the unpredictability of their situation.

Prior to writing and researching, I had a particularly negative view of meanwhile spaces and how they are currently being used within the capital’s cultural landscape. I saw them as facades for wider, systemic problems in the urban fabric, namely the lack of affordable, permanent space for cultural organisations, particularly those of which are committed to vernacular creativity as understood in this paper. In a city being brutally configured by and for capital, meanwhile space appeared to me as its colourful, huggable toy. ‘There’s no problem here – squeeze (occupy) me’.
                                                                   
Whilst a summer spent at Grow has not completely dispelled this notion, there has been a transformation in my attitude towards meanwhile space, a process which I have sought to articulate in this article. Previously, I was interested in how organisations such as Grow could get permanent space. This interest has now shifted towards exploring how meanwhile space can be better suited to meet the needs and aspirations of organisations such as Grow and the communities they serve.  If one thing is clear, it is that the current situation is unsustainable. However, whilst meanwhile spaces are certainly not perfect, I strongly believe that they have the potential to be a highly valuable and viable way for independent, grassroots cultural organisations to obtain space and visibility in today’s climate.

Perhaps it is Grow itself which has been key in shifting my thoughts. Its refreshing commitment to grassroots creativity and community participation is highly significant. In contemporary London, the past three decades have seen culture and art become key instruments for urban planners and economic gurus. In this context, Grow is a micro-utopia which challenges post-industrialist conceptions of art, culture and education as vessels for a higher purpose, whether that is economic growth, urban renewal or reducing inequality.

It should be reiterated that this was not the intention of Paul and the rest of the team when they set up in N17, or in SE1 prior to that. Grow is a highly innovative solution to a combination of very real and damaging urban problems. By creating a shared, community space in a time where land is rising in price and declining in availability, where clubs and live music venues are shutting down at an alarming rate, where artist studios are getting more and more expensive, Grow Tottenham is first and foremost a functional and necessary space for London.

Yet it is so much more than that. Grow Tottenham is spiritual; it is free. It understands culture and creativity. It understands that they are ordinary, everyday forces. It understands that creativity is not an extraordinary capacity found only within particular subsects of society. It is not something which should be accessed only by those with a certain degree of economic, social and cultural capital. It is here where Grow’s utopia resides. In our brave new world, creativity is a resource in abundance, not exclusivity. 
                                                             
As Grow Tottenham shows, there is the potential for everyday creativity to thrive in meanwhile space. In the age of the creative city, there is an urgent need to support grassroots, community-driven culture; to build and support community-run cultural spaces; to enhance community and sociality through creativity. It is our belief that only then will we - as individuals, as communities, as a city - be able to grow. 

Second image: Paul McGann and a volounter in the same lot further into the Grow Tottenham project
*Image source: hirespace.com/Spaces/London/178271/GROW-Tottenham/Garden-dancefloor/Film-and-Photo


Special thanks to Paul McGann, the Grow Tottenham family, Akil Scafe-Smith and Andrew Harris.
This article was repurposed from an MSc dissertation written in June 2018.  If you would like to read the full dissertation, please contact us at hello.peoplesplace@gmail.com


#3 Metelkova


27.01.2020
Location: Ljunjana, Slovenia
Function: Creative Hub
Time Active: 1993 - present
Metelkova became a military brownfield site on September 25, 1991 after the Slovenian and Croatian Declaration of Independence on June 25, 1991. Shortly after the Network for Metelkova, composed of more than 200 alternative and youth organizations, asked the municipality of Ljubljana for permission to use the barracks for peaceful and creative purposes. As a response, Ljubljana authorities gave the Network for Metelkova formal permission to stay and use the site. Nevertheless, those promises given by the municipality were never really maintained.

In 1993 the cultural centre (Metelkova) became a squat when a commissioner mandated the demolition of some barracks that were promised to the Network with the aim of illegally reconverting the area into a commercial site. At that time, Metelkova came into being as an illegal occupation (a squat) and was redefined as a self-organized autonomous zone in 1995. The site has since been occupied, in a declared illegal way, mainly by artists, activists and young students, organising a rich agenda of cultural activities. Nowadays, many artists have their own ateliers in Metelkova and some NGOs and LGBT associations have their offices there. Art exhibitions, performances, concerts and engaged activities have taken place in the buildings of Metelkova.

For more information, head to http://www.metelkovamesto.org


*Text source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metelkova