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global initiative, local application

Organisations across the globe are stepping up to the challenge of “revitalising” retail spaces – and one Melbourne initiative is certainly very “active”…


There’s a popular philosophy that “Success Breeds Success”. Countless individuals, businesses and associations subscribe to the happy mantra that positive results often lead to further opportunities and achievements. Sadly though, a similar formula might also apply on the flip-side (…failure leads to further failure…) – which is certainly a trend we’re seeing in many struggling retail precincts. Shop vacancies continue to rise as the impact of the GFC sees traders close their doors and no-one comes along to fill the space – leading to a forest of For Lease signs along once-vibrant shopping streets…This creates a mood of despair amongst communities (and the remaining traders) as shopping traffic declines and other businesses also leave the area… eventually leading to lonely, unloved and un-sightly high streets.

In Melbourne (and Australia generally) we’re relatively fortunate – prime retail vacancy rates averaged 5.3% across our suburbs last year (source : Recently in the United Kingdom it’s an alarming average of 12.5 % (1 shop in 8 – source : and the United States’ average is 10.4% (source :

These conditions have led to a recognition that “traditional brick and mortar” retail needs some urgent help to survive in tough economic times. Not just for the sake of battling traders – but also to benefit the broader communities (acknowledging that healthy retail precincts create jobs and cash flow, whilst encouraging social participation and pride in neighbourhoods). Faced with a dismal outlook for local shopping, communities are welcoming the offer of assistance to revitalise their retail precincts through the encouragement and support (sometimes with cash…) from concerned organisations and authorities… via not-for-profit initiatives, local councils and national government bodies.

Many of these revitalisation projects are using “pop up” as a cornerstone of their strategy – recognising that short-term installations offer the potential for a new business to get a start on the high street, test their market or product range, build up their confidence and (hopefully) learn from the experience. Often a pop up is seen as a trial (at low cost and no commitment) – but soon becomes the catalyst for committing to something more permanent. The objective (of course) is that a new business may develop the confidence and momentum to move to the next step – signing up a lease on that once-vacant storefront. Which can be a great outcome for the landlords, retail precincts and local communities – shops are open, lights are on, the traffic returns…

Some of these projects are starting to have a positive impact – local and national media are reporting on installations and success stories from across the UK, USA, Canada… and Australia.

The United Kingdom seems to be leading the way with several initiatives underway – StartUp Britain, Empty Shops Network and the Portas Pilots (led by TV personality Mary Portas) to name a few. The StartUp Britain program – an initiative supported by the British government (although funded by private-sector sponsors) – includes the “PopUp Britain” offer which… “supports Britain’s most promising retail entrepreneurs, providing access to sought-after High Street spaces so small businesses can trial physical retail without the long-term financial commitment, whilst raising their brand profile & carrying out market research”

In the US, several cities and organisations are committing resources to revitalisation projects – the Ground Floor Activation Program in Dallas is a joint venture between several funding bodies, offering large incentives for businesses to set up in downtown Dallas. There’s around US$8.8million available in grants over the next 5 years – and they’ve included pop up retail as one of their subsidised activities. In San Francisco, Popuphood was created in 2011, as an “incubator” for enabling local businesses to take advantage of under-utilised retail spaces – offering short term tenancies within an area of Old Oakland. Over the past 18 months they’ve travelled widely – including a visit to Melbourne last year – to see how other cities have approached revitalisation projects. In their own precinct they’ve provided the locations and marketing assistance for 8 businesses in 6 storefronts, with 3 of those now committed to long-term leases.

In Canada, an initiative set up in Toronto is achieving a win-win for small businesses and landlords alike. Entrepreneurs are invited to participate in one to six month retail leases, paying a weekly commitment of $165 to cover the taxes, utilities and administration. After one month, additional charges are levied depending on the retail sales achieved. Other benefits for the landlords are volunteers who will come in to clean and paint the premises and also the offer of free advertising of the vacant spaces. Over the past 6 months the Toronto scheme has provided 18 businesses a chance to operate out of 8 locations – and several of those have since been rented out permanently.

Closer to home, pop ups are certainly being considered for the temporary relief and promotion of solutions in quiet shopping areas. The Advocate newspaper (north-west Tasmania) recently quoted a local business advisor who is “urging landlords, business hopefuls and people with something to sell… to use (their) imagination and look at short-term tenancies…If you can create an opportunity for someone, it might start out for a week or a month and before you know it… a new business could start up”.

But a really positive initiative is making inroads right under our noses, here in Melbourne. The City of Darebin (suburban council – 53 square kilometres, 144,000 residents, 9.6% of occupations are in retail – source : has committed resources to a scheme for the revitalisation and nurturing of local businesses and creative enterprises.

The Active Spaces project was established in 2012 as a “business incubator” for the Darebin communities. A small team within the council’s Business Development Unit are working to assist new businesses and creative types (artists, designers, performers, musicians, craftspeople…) get a head start whilst activating vacant retail properties. The team comprises a mix of economic and artistic talents – which seems an appropriate blend of the “commercial” versus the “creative” !

One of their early initiatives was to approach owners of vacant shops to “borrow” shop windows for temporary artwork installations. There’s no payment involved – neither the landlord nor the artists benefit directly from the displays, but the experiences have generally been positive for both. The artists enjoy some main street attention – and it seems that artwork inside a window discourages graffiti on the outside (mutual respect from taggers ?) – which is often a problem for long-term vacant shops. The local traders don’t feel threatened by such initiatives – and the streetscape is somewhat improved. Artistic installations are currently featured in the windows at 211 and 211A High Street Northcote.

More recently, Active Spaces has also facilitated 2 high street pop up shops (literally on High Street !). At 269 High Street Northcote Sunday Mornings Designs and Klei have opened their store, whilst not far away the Melbourne Designer pop up shop POP IT recently launched an installation at 825 High Street Thornbury – featuring the fashion of El and Tino and Stella Blanche. ‘Though not all of the Active Spaces projects are fashion labels… prior to POP IT, 825 High Street hosted a stint for Open Door – an installation by Made ‘n Thornbury celebrating items “hand made in the neighbourhood”, supporting the Thornbury Womens Neighbourhood House. July is also looking to be a busy time for the Active team – with a new community workshop space opening at Somewhere Studios as well as supporting the Northern Exposure festival (artworks in many windows along High Street, 12th-27th July)…. and continuing their work on new locations for pop ups !

Active Spaces offers support for local pop up businesses and artists (applicants must live, work or study within the municipality) but they don’t actually make it happen… The team has a philosophy that the budding business should gain from the experience by actively participating in the development – and learning along the way. Project workers at Active Spaces will lead applicants through the requirements, provide advice and facilitate many of the contacts (and may step in to assist with some of the harder aspects…) – but it is very much up to an individual to make the pop up a success. They believe the process should promote initiative and build confidence, whilst enabling first-hand experience of the pleasures (and pitfalls) of starting a new retail business.

Which brings me back to “Success Breeds Success”… I’m sure the various revitalisation projects across the globe are worthwhile and certainly well-meaning… goodness knows that traditional retail needs all the help it can get right now… But these initiatives must also prepare for the realities of the longer term – assessing the commercial viability of a business, managing the ongoing challenges of stock and staff, remaining competitive and relevant – whilst providing meaningful benefit for the community at large. Offering a step onto the high street is a noble gesture but shouldn’t be made too easy – business (and retail !) is tough… and the initial “pop up” experiences must prepare for that. These initiatives also need to nurture longer-term solutions (and commitment) in order to truly breed (meaningful) success for our high streets.


images : Active Spaces

Power and the Passion exhibition at 339 High Street Northcote - May 2013      Melbourne Designers pop up shop POP It June 2013

Active Spaces Darebin       Open Door, 825 High Street Northcote - May 2013

Sunday Mornings Designs & Klei - June 2013 (1)      Sunday Mornings Designs & Klei - June 2013 (2)


One comment to "global initiative, local application"

  1. Tony Natoli 24/06/2013

    Interesting concept I lease a shop at the moment where I only use the back of the shop leaving a great retail for someone in the front approximately a 7 mtr long window. I am located in East Bentleigh and a pop up shop may work well here Regards Tony Natoli


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