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Open for Business — June 2021 newsletter article

Published 18 June 2021 by Marie Ferdelman

Transform Scotland’s Policy Officer, Marie Ferdelman, reports on our recent ‘Open for Business’ report launch.

We’ve published a new report titled ‘Open for Business – Gaining business support for car-free city centres’.  The report reflects on the implementation of a car-free city centre in Oslo in recent years; how businesses were engaged in the process; what went well, what did not go well; and what other cities can learn from this experience. We followed this with a launch event featuring  presentations from report author Jamie Wylie and a panel including Cllr Lesley McInnes from The City of Edinburgh Council, Claire Daly from Sustrans and Gareth Williams from SCDI.

Marie Ferdelman in Glasgow’s George Square, at the launch of our new report

The report contributes to the ongoing conversation that we are currently having across Scotland about the future of town and city centres. After decades of increasing car-dominance in city centres, local authorities have been focusing more on the environmental and societal impacts of allowing motorised transport in city centres and the experiences of the last year have brought these concerns even more into focus. Transforming city centres to prioritise walking, wheeling, cycling and public transport over private motorised users to address congestion in city centres is an approach that is increasingly popular and car-free city centres have been gaining traction in Scotland with some cities introducing both permanent and temporary schemes. However, opposition to these schemes often comes from businesses, who fear that car-free schemes will damage their businesses. Businesses are a central stakeholder in city centres, contributing to economic activity, providing employment and drawing people into the area, so their opposition to these schemes should not be overlooked or dismissed.

The Oslo scheme was no different in experiencing business opposition when the car-free city scheme was introduced. The report explores the causes of this opposition and sets out recommendations for local authorities on how negative impacts can be mitigated and concerns allayed. This includes developing close engagement with businesses that demonstrates that their voices are valued and allows local authorities to understand which difficulties businesses are facing. Highlighting opportunities of the project can help build public confidence in the project and delivering improvements early in the process of introducing a new scheme can demonstrate the opportunities on the ground from early on in the project. Additionally implementing and promoting support measures for businesses that allows them to take advantage of opportunities, such as newly created public space and can support them through the transition phase are crucial.

Open for Business: Gaining business support for transforming city centres
Communication of what car-free city centres are and communicating their objective clearly is another key takeaway from the report. But as Jamie also acknowledged at the launch event, the term ‘car-free city centre’ itself is often misunderstood, albeit sometimes wilfully. So it is important to communicate clearly that while car-free city centres generally exclude most private car traffic from city centre streets to provide additional space and an improved environment for non-motorised users, public transport, delivery and disabled access and limited access for residents is usually maintained.

Oslo is one of many continental European cities that show what is possible in terms of putting people first in city centres. Growing up in Germany, I experienced car-free city centres as an integral part of the make up of many cities and towns. My hometown of Bremen, in the northwest of Germany, for instance is comparable in many ways to Edinburgh. They are similar in size, both have a compact and walkable city centre, they both comprise narrow medieval streets alongside larger open spaces and host UNESCO world heritage sites. One difference that I experience when I walk around Bremen versus walking around Edinburgh is that Bremen is flat— but more importantly and what really changes the character of the city centre is that large parts of Bremen’s centre are pedestrianised. The car-free zone includes most of Bremen’s main city centre shopping streets, the main square, its tiny medieval lanes and its historic riverfront that is lined with restaurants and pubs. It is a vibrant city centre and very far from what some detractors of car-free city centres envision these to be and it is only one of many successful car-free city centres that I have experienced. 

While streets have been quiet and almost deserted at times over the past year, city centre streets have suddenly felt transformed and alive again in the past few weeks, with reduced restrictions and the warm weather encouraging more people to spend time in public spaces again. Many people, who have been told to stay away from shops, pubs, cafes and critically, other people, are eager to socialise and spend time with friends and family again and many are choosing to do this in our city and town centres. Local authorities should and often are already taking note of this and should find ways to facilitate people spending time in city centres and supporting local businesses. This ambition should not be exclusive to large cities though. Many smaller cities and towns could also benefit and there are many examples in continental Europe  to look to for inspiration. I hope that over the next years many local authorities across Scotland will dare to be bold and ambitious in transforming their city and town centres, while bringing businesses and local communities along with them, so more of us can enjoy spending time, and importantly for businesses, spending money in town and city centres. Four years on from the introduction of its car-free city centre, Oslo is now planning to expand its car-free zone further. This success should be giving many other cities and towns the confidence to follow in its footsteps.

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