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From Events in the Gents to Pop Up People - New Life for High Streets

02/02/2012 17:51 GMT | Updated 03/04/2012 10:12 BST

You can imagine how people reacted. The idea of 'events in the gents' doesn't really bear thinking about.

Yet the anarchic enthusiasm of a bunch of people in Hackney to bring their local high street back to life says something about the way people care about their communities - even to the point of breaking into a boarded-up public toilet and reopening it as a 'pop up shop', a temporary space to showcase local talents.

The local council responded to this attempt to revitalise a bit of Britain's Victorian heritage with a Victorian lack of amusement, seeing the opening of the toilets as nothing but an inconvenience. The council wanted to demolish the toilets and build new shops; members of the local Clapton Improvement Society said there were enough empty shops already, and what was needed to support a vibrant new market was well-maintained toilets.

Events in the Gents is one of the more bizarre results of a campaign by residents and traders to bring life back into Chatsworth Road, a traditional east London high street. Within walking distance of the mega-mall at Westfield Stratford City! It offers a clue about how our high streets are to survive.

As well as the efforts of the improvement society, there's a traders' and residents' association brought together with the help of Euan Mills, a local resident and urban designer. When the project started one in five shops were empty; now there's a lively market that has even featured in Condé Nast Traveller, which wrote:

'It's a major hit... not only for its shopping pleasures but also for the days-of-yore snacks at What the Dickens, a gourmet coffee stand that's manned by Victoriana-clad chaps who serve treats like devilled kidneys.'

Using social media and old-fashioned networking, Chatsworth Road traders and residents showed what could be done when people share knowledge, information and the will to make a difference. The problem now is how to manage the group's success and keep rents at levels affordable enough to maintain a diversity of independent businesses.

Events in the Gents and the Chatsworth Road market are the work of what Empty Shops Network founder Dan Thompson calls 'pop up people'. They are people who are prepared to experiment and take risks to inject activity and colour into our drab and declining towns.

They manifest what politicians and business leaders are often good at talking about but poor at doing: enterprise. And their enterprise often has public benefits many business people don't think about until they've made their millions.

As Dan puts it in a report launched today: 'Pop up people are truly entrepreneurial, even if their project is more about community then commerce.'

Dan talks about artists who are reviving empty spaces in Tooting Market in south London and Temple Works, a factory styled in the form of an Egyptian temple in Holbeck, Leeds. From Margate to Coventry and beyond, pop-up people are showing an imagination lacking in our clone town high streets.

A look at some of the facts and figures highlighted in Dan's report shows how much we need pop-up people. Empty shops are just the most visible reason, with 15% of our high street stores now vacant,

We have far more retail space than we need - 88m square feet built in the last 15 years in an unsustainable rush for quick gains. Four out of five supermarkets in the planning pipeline will be out of town.

You could add a fact that doesn't appear in the report, which is the recent prediction by property agents Jones Lang LaSalle that 50% of high street leases will come up for renewal by 2015. The chain stores which are already reducing the number of outlets as Internet shooting increases will pull out of more traditional high streets and concentrate on 'prime' locations. As they put it in an article for Property Week:

'25% of high street and shopping centre leases are due to expire by 2013 and 50% by 2015... the next 24 months are likely to see a swift and dramatic playing out of this polarisation.'

As the prime minister prepares to respond to the Portas Review, we need to learn how to mobilise Britain's pop up people. But we need to match their entrepreneurship with an enterprising attitude among local authoirities, property owners and the large retailers - people who have the power to make places better but often fail to use it intelligently.

The idea of localism and the advent of neighbourhood planning creates an opportunity for local people to be much more assertive about the kind of towns they want. But there isn't much time - it really is a case of use it or lose it.

• Alongside the Pop Up People report is a wiki explaining how to do it yourself and share learning with others, a film, and even some musical extras.