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Committee for Perth report charts slow progress to outdoor dining, with lessons for the city's planning future

Despite Perth's Mediterranean climate, outdoor cafe tables like those common in Spain and Italy took a long time for the city to get its head around. 

The battle for the footpath has been documented in a recent report by the independent think-tank, the Committee for Perth, as part of a series on how Perth has coped with change and development, titled 'What We Thought Would Kill Us'.

In 1977, Nunzio Gumina, an Italian migrant and the owner of Papa Luigi's on Fremantle's South Terrace, was inspired by the suggestion of another Italian chef to try to offer outdoor dining and applied for permission to put just three tables outside for patrons to sit at.

The initial answer was an almost instant no, with Mr Gumina recalling that the first council meeting to discuss the idea led to intense debate.

"There was sort of two real lines of argument: one, public health and two, safety," Marion Fulker, outgoing chief executive of the Committee for Perth told Geoff Hutchison on ABC Radio Perth.

"We had been a colony that had had disease spread, and that had remained in our Health Act and it hadn't become more contemporary," she said.

"The health inspectors would come and say, 'This isn't safe and it's not sanitary', and the council inspectors would come and say, 'You're using the footpath for commercial purposes'."

In an oral history recording with the State Library of Western Australia, Mr Gumina recounted the battle.

"After three to four months of arguing, I received a phone call from the municipality," he said.

"The officer said, 'Do you know what a pain you have given to the Council of Fremantle? Do you know that there is no permit … for this alfresco you want to do in Fremantle?'"

However, based on the work Mr Gumina had been doing to help with 'delinquent' young men in Fremantle, he was granted the right to put three tables out on the pavement for a three-month trial period.

At the end of the successful trial, he got the first-ever alfresco dining permit in Perth, but it still didn't include the right to serve alcohol outdoors.

But his success inspired others in the area.

"There was someone who had a pizzeria before me. After four to five years, he couldn't take it anymore … he saw that my business was doing very well … indeed too well," he recalled.

"One day he arrived, and he said to me, 'Look I can't take it anymore, who do I have to pay in the council to have tables and chairs outside?'"

After explaining he just needed to apply for a permit, the pizzeria began seating diners outdoors as well, and South Terrace began to be known as the 'cappuccino strip', becoming extremely popular.

Restaurants and cafes around other parts of Perth began to lobby for the right to put tables outside, but change was slow in coming.

It was not until 1985 that amendments to state legislation and food hygiene regulations were introduced to enable councils to approve outdoor tables, but still did not allow for alcohol to be served.

"We got [outdoor dining] in two tranches, so we were able to eat outside but not drink at the same time, and then the alcohol came much later," Ms Fulker said.

The final change came from a surprising quarter — a win in a yacht race in Newport, Rhode Island.

With Fremantle set to host Australia's America's Cup defence in 1987, an influx of international visitors was anticipated who would expect to be able to have a drink with dinner.

The state government allowed outdoor liquor licences for an 18-month period, ending in June 1987, but that was eventually extended to allow alcohol on street tables permanently if a patron also ordered food.

Since the 1980s, Perth has broadly embraced alfresco dining, but friction between councils and cafe owners continued.

In 2016, the City of Perth rejected a bid by bars and restaurants to expand alfresco service onto the footpaths of Northbridge for one day a week over summer saying it needed to first review its rules.

It eventually passed a new outdoor dining law in 2019, with a more relaxed approach to tables on the pavement.

Ms Fulker said looking back at how changes to urban life had been approached in the past could show how they could be done better in the future.

"Often communities feel like an idea has just been forced upon them, there's a location and it's coming to you soon, and you should just get on board," she said.

"We're probably not very good at the messaging.

"If you recall Hillarys [marina] … people lay down in front of bulldozers, and they said, 'This cannot happen, you cannot develop on the coast'.

"And now it's one of the most popular places in the northern suburbs on a warm day."

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