Pop-ups (or meanwhile spaces) are not a new concept, but when executed well, they can have a transformative impact on cities and communities.
Urban Foundry are leading the charge in Swansea and beyond, proving just how powerful these initiatives can be, both economically and socially.
In this blog post, we talk about our successful PopUp Wales project.
Starting the pop-up movement in Wales, the early days
Before what is now Urban Foundry was a glint in Ben’s eye, members of our team established what we think was probably Swansea’s first arts pop-up back in 1999 called The Lounge Art Gallery. After our time with it finished, the gallery later went on to become part of the larger Elysium Studios project. This really sowed the seed in our minds of how impactful pop-up spaces can be.
More recently, we also worked with Swansea University on the Oriel Science initiative in an empty shop unit on Princess Way, which has subsequently moved to a semi-permanent home on Castle Street.
In 2017, we transformed an empty nightclub at the bottom of Wind Street into Unit Nineteen, initially planned as a three-month pop-up. The venture quickly moved beyond its temporary status, establishing itself as a standalone brand. Over an 18-month period, Unit Nineteen became well known for street food events, conferences, live music, and yoga classes, amongst other activities.
This experience started a sequence of new pop-ups. Urban Foundry not only demonstrated its proficiency in managing the initiatives but also dealing with the complex regulations and red tape that often stop others from starting the process.
The launch of PopUp Wales
We recognised that many other people must have ideas perfect for revitalising disused retail spaces, yet were put off by the complexities involved.
This encouraged us to develop a more streamlined and holistic approach, which culminated in the creation of PopUp Wales.
PopUp Wales aims to simplify the process, making it more accessible for people to bring their ideas to life. Although the concept of pop-ups and meanwhile spaces isn’t new, there was a clear gap in Wales for a more structured approach.
The ‘Broken Windows Theory’
The concept behind New York’s ‘Broken Windows Theory,’ as conceived by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, has long resonated with us.
The theory says that visible signs of disorder, such as a shattered window, can act as a catalyst for petty crimes, eventually escalating into more serious offences. More generally though it just drags down perceptions of a place and with it confidence.
Rather than ‘no broken windows’, our thought was ‘no empty shops’.
Filling vacant shops is more than just a cosmetic measure as it’s a strategy rooted in shifting public perception.
When you walk through a town or city where the lights are on and shops are busy, it creates a sense of vibrancy and safety. It’s not just about filling space – it’s about enriching the community’s atmosphere and its overall wellbeing.
PopUp Wales’ early successes
To address the issues mentioned above, we created PopUp Wales, and the initial idea was for three or four trials spaces; we ended up doing five.
One of these was our HQ Urban Kitchen venue, which was an abandoned café located in a challenging part of Swansea. This venue has now been transformed into a busy coffee shop that offers food, drinks, and events. It has significantly increased footfall in that area of Swansea and has become a permanent establishment.
The other pop-ups were in the Quadrant Shopping Centre in Swansea. These included the Dementia Hwb, which has been so successful that it is now permanent, The Environment Centre’s pop-up refill shop (eventually evolving into the Library of Things), The Employment Hub, and an ongoing exhibition and gallery space situated in the former Disney unit.
These initial PopUp Wales projects were supported with finance from the Welsh Government’s Transforming Towns funding through Swansea Council.
Scaling PopUp Wales
The success of the initial project led Swansea Council to issue a tender for a larger-scale roll-out. We submitted a bid, which we won, enabling us to create an additional ten spaces in Swansea.
These included Greek Flavours on Kingsway (now very busy and permanent!), a light gallery and art installation in 2 units on Belle Vue Way, Fresh Creative at the top of High Street, Dreamy Hill Art Gallery, Aspera Life Plants on Nelson Street, pop-up studios for Swansea Studios on Wind Street, supporting Elysium to secure a unit adjacent to their bar on High Street for workshop space, and Perago Wales on Caer Street. It also resulted in the creation of the Engine Room cowork space, where we have now based ourselves.
As a result of this project, several of these spaces, including Perago Wales and The Engine Room, have now become permanent fixtures.
Overcoming barriers and simplifying processes
One of the most significant challenges faced by potential tenants interested in a pop-up space is the daunting legal process. Each new venture requires a legal agreement, which can be costly and time-consuming for short-term lets, plus many of those seeking to use temporary spaces are often relatively inexperienced in such matters and do not have the resources for retaining solicitors. To address this issue, we commissioned Morgan LaRoche to create a standardised legal document that streamlines the process for all parties, including protecting the landlords themselves.
Another barrier is the safety and compliance of the spaces; things such as electrical testing and repairs for spaces that may not have been used for some time. This can also mean considerable costs for short-term tenants. So, we established a dedicated funding pool to help with these expenses, making it more financially feasible for tenants to take on very short-term lets.
We’ve also taken on the responsibility of both promoting these spaces and negotiating with property owners to give us access to their property.
Of the 20 pop-up spaces we have now delivered in Swansea, 16 of them have transitioned to long-term leases. That echoes research in other places that have adopted popup initiatives, which show that sites are more likely to be let if they are kept occupied.
Some of the tenants might have changed, but each long-term let is a direct result of the businesses or activities we introduced.
They have also created multiple new jobs. HQ Urban Kitchen and Greek Flavours are just two examples that now employ teams of people.
The impact extends beyond filling empty units. Pop-ups drive foot traffic, extend dwell time, and increase positive perceptions. They also enhance safety – well-lit, occupied spaces are not just perceived as safer, they actually are.
Pop-ups serve as launchpads for start-ups and testbeds for new ideas. They offer a low-risk environment for entrepreneurs to learn and evolve. Over the years, we’ve collaborated with universities, commercial entities, artists, and non-profits, showcasing the versatility of these spaces.
In a post-Covid world with declining retail, the urgency to rethink our city centres is important. Pop-ups are part of this solution, filling vacant properties and generating a positive economic ripple effect for existing businesses.
Geographical spread of PopUp Wales
The success of the Swansea initiative has expanded geographically, and we were invited to develop 10 spaces in Bridgend. We are also collaborating with Caerphilly Council on spaces in Bargoed And we have just been commissioned to deliver a third phase of the project in Swansea, funded by Levelling Up funds from UK Government via Swansea Council.
Excitingly, we have also recently been given the incredible opportunity to work on the new Biophilic Living project in Swansea.
Due to our efforts, the Welsh Government has established funding streams explicitly for pop-up and meanwhile spaces. Our work has directly contributed to this. We were also commissioned by Welsh Government to write a best practice guide to pop-up spaces.
We’re looking to scale it up. It’s an exemplar project. We’ve even caught the attention of commercial landlords. Some are now commissioning us directly, recognising the economic benefits PopUp Wales brings.
Our success has influenced other local authorities to integrate pop-up spaces into their regeneration plans. The impact stretches across Wales, and we’re actively exploring additional opportunities for more pop-up spaces.
It’s a concept that works.
Get in touch
We’d love to discuss pop-up spaces with you. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org