During my recent trip to Europe, I was reminded just how far we have to go as a city and a region when it comes to supporting and fostering an outdoor patio culture. We may think of ourselves in North America as being “progressive” on many fronts, but when it comes to the way we write and enforce liquor laws and by-laws governing outdoor patios, in many respects we remain in the Stone Ages.
I read an excellent article written by veteran municipal affairs reporter Frances Bula for the Globe and Mail on the weekend which touches upon this subject. A few folks, including Charles Gauthier, Executive Director for the Downtown Business Improvement Association, are bemoaning the fact that Vancouver is not moving fast enough to support a more vibrant patio culture in the city.
When I worked as Chief of Staff for Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan back in 2008, I recall staff talking about creating a revitalized patio culture. Almost a decade later, while some progress has been made, Bula’s article points out that way more needs to be done. Amazingly, she reports city staff are about to undertake – yet again – another patio review. My response can be summed up in one word – sigh.
Let me make a bold prediction. The patio review will cost a princely sum, take months to complete…and in the end, we’ll still be talking about this in a few years from now. It will also likely do little to change the culture, process and bureaucracy associated with the development and ongoing maintenance of outdoor patios in Vancouver.
Why? It’s because Vancouver is the wrong city to be leading the charge on this initiative. It’s too big, inflexible and the reality is any kind of process change simply takes too long to implement.
I think that industry associations [both restaurant and liquor] would be more strategic to work with a smaller city like New Westminster or Port Moody in order to test out whether some of their proposed innovations and rule changes are feasible in our region.
In theory, if you can get a patio initiative fully embraced in a city the size of New Westminster, it could pave the way for other Metro cities to follow suit. There is no doubt a lot of merit in that logic.
During my visit to Europe I witnessed people consuming a pint of beer outside their local pubs without the requisite fencing. It was my observation they were doing so in a respectful manner with the full understanding if they didn’t, they may well lose that privilege.
In Paris, a city known for it’s love of outdoor cafes and restaurants, they do everything possible to support and foster their existence. The same goes for countless other cities in Europe.
Yet in Metro Vancouver, there appears to be no shortage of hoops and speed bumps we feel necessary to put in place in order to seemingly restrict the development of patios. Even when they are built, everything possible is done to limit your experience.
I think New Westminster Council should embrace the patio and outdoor culture and just get on with it. Why not declare a goal of having the Royal City play host to the most patios per capita in all of Metro Vancouver? It would be prudent to use a strategy that is driven by local business and community associations in places like Uptown, Downtown, Sapperton and Queensborough.
In my opinion we don’t need another costly study which will serve to provide months or years of delay. We simply need the political vision and fortitude to more liberally interpret existing by-laws and regulations in the short-term – with a goal of streamlining the more complex ones in the mid to long-term.
Here are few ideas cities could consider as part of a short-term patio strategy:
- Significantly reduce or eliminate any fees associated with an application to construct a new patio for at least 5 years. There is already enough cost associated with hiring architects, designers and the like to get the patio planning process approved by city hall.
- Encourage all new storefront restaurants to consider constructing a patio as part of their development. Restaurant owner should be told in New West it is considered the “norm” to build a patio…not the other way around.
- Be more willing to eliminate some street parking to accommodate the construction of street side patios.
- Eliminate the need in some cases to fence in patrons with garden planters, railings and other artificial barriers. Learn from the European models where service can take place outside within a reasonable proximity of the front door.
- Consider eliminating the need for costly and permanent fixed seating – why can’t people stand outside a local establishment with a glass on wine on the sidewalk [see video below]?
- Promote a 365 day strategy that would accommodate a patio culture throughout the year. This would mean the better construction of overhangs to keep patrons dry as well as heating during the colder and wetter winter months.
- Don’t require restaurants and pubs to undertake major interior renovations (i.e. add new bathrooms etc…) simply for adding outdoor seating or standing capacity.
- Support and encourage the use of back lanes as patio space where possible.
- Identify specific legislative barriers which hinder a patio culture and lobby the provincial government to make the necessary changes.
If you want to see what an outdoor patio culture can look like, click on a recent video I took during my visit to Paris. While their system may not be perfect, we could learn and incorporate a lot of their practices in order to modernize our system.
What do you think? Any other suggestions on how to make New West a hotbed of patio culture? Leave a comment if interested.