Our daily constitutional takes us uphill. Late afternoon, defying a gloomy weather forecast the sun breaks through. We could take that as a good sign. Well, why not?
If it wasn’t for the Covid notices in almost every shop window I might think I’d just woken out of a long, disturbed and disturbing sleep. Like Bobby Ewing I’ve stepped out of the shower to find the last four months nothing but a bad dream.
Back in the more optimistic days of July, when Scotland’s First Minister talked of eliminating the coronavirus, I was beginning to record some feelings and photographs as we eased out of lockdown. We made our way cautiously up Broughton Street, the centre of our local Edinburgh ‘village’, navigating through a flow of mostly cheery looking folk. Local café culture seemed alive and well. Tables of drinkers and diners on the pavement outside pubs and restaurants. On the sunny side of the street.
Now, chill winds of autumn seem to blow a different forecast. A late afternoon walk takes me through still-crowded streets ( a little too crowded for comfort). Cars queue in home-going congestion. Where are they coming from in a world of home-working? And how long will this movement continue now that the Covid count is accelerating upwards once more?
How long in lockdown?
There are cheery, cheeky signs of life in shop windows. Queues for take-aways outside improve the takings of adventurous restaurants offering socially distanced menus inside. Sanitisers in every doorway. “Rub a Dub darlings” says a shop door notice.
How long will this contradictory new reality last? Freedom to spend money in shops and pubs and restaurants may not be the great new tomorrow we dreamed of back in April/May. But it buys some notion of normality. While the money lasts.
Even as doors opened in July there was a sense of suspended animation. Businesses and jobs have been protected by the extraordinary spending of the Tory chancellor, Rishi Sunak. That was due to run out by the end of October and, while the new upsurge in Covid infections has brought a new injection of life-supporting cash, the latest measures are less generous. Thousands of jobs are set to disappear. Debts are piling up. How will that affect the small independent businesses in places like Broughton?
Time will tell. Are we all so caught in the headlights of pandemic panic that we dare not pause for breath to look more closely at what is happening around us. Does anyone have headspace to research the consequences of community resilience? Why is Broughton Street so busy? Who is spending? Has September 2020 been the last flicker of a struggling economy? Or are we seeing the first signs of hyperlocal revival?
During the mournful early mornings of the first lockdown Ray and I would walk the empty streets – there was an eerie beauty about hearing birdsong and breathing fresh air even as we morbidly wondered how many of the boarded up businesses we were passing would survive when the city came back to life. How many of these closed doors would reopen?
A family way of life
Turns out quite a few are open, so far. The craft and design shop Concrete Wardrobe has, sadly, not made it. That eating place on the corner – the old launderette of yesteryear – has just been reinvented for the fifth time. And the pub up the road, the old Mathers Bar which inexplicably became The Empress of Broughton Street, is closed and up for sale.
But there is still a buzz about the street. The fish monger and butcher are busy. Hardy souls drink outside local pubs. (Hardier souls inside.) Our corner shop has proudly increased its range of fresh food and has plans for a side line in home-made meals. As self-isolation forced us to discover back in April, small local businesses have responded to needs and opportunities with a mix of compassion and commercial good sense. Often these businesses are a family way of life, or a community enterprise, with loyal customers.
Welcome to a better future?
The Financial Times is a barometer of economic change. While much of the media heralds the end of the high street, the death of city life, there are more interesting stories to investigate. In their ‘return to the office’ series the FT reports on enterprising development of hyperlocal co-working spaces. “A new co-working model is emerging”, says the FT, “And it’s probably happening on a high street, or in a hotel lobby, near you.”
The end of the long commute into city hubs via road and rail could perhaps see a revival of smaller town centres. But Norman Foster doesn’t rule out the revival of dynamic city life.
In the most cheering article I have read for a long time (The Pandemic Will Accelerate Evolution of the Cities: The Guardian) the 85 year old architect celebrates the endless human capacity for creative response to catastrophe. Just as devastating plagues, fires and pollution hastened essential changes in London city life over the course of 500 years, so – Foster asserts convincingly – Covid will speed the evolution we need for sustainable cities in an era of climate change.
City centres will have the potential to be quieter, cleaner, safer, healthier, more friendly, walkable and bike-able and vitally, if the opportunity is grasped, to be greener. (Norman Foster)
We do need such galvanising hope. Edinburgh is full of symbols of what needs to change. The cranes winking and blinking above the unfinished ‘Retailopolis’ of St James Centre while cavernous empty space yawns in the nearby Omni Centre completed in 2002. Could these be our new post-Covid community hubs, centres of creative, collaborative new activity? Are we ready to adapt?
First published on the author’s site
UK cities should work for people who live in them: Neil McInroy; Centre for Local Economic Strategies
Dumfries town centre revival scheme unique and ambitious: BBC Scotland
Has Covid-19 revived Britain’s local high streets? New Statesman