activism architecture business

Building of the week: The People’s Park Cafe

For the first time, this week’s featured building is something I’m involved in. Down the road from me is People’s Park, a rolling green space that slopes up to a patch of chalky grassland and some woods. We visit fairly regularly, and host Luton’s first and only outdoor church from there a couple of times a month.

In the middle of the park is a disused building, which had public toilets until they were vandalised and closed a few years ago. A local football club score their balls and goalposts there, but otherwise it is more or less locked up and abandoned and the council were going to demolish it.

A few of us have other plans, and we have been meeting up to see if the building could be turned into a cafe. Those plans are now quite advanced, pending the final sign off on the community asset transfer from the council. We have been working with an architect, and hopefully it will eventually look more like this:

I wouldn’t normally tell you all about my local projects, of which there are many, but I’m making an exception of this one because it brings together so many of the things I write about.

  • Sustainable buildings: in terms of embedded carbon, it’s always going to be better to renovate than build from scratch. Our plan is to transform the building around the basic structure, using sustainable, natural and recycled materials where possible. The site has no gas line, so it will be entirely electric and powered in large part by a solar roof – though that is a stretch fundraising goal.
  • Community enterprise: the group organising the project is a Community Interest Company and if all goes to plan, the cafe will operate as a community enterprise. Profits can be cycled back into the park and the local area. It will be accessible and inclusive, even for those who might not be able to pay for their own coffee.
  • Public space: investing in shared spaces demonstrates to people that their area is valued, and that they are valued – as Eric Klinenberg explains in his book Palaces for the People. The park has its share of grafitti, littering and anti-social behaviour. That makes the cafe project a little risky, but it’s a statement of hope and ambition in an area that can feel neglected. (See also Edible High Town)
  • Participative processes: Luton is gentrifying, slowly. Lots of new homes are being built, often to serve commuters priced out of London. The needs and interests of the local community aren’t always considered, and so the cafe has been run as a collaborative project from the start. We’ve worked with the school, the park users, the residents association, the council, cultural and faith groups, anyone and everyone, so that it genuinely feels like the People’s Cafe.

Alongside all of that, I hope it will be an opportunity to create a handful of jobs and provide some training. I hope it will catalyse investment in the park and the community that uses it. It has already been a massive learning opportunity for me and some of the others involved. And I hope it will serve a decent cup of coffee.

There’s a lot to do before we get to that stage, including funding it. And that’s where you can help out if you’re so inclined. We’ll do the big trust funding later, but we need a small fund to get us through design and planning permission. You’ll find our crowdfunder here, and lots more information on the website.


  1. Inclusive coffee: I’m sure you know about this, but I came across the ‘Suspended Coffee’ project on holiday in Shetland—effectively as a customer you pay forwrd a coffee for someone who wants one and can’t afford it.

    1. Ah, I didn’t know there was a network encouraging this sort of thing. I’m aware of one other place in Luton that does this – the Don Miller bakery, and I see they’re on the map. I’ll have a look into it – thanks!

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