Open Poplar

Across London, the pressure on affordable space, especially workspace, is growing. Our interest in maximising the value of physical spaces led to the launch of Open Poplar in 2015.

First we map the local area to understand the spaces that exist. They could be garages, untouched for years, or a community centre not operating at full capacity. The spaces are advertised on a dedicated website and proposals invited via broad publicity. The spaces are available to all, but we prioritise local people, or ideas that benefit the local community. Each applicant submits an outline business plan that is assessed for viability and community benefits, then we work with the applicant to make the ideas come to fruition.

The process turns liabilities into assets. Spaces that once attracted anti-social behaviour, incurred business rates and maintenance costs or were boarded up and ‘unloved’ can now attract investment and funding; reduce costs and enliven multi-use areas. From a placemaking perspective this helps put Poplar on the map, as a place of confidence and opportunity, encouraging a strong local, mixed economy and attracting new visitors.

To date we’ve supported 40 businesses to start, or grow. Our partners have invested £430,000 in physical improvements to Poplar through the scheme, not to mention the millions of pounds of positive publicity that has helped put Poplar on the map. Some examples include:

  • Arbeit Studios – transforming an unused basement into affordable studio space for local artists, designers, small businesses and start-ups, alongside business support, and event/gallery space.
  • Tommy Flowers – the Tommy Flowers community pub is used as an arts/community space in the daytime, and a pub in the evening.
  • A Door in a Wall – an immersive theatre company created, a bespoke production for Poplar. The 36 shows attracted 2,600 people and utilised 31 game locations across the area. The show garnered £70k advertising reach and we invited local people, staff and partners to come and play along.
  • Poplar Works – our ground-breaking £6m Poplar Works project, in partnership with London College of Fashion, UAL and part-funded by the Mayor of London. It will bring fashion back home to East London, and create 85 local jobs and 185 training, apprenticeship and mentoring opportunities within two years.

"I’ve lived in Poplar all my life and have been photographing for 16 years. Accents has democratised space previously inaccessible, adding colour and life. For my Transitions Photography Project, that meant a really well attended exhibition in the heart of the high street."

Michael Mulcahy

Photographer & Poplar resident

The £67,000 annual income from the spaces, which rises each year, plus the thousands we save in maintenance and tax liabilities is ploughed back into homes, services and opportunities for our community.

Open Poplar has revolutionised the way we think about and manage spaces. Every square metre is now viewed as an opportunity, and our staff have become scouts – letting us know about places just waiting to be transformed. We’ve been overwhelmed by the variety and creativity of the hundreds of proposals we’ve received and the appetite to turn liabilities into assets. It takes time to get started but is replicable anywhere and Poplar is a more vibrant, creative, productive and innovative place as a result.