Policy Papers

‘Creative Repurposing’ and Levelling Up: History, Heritage and Urban Renewal

Matthew Bristow , Catherine A.M. Clarke , Rachel Delman, Mark Liebenrood and Jon Winder |

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Executive Summary

  • Creative repurposing’ – including, specifically, of ‘heritage assets’ – was announced in the Levelling Up Prospectus (March 2021) as a cornerstone of the government’s agenda for regional development and the regeneration of towns and small cities across the UK. The omission of this phrase from the later Levelling Up White Paper may reflect lack of confidence in what it really means, both in theory and practice.
  • While the adaptive re-use of historic buildings has received significant critical attention in recent years (in the contexts of planning policy, heritage and conservation), the concept of ‘creative repurposing’, and its potential as a lever for renewal and regeneration, requires renewed critical attention and analysis.
  • Case studies of three English locations (Barking & Dagenham, Coventry, Sunderland) reveal new insights into effective practice, as well as the opportunities and challenges involved in the ‘creative repurposing’ of historic buildings and wider heritage.
  • Key issues for policy-makers at local and national levels include: scale; relationships between ‘creative repurposing’ of specific buildings and the public realm more broadly; challenges posed by environmental and climate change; the complexities of multi-agency collaboration, including volunteer communities; tensions between ‘creative repurposing’ and conservation; sustainability; metrics for success.
  • The practice of ‘creative repurposing’ should be understood to incorporate intangible heritage such as local histories, traditions, and sense of place, as well as the built environment, and has greater potential when these aspects are combined.


The Levelling Up Prospectus (March 2021) announced ‘Cultural Investment’ as one of the cornerstones of the government’s Levelling Up agenda, with ‘creative repurposing’ a prominent central strand. The document sets out a vision for local place-based renewal through ‘creatively repurposing museums, galleries, visitor attractions (and associated green spaces) and heritage assets as well as creating new community-owned spaces to support the arts and serve as cultural spaces’ (2021:8). Round One of Levelling Up investment targeted three core themes: regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport and investing in cultural and heritage assets.

Heritage and local history feature prominently in the Levelling Up White Paper (2022), which states that ‘since 2019, the UK Government has been empowering communities to revitalise and champion their heritage buildings, town centres and spaces’ across a raft of policies and funding initiatives, including ‘the £95m High Streets Heritage Action Zones programme which supports 67 places across England; the £15m Transforming Places through Heritage programme; and the £2bn Cultural Recovery Fund’. The White Paper outlines further plans for investment in ‘heritage buildings’ and ‘historic sites’, claiming that this will ‘in turn... support the visitor economy in these places, helping to drive regeneration and economic growth, and providing employment for local people’ (2022: 216-17). The causalities and change envisaged by the White Paper form part of the wider Levelling Up goal to ‘Restore a Sense of Community, Local Pride and Belonging’ (2022: 206), with the indicator that ‘by 2030, pride in place, such as people’s satisfaction with their town centre and engagement in local culture and community, will have risen in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing’ (2022: 207).

The adaptive re-use of historic buildings has long been perceived as a lever for economic, social and cultural renewal in urban contexts, though commentators have raised questions about challenges including sustainability, gentrification, ‘culture-washing’ and the beneficiaries and limits of any so-called ‘ripple effect’ on the surrounding area. While the Levelling Up Prospectus introduced the distinctive language of ‘creative repurposing’ as a new approach to conceptualising adaptive re-use and beyond, that terminology is not used in the Levelling Up White Paper – perhaps reflecting a lack of confidence in this newly coined collocation and what the phrase might actually mean, both in theory and in practice.

What kinds of initiatives can constitute the ‘creative repurposing’ of heritage in urban contexts? Where did the case studies identify effective or innovative practice and transferable insights? And what are the potential risks which policy makers must consider?

Case studies

Barking and Dagenham

Barking and Dagenham has an ethnically diverse population of around 214,000. The area is changing rapidly, with 50,000 new homes to be built in the next fifteen years, complementing the houses provided on the interwar Becontree estate. Barking and Dagenham is a Levelling Up Priority One area; according to the 2019 Index of Multiple Deprivation, it was the most deprived area in London and twenty-first in England. At the same time, the RSA Heritage Index (2020) found that it has high heritage potential, as its tangible heritage assets are not being matched by activities that could increase their use, community participation and funding. 

Although there is potential to do more, adaptation and repurposing is taking place. Historic buildings have been adapted for new uses, including the striking Dagenham Civic Centre which is now used by Coventry University, as well as Barking Pier, now renewed as a destination for the Thames Clipper service, with high-profile interest in creating a future arts and culture facility at the Pier site. Intangible heritage is also being repurposed to create a more sustainable sense of place. The Participatory City Foundation is repurposing the area’s long industrial heritage to promote inclusive and creative micro-manufacturing opportunities. However, perhaps the greatest challenge facing the area is the risk from climate change. Climate Central predict that most of the borough will be below the annual flood level by 2050.


Coventry is the eleventh largest UK city and the second largest in the West Midlands, with a total population of 379,387. Arguably best known for its large-scale devastation during the WW2 Blitz, Coventry’s ethos is defined by renewal, as most famously encapsulated by Basil Spence’s cathedral, which combines the shell of the medieval cathedral with a modernist building. Despite its considerable importance as a hub of modernist innovation, and the survival of numerous significant pre-twentieth-century buildings (including the Guildhall, the Charterhouse, Holy Trinity Church and Drapers’ Hall), Coventry has come to be regarded as a concrete jungle, and is often overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Birmingham.  

Recently Coventry has received (inter)national attention as UK City of Culture (2021), and as the pilot for Historic England’s Heritage Action Zones project, whereby shops on the The Burges, Palmer Lane and Hales Street have been restored with a view to facilitating economic growth in the city. The Historic Coventry Trust has significantly redeveloped several historic sites, while the ‘In Paint We Trust’ project has seen numerous murals created throughout the city, many of which reference local history and heritage. But renewal can also bring loss: the Bull Yard shopping centre, which has become a hub for independent creatives, is due to be demolished as part of the City Centre South development. Despite considerable evidence of ‘creative repurposing’, issues of uneven coverage, competing interests, the ‘ringroad issue’ (fragmentation of the city by the circular A4053), and transience and destruction persist. 


This case study focuses on the short row of buildings at 170–175 High Street West, Sunderland: a main focal point of the city’s Heritage Action Zone (led by Historic England). Derelict for years and subject to various failed development schemes, the buildings were purchased by the city council and transferred to Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust (TWBPT). They were subsequently converted and are now a wholefoods shop, a café, and a multi-purpose performance space. That space has dramatically transformed the central property, occupied in the 19th century by Binns, a noted firm of drapers. Despite extensive structural and aesthetic modifications, the interior retains heritage features.  The project was the result of extensive community consultation, but uncertainty remains over the long-term viability of the new venues, sited outside the main city centre. The TWBPT is now refurbishing an adjacent block of buildings, funded by the Levelling Up Fund, and this site will be a useful test case for how successfully small cluster initiatives can be joined up to successfully revitalise a larger urban zone.

Key issues

The three case studies highlight and illustrate a range of key issues, with transferable insights for policy makers and planners engaged in urban renewal and sustainable regeneration.

Relationships between ‘creative repurposing’ of buildings and the material environment, and intangible heritage

Many successful renewal schemes in the three case-study locations bring together tangible and intangible heritage. The legacies (or mythologies) of prominent historical local individuals help the renewal to bed-in to the community: for example, the photograph of local deceased rock drummer Dave Harper on display in the Sunderland High Street West café, understood as his legacy; or pieces of public art dedicated to Ira Aldridge, Britain’s first Black theatre manager, in Coventry. More widely, much of the ‘In Paint We Trust’ street art programme in Coventry evokes local history and heritage. Lady Godiva has been re-imagined as a twenty-first century feminist icon as part of a larger carpark mural at FarGo village, an artistically repurposed industrial space designed exclusively ‘for creative, independent businesses and like-minded visitors’. The ‘Broken Angel’ project, installing temporary new windows in Coventry Cathedral, included an image of a skateboard, referencing the skateboarders who regularly congregate outside the neighbouring Herbert Art Gallery and Coventry University (there had previously been a ‘No Skateboarding’ sign outside the cathedral).

Wider practices of repurposing an intangible sense of local identity are especially striking in Barking and Dagenham, partly in deliberate response to the period of contested local identity in the early twenty-first century, when the British National Party achieved significant local electoral success (2006). A culture of strong municipal action endures in the borough, partially inspired by the creation of the inter-war Becontree Estate, once described as the world’s largest social housing estate. This seems to create strong expectations of the council’s role in building new housing for all in the community.The council plans 44,000 new homes over the next 15 years; strikingly, a recent planning application for a large residential development of up to 29 storeys, overlooking the historic Barking Abbey ruins, received just three letters of objection. The work of the charity, Participatory City Foundation, is carefully repurposing a sense of historical local identity grounded in making and manufacture, offering inclusive micro-manufacturing and craft opportunity across the borough and repurposing the stories local communities tell about themselves.

Scale: ‘creative repurposing’ of specific buildings and the wider public realm

While ‘adaptive reuse’ has focused attention on individual buildings or sites, the three project case-studies highlight the importance of thinking across varying scales, and the ‘creative repurposing’ of wider local areas. Interventions targeting specific buildings are often intended to drive clusters of renewal, and the later (organic) ‘joining up’ and expansion of regeneration sites. Whether this is successful in practice appears more doubtful, without careful additional attention.

In Sunderland, the targeted regeneration at 170-175 High Street West is part of the HAZ (Heritage Action Zone) which includes a number of other heritage sites dispersed across a wide area. The long vacant Georgian church of Holy Trinity, once the focal point of the burgeoning parish of Sunderland, has also been repurposed as a daytime café and performance venue, its ‘1719’ moniker reflecting the year of the church’s opening. It remains to be seen whether the impact on these discrete locations will result in transformation of the broader urban environment and public realm. In Coventry, the creative repurposing of specific buildings appears disjointed. While many of the medieval buildings are receiving attention from the Historic Coventry Trust, many of the local people interviewed felt anxious about the fate of the Elephant Building (twentieth century) and the Priory Visitor Centre, a visitor attraction on the site of Coventry’s original cathedral, which are empty and neglected. The HAZ focus on Burges, Palmer Lane and Hales Street has undoubtedly improved the appearance of these streets, but one problem arising from this is that neighbouring areas now look tired and run-down. Questions of scale also relate to time and chronology: many of the buildings that have been painted with new murals as part of the ‘In Paint We Trust’ Project (for example, the Police Station) are set to be demolished. Much of the regeneration that happened for the Millennium now looks outdated and neglected. It will emerge in time whether interventions as part of the Coventry City of Culture year have lasting positive impact.

Participation, co-production and co-design in policy-making and heritage-led place-making

Each of the case-study locations presents rich, complex and potentially highly fragile eco-systems of agencies, groups and individuals involved in place-making and renewal, including local government, commercial enterprise, non-profit and charity organisations, volunteers, special interest groups and local residents – a picture mirrored in places across the country. In Barking and Dagenham, the Participatory City Foundation, via Every One Every Day, has a genuine commitment to co-production of community development activities and the physical and social infrastructure needed to support skills development for the future, with 6000 participants, 230 projects imagined, created and run by local people, and a seasonal newspaper delivered to 60,000 homes. In Sunderland, the regeneration of 170-175 High Street West was informed by extensive community consultation, including open days. The diverse range of organisations involved in the project – from consultation to delivery – includes the city council, Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust, Open Heritage EU, Newcastle University, Pop Recs, and Sunderland College, with multiple sources of funding (much of it channelled from the Architectural Heritage Fund).

Coventry illustrates well the complexities of multi-agency creative repurposing and the needs of diverse stakeholders. Numerous bodies engage in creative repurposing in Coventry, including the city council, Historic England, the Historic Coventry Trust, Coventry University, independent organisations and, most recently, the City of Culture Trust. Although many of these organisations overlap, there are clear tensions between their needs and priorities.

The participation of multiple groups and individuals in the ‘creative repurposing’ of local heritage for regeneration points to healthy community ecologies. Indeed, the role of non-government agencies in delivering many of these schemes is often crucial, given local government budget cuts and limited resources. But the prominent role of volunteers and volunteer groups – together with the differently-nuanced needs and aspirations of different participants – is also a source of significant risk, especially in relation to longer-term sustainability and stewardship.

Tensions between ‘creative repurposing’ and conservation

Too easily elided in the phrase ‘creative repurposing’ is the fundamental tension between creatively re-imagining a building or site, and the more traditional values and practices of heritage conservation. Local communities can be conservative and rightly protective of important historic buildings, wary of change. This is illustrated well by the ‘Broken Angel’ project at Coventry Cathedral, which engaged with a window in the Basil Spence cathedral broken by vandals. Rather than simply replace and restore the window to its previous state, the project invited several different artists to create new windows for temporary display. The most common criticism of the ‘Broken Angel’ windows locally has been that there was no effort to restore the original appearance of the window. If we understand ‘creative repurposing’ as a practice which goes beyond adaptive re-use, and which seeks to make more radical interventions in the historic environment, and to re-imagine heritage assets in bolder new ways, then involving local communities in the process and managing expectations is evidently important.

Challenges posed by environmental and climate change

Local government and policy are largely silent, in each of the case study locations, about the future impacts of climate change (in contrast, for example, with the way the city of Southend-on-Sea has recently made environmental change a major focus of creative community engagement, with projects such as ‘Precarious Straits’ / ‘Southend under Sea’). The general invisibility of climate change in public-facing policy, planning and community engagement in Barking and Dagenham is particularly notable, given that much of the borough will be under annual flood level by 2050. Much of the exciting creative repurposing work underway in the borough engages with the built heritage of waterways and rivers, and their associated trades and industries: from the Town Quay / Barking Quay re-development (with planned museum), near Barking Abbey, to the Barking pier with its new Thames Clipper connection and proposed future arts and culture venue. Climate change means that the borough’s rivers – traditionally seen as a resource, whether, historically, for commerce, industry and communication, or, today, for the repurposing of industrial heritage – may in future be seen as an existential threat. Similar scenarios will play out in locations across the country where coastland or rivers have historically been assets, and where the associated heritage of water and waterways – both tangible and intangible – is a core element of local identity. The principle of creative repurposing offers an important alternative to the model of redevelopment as a primarily demolition-led exercise, encouraging creative thinking about new uses for buildings and their substantial embodied carbon. There are gaps and needs here which creative repurposing projects need to address: helping communities reflect upon their historical relationships with the environment and renegotiate and renew those narratives – as well as policy and planning – for a realistic, climate-changed future.


As so often with regeneration projects, the longer-term sustainability of the heritage-led creative repurposing projects here is open to question, and potential threats and risks are visible. In Coventry, most strikingly, many current creative repurposing projects involve buildings which are set to be demolished, and thus are only short-term interventions, some associated with the UK City of Culture programme. At 170-175 High Street West, Sunderland, longer-term sustainability is likely to depend on housing developments currently on the drawing board, which could revitalise the local area – which currently remains quite isolated from the city centre. The success of the businesses in the redeveloped space will be a crucial factor, as will the emergence of any ‘ripple effect’ from the venue or the other nearby historic buildings currently the targets of similar regeneration and repurposing. In Barking and Dagenham, the work of the Participatory City Foundation (Every One Every Day) is currently only funded for five years. The case-study locations raise familiar concerns regarding short-term interventions and initiatives, the risks of ‘cliff edge’ funding, and uncertainty around projected ‘ripple effects’ in local regeneration.

Measuring success

The Levelling Up White Paper takes us into radical new territory in terms of metrics for success in local regeneration, pointing not to economic indicators or quantitative data, but instead emotional and affective outcomes such as ‘pride in place’, ‘people’s satisfaction’ and ‘engagement’. The extensive literature on measuring cultural value, and a number of ongoing research projects on qualitative measures and metrics, will contribute to understanding and practice, but these remain challenges. The three case-study locations also call attention to questions around scale and chronological ambit: over what time period should success be achieved, or should benefits be allowed to emerge? In Sunderland, the goals of the 170-175 High Street West project will only be fully achieved if the HAZ succeeds in knitting the area back into the city centre, as envisaged. Must the businesses in the venue also be successful, in order for the creative repurposing of the building to be considered a success? Perhaps most interestingly, the picture in Coventry is complex and more nuanced. While some participants interviewed pointed to longevity and the afterlife of projects as markers for success, others felt that Coventry is a city defined by renewal and rebirth, and were more comfortable with short-term interventions.


Evidence from the case-study locations highlights six key areas for policy-makers to consider.

  1. Creative repurposing of tangible and intangible heritage

Creative repurposing which encompasses both the built environment and intangible heritage (stories, traditions, local identities) can be particularly effective in fostering and deepening feelings of pride and belonging.

  1. Specific sites and the wider public realm

Planners and policy-makers should explore strategies for connecting specific buildings or sites, helping to ensure that the benefits of creative repurposing scale up to impact on wider zones or areas. Discrete interventions in the public realm (especially interpretation- and arts-led) also carry risks around sustainability, future maintenance, and the proliferation of ‘heritage clutter’.

  1. Multi-agency participation and risk

With many creative repurposing projects involving multiple agencies – including local government, commercial enterprise, non-profit and charity organisations, volunteers, special interest groups and local residents – policy-makers need to consider carefully the needs of varied stakeholders, as well as, especially, the risks around longer-term volunteer commitment.

  1. Managing expectations

The imaginative reinterpretation and re-use of heritage assets is quite different from traditional conservation or restoration, and can be received with concern by local communities. Managing local expectations, making aims clear, and interpreting both process and end results is important.

  1. Exploring environmental futures

Changing climate and environment will have a huge impact on heritage in the built environment, as well as on the stories communities tell about their places, and on many traditional sources of community pride and identity. Any heritage-led redevelopment must open up conversations about these changes, and not rely on static historical formations of local identity or environment.

  1. Measuring success

Despite work in this area, needs still remain for effective tools for measuring affective and emotional outcomes, such as pride in place. Policy-makers should consider opening dialogue with local communities as to what voters themselves would consider successful outcomes.


This article emerges from a project funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund at the Centre for the History of People, Place and Community, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2022, with partners Historic England (lead partner Owain Lloyd-James, Head of Levelling Up and Places Strategy). Further detail on the project case studies is available online.

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