Eating outdoors with the sun beating down may feel like a distant memory now the nights have drawn in and the mercury has dropped. But we must not forget the critical role al fresco has played safeguarding countless jobs during throughout the pandemic. And what a joy it has been to walk around the West End to see our streets so alive with people enjoying the great outdoors.
Eager to embrace the opportunity to change neighbourhoods for the better, many councils are liberating their streets from choking traffic to free up more space for people. This in turn is reducing air pollution, increasing biodiversity and improving public places. Given the right conditions this can also help to herald in a Continental-style dining culture, which has played such an important part in London’s recovery.
Westminster City Council is one such borough which has officially designated several districts for permanent al fresco after residents resoundingly voted in favour. It is currently consulting on a new Vision for Soho, which in terms of its ability to help drive more people back into the West End is arguably one of the most important areas, whilst also one of the most challenging.
Its narrow, congested streets need investment to support its transformation into a pedestrian-orientated, open and welcoming space. Businesses need to adapt how they bring in their deliveries to end the wall of white vans which currently stream through. And Soho’s 4,000 residents need to be able to access their homes and have the right to enjoy their life in this special district.
Soho plays a critical role in the wider West End’s appeal too, particularly in the knowledge and creative sectors which form such an important part of the business ecosystem. It is pivotal in attracting younger people, who form the talent base which make it such a vibrant and creative area.
Pre-pandemic Westminster attracted more than 1million visitors a day. They are increasingly returning, and the council’s much vaunted emergency al fresco measures have played a critical role in supporting that, as well as the 80,000 jobs in hospitality.
One in 10 Londoners work in the West End and it is great to see so many flocking back. But we need more people to want to return to the West End and feel excited about being back in their workplaces. There is clear evidence that shows al fresco has the ability to do just that.
In a recent Westminster Property Association commissioned survey of 1,000 people from across the capital more than a third of respondents told us that the chance to dine outside would make them visit the West End more regularly – rising to nearly half amongst 18 – 44-year-olds.
Crucially, it also found al-fresco dining is likely to drive additional spend, with two-thirds of those surveyed reporting they would likely go shopping, and around three in five visit a museum, gallery or the cinema. This points to an evolution in the West End’s economy: The area will continue to offer a dynamic mix of retail, leisure and culture, but the unique experience of street dining can become part of its fabric and character and serve as another driver of footfall.
As recovery continues it is vital that city centres do not simply revert to what they were before. We must embrace new ideas to create more open, attractive and equitable urban places. Done properly, with the support of residents, businesses and visitors alike, the future of Soho and the wider West End is bright.