Are pedestrian piazzas the way forward for our high streets?

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Despite the lifting of restrictions following the end of lockdown in July, local authorities continued to pedestrianise streets to enable social distancing. Pedestrianising streets was originally introduced in the summer of 2020 as an attempt to plan for more sustainable night time activities. Despite restrictions easing, will this be the way forward for high streets as a way to help improve wellbeing and the environment?

In 2020, the total volume of retail sales in the UK fell by 1.9% compared with 2019, the largest fall since records began and online sales rose to a record high of 33.9% as a share of all retail spending [1]. Food and beverage venues were also significantly affected by the pandemic. Where concentrations of evening and night time hospitality venues exist, local authorities have been able to pedestrianise streets and introduce traffic calming methods to help businesses, particularly food and beverage venues, who have been impacted by the pandemic.

The then Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) relaxed pavement licences [2] in response to the impact of covid-19 by creating a “new streamlined process” to secure licences more easily for local businesses. This was recently updated in July 2021 which extended the process for another year (until September 2022).

The Greater London Authority (GLA) has also provided guidance [3] for local authorities on helping the night time economy recover from the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. It refers to a number of successful case studies and how they have adapted throughout the pandemic.

One example is Northcote Road in Wandsworth which was originally closed to vehicular traffic on 4th July 2020 every Saturday and Sunday to “enable businesses to increase their capacity and adhere to social distancing regulations”. This created a large area of pedestrianised space to allow for spaced tables to enable social distancing as well as drinking whilst standing up. Retailers were able to capitalise “on the pedestrian-friendly and convivial atmosphere”.

Source: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/201208_gla_3_covid-19_and_the_recovery_of_life_at_night.pdf

Due to its success, the London Borough of Wandsworth extended the weekend pedestrianisation of Northcote Road into September 2020 and then October 2020 due to the noticeable increased footfall and vibrancy within the high street. Findings demonstrated that the weekend pedestrianisation scheme enabled 16 hospitality businesses to un-furlough a total of 48 staff members and employ a total of 42 new staff members [3].

Due to positive feedback, the Council extended the weekend road closures for the following year from 17th until 25th October (when the clocks went back) [4].

Temporary pedestrianisation and outdoor seating was permitted elsewhere in London, including the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Twickenham and Westminster where numerous roads have been temporarily shut in Soho to allow for restaurant and bar seating. In Soho in particular, 400 pavement licences were approved (an increase from 315 during the autumn/winter period last year) [5].

Whilst the alfresco scene has been popular to some however, it does have it’s drawbacks. Residents in Soho in particular note that the large scale alfresco dining and drinking has created “intolerable noise and disruption” from revellers and deliveries in the early hours of the morning. [6] The pedestrianisation ended in Soho on 1st October 2021 [7].

Elsewhere across the UK in Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester, pavement licences will be renewed to enable venues to trade outdoors in winter. In particular, there are 151 premises for pavement cafes which Newcastle City Council has said it will not prevent the continued trade outdoors [6]. The Liverpool Without Walls initiative [8], which supports 1,500 city centre businesses, has also generated an additional £9m income for cafes and restaurants.

In June 2021, the City of Westminster released the long-awaited plans to turn Oxford Circus into a ‘pedestrian piazza’.

Pedestrianising Oxford Street has been a long-term vision particularly for the Mayor who noted in his 2016 manifesto [9] that a key priority would be to: “Restore London’s air quality to legal and safe levels, with action to make travel greener and pedestrianise Oxford Street”. He pledged to bring back car-free days and weekends before moving towards full pedestrianisation. The plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street were then scrapped in 2018 [10] as the majority of residents were against the proposals which sought to stop all east-west traffic.

Fast forward to June 2021, the plans now aim to transform Oxford Circus into two, pedestrian-friendly piazzas (as illustrated by the artist impression below).

Source: https://osd.london/project/oxford-circus/

These plans are a response to the changes in shopping habits and working patterns which have been accelerated by covid-19. The aim is to prioritise people over vehicles to improve air quality, reduce vehicle traffic and improve efficiency of bus journeys across the area [11].

So, what does this mean for planning and development? These case studies demonstrate the importance of locating evening and night time venues and outdoor spaces within new developments that facilitate social and cultural life and generate activity. Adapting to covid-19 has encouraged new ways to temporary redesign and manage the public realm demonstrating a flexible approach can be taken for Town Centres.

Managing and curating spaces in a country where the weather is not warm and sunny all year round will obviously be a challenge for businesses. Nevertheless, reclaiming the streets for pedestrian use could be the way forward for high streets to adapt and provide vibrancy and as a way to improve general wellbeing and the environment.

Sources

[1] ONS https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/grossdomesticproductgdp/articles/impactofthecoronaviruscovid19pandemiconretailsalesin2020/2021-01-28#:%7E:text=The%20total%20volume%20of%20retail,severe%20for%20non%2Dessential%20retail.&text=The%20rising%20use%20of%20online,pandemic%20on%20the%20retail%20sector.

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pavement-licences-draft-guidance/draft-guidance-pavement-licences-outdoor-seating-proposal#deemed-licences-and-conditions

[3] https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/201208_gla_3_covid-19_and_the_recovery_of_life_at_night.pdf

[4] https://www.wandsworthguardian.co.uk/news/18689260.council-extends-weekend-pedestrianisation-northcote-road/

[5] https://www.mylondon.news/news/zone-1-news/soho-outdoor-dining-come-end-21825223

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/sep/03/off-the-menu-uk-alfresco-dining-faces-autumn-dilemma

[7] https://www.cityam.com/end-of-the-road-sohos-al-fresco-festival-to-end-in-september/

[8] https://www.liverpoolbidcompany.com/lww/

[9] https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/themes/569cb9526a21db3279000001/attachments/original/1457451016/x160668_Sadiq_Khan_Manifesto.pdf?1457451016  

[10] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-44405730

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jun/16/oxford-circus-to-be-turned-into-pedestrian-piazzas-this-year

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