Melbourne's cafe creep

Melbourne's cafe creep

Melbourne's cafe creepThe outdoor eating revolution that Melbourne so heartily embraced is provoking grumblings. Are our streets in danger of being gobbled up? John Mangan reports.

Cast your mind back to the early 1980s as Melbourne, a pleasant, sober city at the Antarctic end of Australia hunkered down for another long, wet, windy winter. Hardy types ventured outside on Saturday afternoons under leaden skies to watch VFL clubs clash in the mud, but otherwise this city did its living, eating and drinking indoors, where it was warm, dry and smoky.

Fast forward to Lygon Street on a Saturday night in late autumn, 2003. As you wind your way between the spruikers and the tables that crowd the footpath, you might think you're in Italy where the term al fresco was coined.

A quiet revolution has taken place in the streets of Melbourne over the past two decades. Tables and chairs in their thousands have edged out of cafes, bars, pubs and restaurants on to the city and suburban footpaths, bringing a mixture of joy and consternation as diners, traders, pedestrians and residents wrestle with cafe creep.

This turf war has seen traders increasingly congest footpaths, pedestrians complain about encroachment on public space, residents fret about late-night noise and councils battle with street rubbish, especially cigarette butts.

Getting tables on the footpath in the first place required a leap of imagination. Have we been conned by a flotilla of umbrellas and portable gas-heaters into thinking Melbourne's weather is more like Rome's than London's?

"I recall very well going back years people saying regularly to me that there was no point in having street cafes and sitting on the streets here because Melbourne's climate wasn't suitable for it,"says David Yencken, who was the head of the Victorian Ministry of Planning from 1982 to '87.

"It was exactly the same in Copenhagen when they proposed new pedestrian areas. People wrote to the papers saying this is Denmark, not southern Europe, the climate is unsuitable, people won't want to use these pedestrian areas."

In Melbourne, like Copenhagen, the climate has proved far from unsuitable. Once the facilities to eat, drink and relax outside were presented, people flocked to use them.

Evan Walker, minister for planning and the environment in the mid-'80s, found the changes surpassed his expectations.

"You could almost say that people believe Melbourne's climate has changed,"he says. "Not just the social climate, but the actual weather! It's amazing what a difference an umbrella or awning and a glass surround can make."

Henry Maas, founder of Fitzroy's famous Black Cat, returned in 1980 from four years in Amsterdam.

"Brunswick Street was like a desert in those days. Amsterdam was full of outdoor cafes, very pedestrian-oriented, and there was nothing like it here, which is why we opened the Black Cat in May '82. It was like it had never occurred to anybody before to do it."

What a change. In the City of Melbourne alone there are now 400 street cafes. The City of Port Phillip calculates that it has 4000 outside seats, one-third of them in Fitzroy Street.

Even filling the footpaths isn't enough for some. Port Phillip is considering blocking off parking spaces and putting tables on the Acland Street roadway for a trial period.

Historian Andrew Brown-May can trace the push for street cafes back to at least World War I. His book, Melbourne Street Life, records one Frederic C.Spurr recommending the introduction of open-air cafes to Melbourne's wide streets in 1915.

"A touch of Paris would make Melbourne the most attractive city in the hemisphere,"Spurr enthused, before adding sadly that "in its life, Melbourne follows America rather than Paris".

In the 1950s, J.T.Burke, founding professor of fine arts at the University of Melbourne, continued the debate over the suitability of Melbourne's climate and architecture for outdoor eating.

"There was a boom in street cafes from the late 1950s,"says Brown-May, who has also written Espresso, a history of coffee in Melbourne.

"The Oriental Hotel in Collins Street had a trial outdoor cafe in the late 1950s that crystallised a lot of tensions between those who thought it was a wonderful symbol of Melbourne embracing outdoor life and cosmopolitanism, and those who feared an encroachment on the democracy of public space.

"The health authorities and the police considered it a real hindrance and obstruction. It was an interesting moment."

Walker says that that attitude prevailed into the '60s and '70s.

"In my younger years, street cafes weren't possible,"he says. "If someone bravely tried to set one up they had the rule book thrown at them."

When the Melbourne City Council revisited the idea in the 1980s, they changed their approach by offering cheap street trading fees and providing good quality street furniture.

Mario Maccarone, co-founder of Marios in Brunswick Street, says the turning point for street cafes was the relaxing of liquor laws in the late 1980s.

"Within a few years, the boom had happened,"he says. "That's when we started moving away from the pub culture of the '70s, into something more inclusive and sociable, instead of the traditional main bar for the men and the ladies lounge."

Yencken cites the building of Southbank as a pivotal moment in Melbourne's kerbward shift.

"It was certainly a trigger,"he says. "We did two surveys, one before Southbank opened and the other afterwards, and it was very striking how it was identified as being the most attractive place people could identify in the city. That was done by creating a pedestrian environment."

And that is one of the ironies of the craze to eat on the street - that the more crowded the footpath has become, the more we seem drawn to it.

"There was the idea in Melbourne that the streets should be a free-flowing, democratic space that everyone can access,"says Brown-May. "The cafe creep over the footpaths can be seen as an encroachment of public space by private interests.

"But you run the risk of sanitising the streets out of existence. The street is often pathologised as an unsafe place, and the more diverse activities there are, the safer and more interesting they are. Outdoor eating brings the street back inside the pale as a sociable and communal space."

But not everybody finds street cafes sociable. Critics complain that Melbourne's outdoor craze has gone too far, that the tables and screens hinder people getting on and off public transport or in and out of cars, that they're too noisy for residents, that they're dirty, or that they create obstacles for the visually impaired.

Driven by residents' complaints about noise, Port Phillip requires hotels and bars to stop serving food and drinks outside at 11pm, while restaurants do not have to close until 1am. Late-night venues such as Monroes in Fitzroy Street previously provided outdoor service until as late as 4am.

Another complaint is that, thanks to new laws about smoking, there are so many people smoking outside cafes that you have to go inside for some fresh air. With the smoking comes the butts, which councils are trying to counter with windproof ashtrays.

Keeping the footpath tidy is a priority for the councils, with Melbourne recently withdrawing licences for four outdoor eating areas in Swanston Street because the licensees were letting them get too messy.

"Keep it safe, keep it clean,"was the council's message.

Nadia Mattiazzo, an advocacy and information officer for Blind Citizens Australia, in Melbourne, says that street furniture tops their list of regular complaints, up there alongside access to public transport.

"We advocate two metres of space between the shoreline of the building to where the furniture and tables begins,"she says. We want the gap next to the building so that people with canes can use the edge of the building to find their way.

"We've been contacted by six or eight different councils who have asked for our opinion, but we need to be vigilant in letting councils know because we get a couple of calls a day from people with problems."

One council officer says that you know it's gone too far when you can't walk along the street without being accosted by 20 spruikers asking if you want dinner, or if you feel you're so close to the outdoor tables that you're intruding on somebody else's dinner.

It's crucial, he says, that councils keep an eye on how the street cafes use their space. In St Kilda, residents have complained about trials of fixed screens that would require permanent fixtures in the pavement.

"You've got to keep a strict line between how far restaurants can take over a footpath and the degree to which they can be enclosed,"he says.

"The point is that street-eating should be exactly that - out on the street, like it is in Paris."

Now though, the consensus is that the councils and businesses have got the balance just about right.

"I think Melbourne's turned a corner in the last five or six years: the city looks fabulous,"says Maas.

"It's like in Asia, Europe, America - wherever you go, it's crowded on the streets. It's much better being our there than sitting home watching TV."

As for the future, Yencken says the younger generation looks set to embrace the trend even more enthusiastically than their elders.

"The thing that fascinates me is how my children prefer to sit outside even in the middle of winter,"he says.

"I don't know how they do it!"

The Age April 17 2003

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