During the last years many cities have experimented with the concept of ‘temporary use’ of vacant spaces. It has been an important source of innovation and a unique change in cities, being a motor for new forms of urbanity. In some cities it just occurred and cities let it happen, in others local authorities and other actors have actively looked for ways to facilitate the temporary and reuse of vacant spaces.
European Union also sees the temporary use of spaces as an important theme and a valuable building block for the smarter cities. There are several projects receiving funding in order to tackle this intriguing challenge. REFILL project, for example, aims to unite cities who have experimented for some years with temporary use and developed an instrument, such as legislation or an agency, to address the topic. Both public and private space and buildings are in the scope of the project.
Digital solutions to open up all spaces
In Kalasatama, Smart City district of Helsinki, a new Internet based service is being tested within the Flexi Spaces project. The project aims at opening up public and private spaces all around the city: offices, club rooms, saunas, schools etc.
At the moment, the Flexispace model is tested and developed in collaboration with one booking service, namely flextila.com. Most of the available spaces are equipped with a smart lock which is integrated into the booking service. After payment is finalized and the reservation is completed, a temporary PIN-code is issued for the smart lock. The service can also include features of strong authentication, such as integration with camera, verification by web bank, access restriction, group access rights.
Kalasatama Flexi Spaces are available for meetings, hobbies as well as short time working through one service point. More efficient and flexible use of spaces offers possibilities for many different user groups from start-ups, entrepreneurs and remote workers to groups of active citizens, and temporary pop-up activities.
Transnational meeting with experts
Helsinki hosted a transnational meeting for 30 REFILL project consortium members from 10 different cities. One of the main aims of the meeting was to evaluate the “flexi spaces” concept, and how it could support temporary use. More specifically, the organizers wanted to gather answers to questions such as: What are the specific need of temporary use and the way these spaces are managed? How could digital solutions support temporary use? Are there new use-cases that could be applied to the service? What are the most important areas of improvement?
– REFILL experts have a deep understanding of the specific needs of temporary use, and the potential to use it as a driver for new ways of strategic urban development. Helsinki has a vital pop-up culture and it’s one of the leading cities in developing digital solutions, so the collaboration with REFILL network supports our work to expand this knowledge on new areas, summarizes Maija Bergström, Local Coordinator for REFILL and Project Coordinator of Smart Kalasatama and Flexi Spaces.
Temporary use often focuses on vacant spaces and empty buildings, but it is not limited only to this. It can be a different use of a space or building during a limited period in time, usually in search for pop-up artistic or activist events. Flexi spaces concept started with the focus on intensifying the use of space: e.g. renting out the office during the evenings or other times when it’s not used by the owner
In a report “Tyhjät tilat” (Empty spaces), architect Hella Hernberg pointed out the need for services and operators for management of empty spaces and to ease the communication between the users and the owners of the spaces. There is a need for operators or agencies, as the owners of the real estates prefer renting out substantial amounts of spaces for bigger organisations. The smaller companies, freelancers or projects are not the preferred renters, as it takes more time to manage several contracts. The owners do not see that smaller scale renting could bring enough revenue for them.
The Flexispace model offers one part of the solution to this identified need. The benefits are that the available spaces could be found and browsed in an easy way. The tools that make the communication between the owner and the renter easier are needed.
Positive effects of flexispaces
During the four workshop sessions there was a lively conversation as well as comparison regarding the cultural differences with the concept and practices with flexi spaces. There were several advantages seen. Firstly, the flexible use of spaces would enable new user-groups for empty spaces. But it was also seen that the ”first come-first served” model does not necessary guarantee the optimal outcome. Therefore some level of ”curation” of users might be useful at least in some cases.
With agile and easy online reserving systems minimum amount of work is needed to open up and/or rent the vacant spaces. Furthermore, the online systems enable the customers browse vast variety of different spaces and also the comparison between the most preferable options is easy. On the other hand, the digital solution might exclude some user-groups, such as the elderly people, that do not have either the skills or the facilities to use online based services. Therefore, it was concluded that some kind of a compromise between the human and machine contact would be an ideal solution. For example, having a chat within the reservation service is very likely to bring better user experience as well as service level for the customers.
“Temporary use” boosts business and strategic urban development
The “temporary use“ opens up an interesting opportunity to match the needs of the business world and the citizens, start-ups etc. This is a mutually beneficial deal – companies can generate extra income meanwhile the vacant spaces are used by those in need. Temporary use also brings interesting activities around the space, which can raise interest to the space and create value for the owner.
Interestingly, it was noted that in some countries it might be cheaper to use human recourses than install an expensive intelligent lock system or build up an online reservation service. For example, in Eastern European countries it is still quite common to have a pensioner to take care of the building and the reservation services. They can work part time several years and still be more affordable solution than installing a smart locking system.
– To sum up, the peer review was considered very helpful for the Flexi Spaces project, as it brought new insights on how to apply this model on different spaces. So far we have concentrated on schools, club rooms and office spaces rather than vacant, empty spaces, Maija Bergström concludes.