MOST people agree that as we emerge from the pandemic enforced lockdown that as a society we cannot simply sign back up to how everything was before.
That may mean being more flexible in how we balance working at home and commuting to an office, it may make us think more about how we commute and question the illogical notion that everyone should head into and out of the city and town centres at the exact same time each day. If business can be done online during lockdown then those same tele conference platforms should used to some degree in a post pandemic era also.
In Belfast, in Newry and in Derry, pop up bike lanes will hopefully take hold and, as they have done in Dublin and Cork, become permanent. If there are lessons we can take from neighbouring cities we should do so. Last month in the Victorian Quarter of Cork, Harley Street was pedestrianised, only cycles and those on foot can now use that street to the north of the River Lee.
Local hotels and restaurants have taken advantage of the available space and are serving morning crepes and coffees too eager locals; the hope is that visitors will return soon also. In total, there are plans to pedestrianise seven streets across Cork city, prompted by the lockdown.
In Dublin streets around Grafton Street area saw pedestrianisation trials this last weekend. Those trials will take place over four consecutive weekends starting today, with each of the locations closed to vehicular traffic between 11am and 7pm on both weekend days and on the bank holiday on Monday August 3.
This is a measure aimed specifically at supporting the economy post Covid by providing more space for pedestrians and to encourage people to return for shopping and to make use of the cafes and restaurants in the area. Council has granted street furniture permits to allow for on street dining.
Will these measures work? Will they take hold and be kept in place for the longer term? That is not known yet but surely it is a dice worth rolling. The alternative is to hope that old habits don’t change and that office workers flock back into the city and begin buying their coffees, lunches and dinners in the eateries which currently are empty. But social distancing will render ‘business as usual’ redundant for the foreseeable future. That means action is needed, from Government central and locally and from the private sector.
Closer to home local politicians have been looking at a potential re imagining of the Ormeau Road, along similar lines to the initiatives being rolled out in Cork and Dublin and elsewhere. The ‘Open Ormeau’ plan would see much of the road closed to cars, though crucially, and obviously, emergency vehicles would still have access where necessary.
The Ormeau already has a reputation as a quasi bohemian, cosmopolitan route through south Belfast. On days like Belfast marathon or concerts in the park the Ormeau comes into its own and feels vibrant, young, busy and inclusive. The atmosphere that flows out of the cluster of pubs and restaurants when the sun is shining is contagious. Like, where else are there consistent queues outside every bakery and coffee shop on the one road?
Open Ormeau would hopefully see restaurants and bars set up outdoor seating areas akin to those in Paris and other European boulevards. The associated marketing plan would attract customers, shoppers, families, from across Belfast into a pedestrianised Ormeau, which would help those businesses that are currently wondering how to deal with social distancing requirements and even wondering how they can remain viable.
To be fair to those behind the initiative they have undertaken a huge consultation exercise with householders and business owners and where concerns have been expressed they have been taken on board. I am not aware of any consultation exercise which has been so inclusive or intensive and that is especially noteworthy given that it happened during a pandemic.
The original proposal to close the road to traffic every weekend over the summer have been reduced to two weekends between now and the autumn, and plans are being assembled which can still allow for some limited vehicular access to shops and delivery restaurants where it is a necessity.
It is only fair to acknowledge that there is not universal support for the project and that’s natural too. But those small business owners who remain wary of the loss of traffic on the road should surely be prepared to give it a go for at least one weekend and then measure the results. Potential issues around anti social behaviour can surely be addressed through careful monitoring and a degree of self policing, alongside input from the PSNI.
I hope Open Ormeau does happen, and hats off to the local MP and councillors who have driven the initiative. If it works, then the same idea could be rolled out in other towns and cities across Northern Ireland.
If ‘no going back to the old way of life’ is to mean anything then we must be imaginative and courageous to take bold steps. If we don’t venture, we will never gain.
:Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast