When it comes to the pandemic, we know that meeting friends and family can be done much more safely in outdoor settings. There are also clear public health benefits from providing accessible opportunities for people to take exercise outdoors. With indoor opportunities restricted, a greater proportion of leisure time has been spent in parks and other outdoor public spaces.
But as the days grow colder, what role is there for local government, as the owner of many parks, public gardens, town squares and other spaces to facilitate their continued use into the winter months? Through planning, building control and licensing, how can local government support businesses in the leisure and hospitality sector adapt to an outdoor winter?
There have been a number of articles in the media encouraging readers to adopt attitudes towards winter from Scandinavian countries, where the opportunities the season brings are embraced. Studies in Tromsø, one of Europe’s most northerly cities, show no difference in residents wellbeing in the winter months, despite the city only receiving two or three hours of indirect sunlight. Researchers found that residents have developed what they called a ‘wintertime mindset’ where individuals who believe that ‘there are many things to enjoy about winter’ and ‘winter brings many wonderful seasonal changes’ had higher levels of wellbeing, life satisfaction and overall mental health. Positive attitudes towards winter are even higher among residents in the far northern communities of Tromsø and Svalbard than in Oslo. Residents in these northern cities struggle to see what you would not enjoy about winter, with opportunities for hiking and enjoying a warming drink after. As the Swedes say, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
Individual attitudes and actions towards winter, like individual action in so many other fields, has its limits. Sport England has been carrying out a rigorous survey of physical activity including walking and cycling since lockdown began. In June 2020 sixty per cent of respondents intended to be more active in future, but by late October declining numbers were walking for leisure and fewer reported finding the activity enjoyable. Our parks, public gardens, and town squares are designed primarily for enjoyment in spring, summer and autumn. Most outdoor leisure and hospitality businesses have not thought until now about extending their outdoor offering through all four seasons. One of the big successes of the summer were outdoor cinema screenings and in Tromsø residents wrap up and enjoy outdoor screenings in January. There have been specific examples in England of businesses adapting creatively to outdoor hospitality. Prominent cases include the new ‘igloos’ at Somerset House in London, while in York, St Georges has build glass and stone shelters arranged around a firepit and outdoor pizza oven. For many other businesses, barriers remain with costs and ongoing uncertainty being major factors limiting more from adapting creatively to outdoor opportunities.
Permitted Development Regulations were relaxed in April in England to allow more flexibility for cafes, restaurants and pubs. Independent planning consultants advising small hospitality businesses, contacted for this article, were frustrated at the way the regulations were being applied. They commented that in a some local authorities, planning departments were reluctant to offer clear advice about whether the proposed modifications were covered by the new Permitted Development Regulations or not. This led to delay and in many cases additional costs as the hospitality business abandoned the Permitted Development route and applied for planning permission instead. It is unclear how much of this confusion around the application of Permitted Development Regulations arises from junior staff working from home arrangements who may need more support. Or are pressures on planning department budgets and the need for applicant fees leading to an overly conservative view of what constitutes Permitted Development? Planning authorities in Ireland have been encouraged to adopt a pragmatic approach and to exercise discretion. This is similar to the situation in Scotland where a pragmatic view also is encouraged for changes of use or other developments that may assist in the response to the pandemic.
Could a more proactive approach be taken? Westminster Council in Central London has produced a guide for hospitality businesses thinking of changing their operations to winter modes. Northern Grampians Shire Council (in Victoria, Australia) is also an interesting example. It has provided a raft of support for hospitality businesses including permit fee waiver where any permit fee will be waived in order to help businesses comply with new outdoor dining rules; outdoor dining space design support to design outdoor dining spaces compliant with state government requirements which also helps to make sure customers with disabilities are able to use the new arrangements. Other measures include Pop Up Space support where the council will help with permits, planning and support for businesses with pop up dining initiatives and takeaway picnic rugs where the council supplies picnic rugs that hospitality customers can borrow to enjoy their takeaway in outdoor spaces.
Beyond the current crisis, there could be significant benefits to public health from being active outdoors in all four seasons. There could also be benefits to communities that are dependent on tourism income to spread visitors more evenly through four seasons, avoiding the problems over-tourism brings in the summer months while supporting jobs through the winter. In part two of this blog, we will look at the role of winter planning strategies deployed by Canadian cities to keep public squares and parks animated in the winter months.