What makes an asset an asset?

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Asset, liability or opportunity?

After a summer of report writing, a busy autumn of events is coming up – and nearly a year after the Portas review of the high streets, there’s still huge interest in what should happen in our town and city centres.

Last week I was asked to take part in Make:Shift, a two-day workshop organised by FutureGov for Wolverhampton Council which brought together an eclectic and creative mix of local residents with doers and thinkers from around the country.

The opening panel discussion, followed by an impromptu walking tour of the city centre with Annemarie Naylor from the Asset Transfer Unit, focused on the use of assets. I kicked off with one of my favourite illustrations – Steve Wheen, the Pothole Gardener, who transforms London’s eyesores info delicate miniature gardens and takes pictures of them.

So is a pothole an asset or a liability? It really depends what you do with it and how you look at it. And if you apply that to the many vacant spaces and buildings in our cities, you might come to different conclusions about the possibilities before you.

An asset isn’t an asset, then, until you do something interesting with it. But that’s not how bankers and investors and property owners see assets.

Around £300bn of ‘core commercial’ property in the UK (on 2007 figures) is owned by landlords for investment, representing around 40% of offices, shops and factories. As long as the rent is paid and the margins are right the investors are happy. But their interest in the health and wellbeing of the places where they own these properties tends to be minimal. Often people trying to find new uses for vacant property struggle to find their way to the owner at all.

In the UK today cash is tight, especially in central and local government. But there are lots of physical assets: unused or underused buildings, public spaces, parks, and private spaces. And there are millions of people.

This, I argued, is why we have to think about access and use, not just ownership. Do you need a building? Can you beg, borrow or blag it rather than building or buying it? The future of cities and towns lies in what we do, not what we own.

So some of the most interesting projects today involve the temporary or informal use of unused spaces, from Incredible Edible Todmorden to Start-up Street Stirling. They illustrate the idea of the commons: resources shared for the wider good. The Made in Lambeth project is an example of how knowledge assets, too, can be opened up to public use.

This gives us an opportunity to escape from the curse of regeneration proposals that view success in terms of skimming ever greater amounts of disposable income from our wealthiest citizens rather than creating spaces – physical and virtual – for everyone.

As Enrique Penalosa put it, ‘A society where people of all income levels meet in public spaces is a more integrated, socially healthier one.’ A time when traditional commercial models are struggling or breaking down is a time to create spaces of imagination and opportunity.

As Lewis Mumford writes in The City in History: ‘…it is through the performance of creative acts, in art, in thought, in personal relationships, that the city can be identified as something more than a purely functional organisation of factories and warehouses, barracks, courts, prisons, and control centres.’