Oxford Case Studies: Common Ground

Eclectic, sustainable and quirky, Common Ground – a shared workspace and café – is a bright addition to Jericho

Jericho, one of Oxford’s most historic areas, climbed to number 11 in a 2017 list of the UK’s ‘most hip’ destinations. Anyone who knows its melee of proudly independent stores and shops might say it ought to have been higher – and they would be aghast to learn that TravelSupermarket, whose list this is, demoted Jericho to 20th place this year.

But there’s a new kid on the Jericho block: Common Ground on Little Clarendon Street. A shared workspace and café, it’s a social enterprise for which the word ‘eclectic’ might have been invented – and so successful has it been in its short life that it might just help push Jericho back up TravelSupermarket’s rankings.

Not, though, that co-founder Jake Backus is too bothered by where Common Ground features in lists. The managing director of Empathy Sustainability and visiting senior member of Linacre College, Oxford, Backus’s focus is on making sure people feel comfortable and relaxed when they drop into Common Ground. “We’ve taken care to create an atmosphere of calm, kindness and courtesy,” says Backus, who, with Piotr Drabik, set up Common Ground in February. “We want to support the community and students. This is a place where everyone is welcome, and where they’ll find that anything creative is actively encouraged.”

Visitors can also enjoy what’s been dubbed ‘the best coffee experience in Oxford’. “Piotr is a barista extraordinaire and a coffee machine whizz,” says Backus. “He takes his time over making coffee, and customers can tell.”

Taking time is what Common Ground is all about. Backus and Drabik don’t mind if students stay all day, whether to make use of the free wifi, sample one of Common Ground’s many classes and activities (which range from yoga, table tennis and darts to writers’ group meetings and poetry readings) or talk bikes. Keen cyclists both, Backus and Drabik allow people to bring their bikes inside, where they can pump up their tyres and get free eco-oil for their chains. And with nearly 1,000 Facebook followers, Common Ground is also home to two cycling clubs.

It’s all a far cry from its former use: Common Ground’s premises used to be a branch of Barclays Bank. But when Barclays left, Backus looked at the empty space and thought it would make a great venue for a pop-up café. “I put the idea to Oxford University, the landlord, and we agreed a short-term lease. I was also fortunate to receive a Social Enterprise Award from the Oxford Hub. One of our key selling points was that students can often feel isolated. We wanted to provide a nurturing environment where they could stop by and talk – and not feel they had to leave as soon as they’d finished their coffee.”

Making Common Ground as sustainable as possible was also part of its founders’ vision. Sofas, tables and chairs were bought from auctions, found, upcycled or donated, green energy powers everything, and healthy and sustainable salads are available from Waste2Taste.

Backus and Drabik are in the process of extending Common Ground’s lease. With luck, their avowedly “quirky” venture will be in Little Clarendon Street for years to come – and it might just help push Jericho into the Top 10 of the UK’s hip destinations. 

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