March: A glorious Summer ahead

March: A glorious Summer ahead

Reinventing our Public Spaces in one of the best streets in Europe

I need to be in OPTs offices in the centre of town, on what unexpectedly turns into the most beautiful Spring day.  Mindful of the need for fresh air after a morning on zoom, and with the sunshine beckoning through my window, I go for a walk.  From Turn Again Lane I take the route down Rose Lane to St. Aldate’s, passing the back door of the Cathedral School, where I stop to listen at the sound of young voices filling the air with sounds of playfulness and laughter and it makes me smile.  I head up St. Aldate’s to Carfax, pleasant still before it refills with buses, and I see a queue ahead.  It is rather depressing to find it is outside McDonalds, and this time I do not linger.  I walk on and turn the corner into the Broad heading for Blackwell’s where their efficient click & collect service has a stack of books filed for collection under D for Dance.  I feel an odd surge of delight that there is a queue here too, albeit a shorter and more bookish version.   

I retrace my steps, but not without first stopping to enjoy the space, the grand buildings of Clarendon and Bodleian, Oxford heads and grotesques, the Sheldonian topped by the green copper cupola so familiar in the far away views of the dreaming spires.  It is the bluest of skies and the solitary figure of Anthony Gormley stands out, as he looks down from his skyward perch.   Can he be anymore lonely than before, left behind when the students, the bikes, the shoppers, and the tourists went home?  His sadness is added to by the bareness of the stone wall below where normally a plethora of posters lean, advertising tickets for a lunchtime concert or Shakespeare play in a college garden.  

I return to my office where I have come due to the vagaries of my home internet, as tonight I need to be connected.  We are hosting a party with over one hundred guests, from College Head to market stall holder, all coming together virtually, to hear landscape architect Kim Wilkie, talk about his plans to pedestrianise Broad Street, drawn up as long ago as 2004.  Kim’s ease of style hides the creative thought and vision held in the pages of the Broad Street Plan, which went on to inspire the plans for the opening up the front of the Weston Library, though ideas for a University square outside are still to be realised.   He reminds those of us who are perhaps overfamiliar with the beauties of our place, that it is in one of the best spaces in Europe.  He urges us to let the buildings do the work, and not to fall into a trap of introducing fountain, statue or trees.  This space needs to be allowed to sing where people can gather to chat with friends and colleagues , and where entertainment can happen, with open markets, music and festival.  

And as the pandemic nears its end will Oxford take this chance?   Across the country there is talk of the demise of our town and city centres, as our High Street brands collapse and shops have closed, never to return.  Everywhere, there is talk of re-invention, of getting creative and making our streets and public spaces more welcoming.   So let us play with Broad Street this Summer and see if we can make it work.  Last year the City Council let tables and chairs appear in Cornmarket and George Street, and this year it should be the Broad’s turn.  It can be done but time is short and later this week there is a meeting with the parties, who will need to make this happen, to talk about ideas and learn about technical and other constraints.  Already some are making their plans, and in April, when the rules relax, the café in the Weston Library will spill its chairs and tables onto the steps outside.  It will be glorious, meet me there.