by Nicholas Boys Smith
Thursday, 7
May 2020
Idea
10:29

To the cafe tables, comrades — bring on the al fresco revolution

Let's rediscover streets as beautiful places for business and pleasure
by Nicholas Boys Smith
Cafe tables and market stalls in Bordeaux. Credit: Create Streets

Normal is broken. When it comes to shops or restaurants, those calling on the Government to ‘end the lockdown’ are missing the point. The problem won’t be the government lockdown. It will be fear. Will anyone who is old or sick or not had the dreaded virus want to wander down high streets and into corner shops? Will they ever go to restaurants again?

If they do, will they accept being cramped elbow to elbow in the way that is now common to squeeze in covers and manage the rent. Even shops and restaurants which can re-open may rapidly go to hell in a handcart.

But here’s the good news. Across Northern Europe over the last 20 years, cities with climates every bit as inclement as ours have been finding a simple way to help become more pleasant, more prosperous and yes, more economically successful places.

Widen pavements. Calm traffic. And rediscover streets not just as canyons to drive through but as beautiful places to be for business and pleasure. Stockholm, Copenhagen and Vilnius are all doing it: planting street trees; prioritising cyclists and pedestrians over cars (which you really don’t need in town centres), and making it easy for shops and cafes to spill out into the public highway.

We can do this too. Summer is coming. The days are lengthening. There appears to be growing evidence that Covid-19 is far less infectious outside than indoors. So let’s make it far, far easier for shops, restaurants and cafés to trade on the pavements outside their premises.

That is possible now but it’s bureaucratic. At present, shops or restaurants wishing to make use of the pavement need to apply to their local authority under Section 115E of the 1980 Highways Act. Each applicant must ensure that pedestrians’ rights are not affected and councils need to consider the width of the pavement, if it is a street where street trading is specifically prohibited, sight lines and whether the pavement is on a public highway or not.

Applications typically cost £200-£300 for a few tables and can cost more. Processing can apparently take anything up to three months and is rarely, I am told, less than one month. They are valid for one year. Then you have to do it again.

So let’s change the rules. In public squares above a certain size or pedestrianised high streets above a certain width, there should be a blanket permission to make use of the public highway up to a certain depth. No permission required. No permit. Just put up your stall or your tables and get selling and tempting customers where they may feel safer — outside not inside and further away from other customers.

On thinner or busier roads, councils should use traffic cones or planters to widen pavements and control speeds. Then they can provide the same blanket right to shops and restaurants to trade on their own doorsteps without unnecessary form-filling. Allowing restaurants and shops out into the street can get them back onto their feet.

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Michael McVeigh
Michael McVeigh
2 years ago

Thanks for this touching and true examination of life and love.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago

Just to pick up on one issue raised by this interesting argument. You cite Walter Benjamin’s concerns that “with mass reproducibility we begin to lose the idea that there is something special about the original work of art ” its uniqueness, its “aura”.” However, this idea is something which seems only to apply to works of visual art: painting and sculpture. And it’s not in fact only about “mass reproduction”, as Benjamin suggested: we esteem a Brueghel over a copy of Brueghel, even one made by his own son, even if for centuries it was believed to be a authentic Brueghel.

But we don’t esteem The Divine Comedy any the less because we read it in a printed book, rather than in a medieval manuscript. The wisdom of Middlemarch is still as profound in a Penguin Classic, or even on a Kindle, as it is in a Victorian four-volume edition.

And what about music? – where the original score is, precisely, something that needs to be “reproduced” in performance. We listen to a symphony in the concert hall or via a recording; unless we are specialists, we don’t usually follow a written score; and even if we read music, we gain greater pleasure from hearing than from reading.

Surely it’s the visual arts that are eccentric – only in the case of painting or sculpture does it matter to us so much that what we look is the unique, the original work.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
2 years ago

You could go further: the hysterical and futile demand that death should be cancelled at all costs has resulted in the destruction of all those things that make life worth living – theatres, concerts, restaurants, sport. So refusing death turns out to lead only to a living death.

marielouise_clayton
marielouise_clayton
2 years ago

I do hope Boris is reading some of this stuff. Our reckless path to a self imposed societal destruction far greater than that wreaked by the virus is because we are being lead by politicians that cannot face this “politically unacceptable ” conversation about death and dying.

Bill Brookman
Bill Brookman
2 years ago

I feel I need to write something here because not to do so would be cowardly. Mike Yeadon has shown his bravery. I suspect many people read this article and rather shamefacedly shuffled on without committing to print.

But what could I write, apart from prevarication? Perhaps I could alight on the slow-moving target of attacking the heading and strap line? Lucy, your son DOES matter and I am not sure that your child, (your dear child, I haven’t forgotten that) is considered “worthless” by the government. He is not worthless. He has already had, as you write, a considerable amount of government money spent on him.

The dilemma is not how much should be spent on him, but how much more? You have set your store out: You write disapprovingly of what you see as our economically-driven system in which people’s worth is reduced to what they are able to contribute on a purely fiscal level.

What are you looking for apart from a medical intervention supported by the same fiscal means you seem to despise? Or, and I’m not being snide here, at least I don’t intend to be, are you advocating a different means by which you child, who I don’t doubt that you love, can be supported by our government without recourse to finance?

I will add one other caveat: It would seem that this government has agreed to crash our economy in order to do the opposite of what you accuse it of, namely reducing welfare; scrutinising the most vulnerable among us (sic) and systematically stripping back the support and dignity of those most in need of humanity. I would argue the opposite to be the case: Western governments have crashed our capitalist (your word, not mine) economies to protect those identified as most at risk of death from coronavirus; namely the already poor, BAME, ill, old and infirm.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
2 years ago

I have nothing but empathy for EHCP families. Do you have none for non-EHCP families?

” ‘just do your best’. Reasonable endeavours” is as good as we, my family, can provide at this time to your family whilst both my wife and I are locked away from employment and income. We are here by force and not by choice. Our taxes, that fund the programs of EHCP families, are not being collected because we have been incarcerated against our will.

Our children will fund any solution. Our children will provide the physical, economic and mental capital for the solution for all families, including EHCP families, for decades to come.

I would love to hear your solution beyond cries for help? Please tell me your solution involves some consideration for my children?

r j
r j
2 years ago

The built environment is critical to individuals health and well being. This is often neglected. I hope we can see this as an opportunity to refocus. With appropriate funds to invest and suitable adjustments the positives in this piece are easily achievable. On the other side recent Government changes led by David Cameron have loosened the ability of Town planning to guide development applications most of which are designed to maximise rapid financial return. Innovation in architecture and the built environment is frequently squeezed by the accountant. Society does not profit from such an emphasis. Also perhaps insight isn’t a common personality trait for the majority and most have very short memories dominated by self interest and routines. Change is difficult for the majority. Even change for the better.

juliandodds
juliandodds
2 years ago

Good article. I often wonder how it is that friends and relatives will often say to each other that “it was a blessing” when an elderly or poorly person dies yet the media would never countenance that, particularly over the last 5 weeks. I read somewhere recently that ‘number of quality years lost’ is a measure that is sometimes used. If we applied that metric to the CV deaths it would shed a very dfferent light on the situation. Whatever happens with CV on a global scale, even if every country just lets it rip, we will exit 2020 with more humans on the planet than we started with. It remains true that the single greatest contribution we can each make to climate change is to die.

Jim M
Jim M
2 years ago
Reply to  juliandodds

Like a true environmentalist, you hope for humanity’s extinction. Stop using electricity and live in a cave.
The natural world does not care about life. Every organism impacts its environment and other species and humans are no different. The world without people is no Garden of Eden.

yeadonm
yeadonm
2 years ago

Beautiful writing as well as thought-provoking.

Billy McIlwaine
Billy McIlwaine
2 years ago

Thank you. An honest and coherent perspective.

yeadonm
yeadonm
2 years ago

I am, yet strongly dislike that I am, a utilitarian. We like to think we’re not. I don’t pretend. Each year, we choose to do nothing beyond a laudable attempt to find, make & distribute a vaccine against influenza, which visits us every winter. These vaccines cannot & never provide complete protection & not infrequently provide almost none. Having discharged our responsibilities to our old & frail citizens, there’s a shrug & little more when, unseen by most of us, the virus rips through care homes, killing a not-dissimilar number of people from Covid19’s reapers harvest. We don’t lock down care homes, provide PPE for staff, build out intensive care let alone close almost the whole of the economy. The final toll varies. I resist being caught in the number of deaths, be they 8,000 or 35,000. It’s a lot.
We’ve long ago chosen not to spend much to extend the life of the average flu victim by a few months (that’s roughly what the effect of it is).
We’ve shown that, however it’s done, there are limits to the support, the resources, the money as well as the non-financial burdens that we’re willing to shoulder in order to save (extend slightly) the lives of several thousand people.
If any reader wants to argue that while I might be a dreadful person, they are assuredly not a utilitarian, I will carefully think about what you write.
I’m not going to comment on the article at all. I don’t know what to say. I regard the parent / author as having more courage & selflessness than I have ever had.

jfyiii.mail
jfyiii.mail
2 years ago

I watch my wife and friends hold an a almost daily happy hour on zoom. It looks pretty chaotic to me but it is clear they are connecting just fine and because it is easy they connect way more often than they would otherwise attempt .

I suspect the problem here is really the adjustmet to a new paradigm. Similar to when our parents heard rock music add noise while we heard melody, or when people look at modern art and see nothing but because I was raised on modern art I see beauty.

mikedendor
mikedendor
2 years ago

I am very puzzled by this article and disagree with most of it. As a Councillor, freelancer, and (supposedly) retired father of 4 and grandfather of 6, I use video conferencing all the time.

I do not find it dehumanising at all – in fact, most of the people I connect with seem to be more comfortable, relaxed and uninhibited over video-conferencing than “acting” in formal personal or business situations. Some of the videos I have seen quite clearly show the wonderful capability of humans to adapt to any situation and most certainly the underlying “soul” (if you want to call it that) is absolutely apparent, particularly in the inventiveness shown by religious and other community groups to ensure that worship, support, and communication does not break down. I am going the risk the wrath of some people now by saying that for some groups, the informal remote method of communication may be somewhat better than the formal dogmatic gatherings that have gone before!

I am not at all saying that video conferencing should completely replace meeting people at some stage. I find that vide-conferencing with people that I have met personally at some stage makes the process a lot easier, but seeing them for most of the time over a link most certainly does not dehumanise them or make them less interesting.

Martin Davis
Martin Davis
2 years ago

I agree we have this aversion to contemplating our inevitable death, and that of others close to us. But I think the statement “Except lockdown won’t prevent coronavirus deaths, just slow down their rate of occurrence.” is wrong. If we learn from experience and adapt to this latest, but not likely last, novel infectious disease, we will be able to suppress the infection. We are all going to develop prophylactics to treat it. So that even if a vaccine is not feasible, we can minimise the virus’s impact, as we did with AIDS. In truth, we cannot prevent death, just slow down its rate of occurrence.

nenegaffney
nenegaffney
2 years ago

This article is outstanding! Thank you for saying what must be said. A great tragedy of this pandemic has been that the old and disabled In our “enlightened” societies have been “protected” to die without loved ones of a lifetime with them.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

At the very time we should be renewing our connection to faith, or at least considering our self values, we are wrenched away from them. The church is failing to seize a marketing opportunity here!

maria
maria
2 years ago

Excellent !!

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
2 years ago

Giles I find it hard to accept that Zoom is “sucking away at our souls”as you suggest. My experience of it has been life enhancing enabling me to talk with family and friends, and worship with my congregation. Its potential for keeping people in touch, and indeed for the Church’s mission and ministry is enormous.
I don’t understand how it can be dehumanising. The great difference between a portrait or photo and Zoom is simply that with Zoom the people are alive and present with you. Of course there is nothing better than in the flesh contact, but Zoom and Facebook are a good second.
I’m interested in what you say about the soul. I always thought that the anthropology of the Bible taught that the soul is as you describe it,”the thing that makes me…me”. It consists of the personality, emotions,intellect, talents etc. Along with the soul we are made up of our body, our physical existence, and our spirit, that which enables us to relate to God. They are all interrelated and affect one another. They are distinct but are intimately linked into a profound unity making the whole person. It could be said that our threefold constitution of body, soul and spirit is the most infinitesimal and palest reflection of God the Holy Trinity’s threefold constitution of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Kenneth MacKillop
Kenneth MacKillop
2 years ago

Couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of this article. And from the biomedical point of view I would add that viruses are in a markedly different category than most live pathogens (e.g. bacteria). We really must learn better that we are largely reliant upon our own individual evolutionary resources to deal with these infectious agents.

Medicine can save a few lives certainly, but not many. Antivirals generally require very early administration to be effective and are poorly understood with poor selectivity. For CoVs both vaccines and natural humoral immunity are like to be weaker factors than for flu, and will only save many lives if the pandemic can be completely extinguished — possible but seemingly unlikely.

What a historical contrast the more lethal Spanish flu provides in terms of public attitude, with a world war still being fought at the time. SARS-CoV-2 may yet infect a larger pecentage of the world’s population though, probably over a longer time period — for Spanish flu it was only estimated as one third.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
2 years ago

Great idea, but I’d go further. Rather than trying to ‘reclaim high streets for retail’, incentivise converting them to socialising and ‘infotainment’ centres. Pedestrianise all but essential access roads, put up covered areas to give all-year-round use, and promote street cafes, entertainment, informal and organised games areas, drop-in advice centres, street artists and hobbyist meeting and demonstration areas. Make them safe for young and old, all genders, ethnicities etc to meet and socialise. Bring back ‘life’.