Fun Palaces and the High Street

Here’s a piece from the archives; written in 2017, which I was asked to write by our friends over at Fun Palaces. What struck me, reading it back this morning, is how consistent the message is – I was saying in 2017 the same things I said in Rewilding The High Street last year, even if I hadn’t quite found the metaphor. So – enjoy this read from a few years ago.

Dan Thompson

Our town centres are interesting places. For all the ‘our High Streets are dead’ reports from Mary Portas and the likes, they’re still there, and local shops are still fulfilling a vital function. In fact, since the recession started in 2008, what we’ve seen is the collapse not of the High Street, but of the clone town. The big chains crashing have caused more damage than small shops closing.

And there’s the problem; we allowed our town centres to become dominated by one way of thinking, by a single type of tree, then were unable to act when a strange fungus caused the collapse of the species. Our towns need a diverse ecology, not a monoculture, and that’s where the activation of empty shops comes in.

For a town centre to be successful, by any measure, it needs a mix of civic and social functions, and of retail and manufacture. We’ll unpick that last category – it’s actually about making in any sense, and a graphic design company, a furniture restoration project, a coworking space, a company making electrical widgets and a pottery studio all fit the bill. It’s about making vs plain consumption.

Within the ecology of town centres, the activation of empty shops, either as pop ups or as something more permanent, is a political act. It’s a chance to take back previously private, commercial space, put it to good use, and demonstrate a possible alternative High Street.

And – what better use than creating a Fun Palace? In fact, many of the projects that have happened in empty shops already meet the Fun Palace agenda in some way. And a Fun Palace, where arts, science, craft and tech events sit side-by-side in a programme run by and for local communities, perfectly mixes the civic, social, and manufacture uses our town centres need.

The Empty Shops Network was founded in 2008, and has created, advised and supported hundreds of projects of every size in empty shops across the UK. Some early Fun Palaces had already been trying things in empty shops, supported by the Empty Shops Network.

High Streets can be boring, dominated by the urge to spend, spend, spend. Fun Palaces are perfect for the seven year old with little pocket money, or the 75 year old who’s got everything they need. A Fun Palace can make the town centre an egalitarian place for everyone to play together.

Fun Palaces are different to the everyday, reach new audiences and cross boundaries. While museums, galleries and arts venues are great places, some people just don’t want to set foot in them. Empty shops take the best of those building out to meet people.

The average Fun Palace budget is tiny, and empty shops are cheap. It’s relatively easy to use empty shops in shopping centres, by making the right case to a friendly centre manager, or to use council-owned empty shops.

Talking about the radical culture of the 1960s, actor and activist Peter Coyote said “A man’s vision is his responsibility. If you have an idea, make it happen; find the brothers and sisters; find the resources and do it. Your personal autonomy and power expose the shallowness of endless theorising and debate. Visions become real by being acted out, and once real serve as endless inspiration and free food for the public imagination.” And Fun Palaces are an inspiring vision.

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