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Ben Masterson-Smith, director of Transit Studio talks through ‘Social Soho’ a project which saw this special part of central London welcome more diners outside in 2020

Social Soho was a concept created by us, Transit Studio. We’re an architecture practice based on Frith Street in the heart of the ‘village’. The idea was to try and help local businesses deal with social distancing once they were allowed to reopen last summer. Initially we approached individual operators and this led to some of the bigger landlords, such as Shaftesbury and Soho Estates, getting on board. They were already developing their own ideas but welcomed a holistic approach.

Transit has extensive experience of working in the hospitality industry, including a recent project for the Groucho Club, so the practice was very aware of the challenges facing operators as they tried to adhere to the rules around social distancing, particularly in the small sites that make Soho so special.

Restaurants had been forced to close in the wake of the pandemic. Without clear guidance on how to reopen them safely, the creative team at Transit Studio started developing ideas for supporting the lively local scene, taking into consideration that the area was experiencing some of the lowest levels of traffic in living memory.

Knowing that the summer months were approaching, and inspired by the British tradition of street parties, we examined the density of restaurants in Soho and looked at ways that traffic could be pushed to the periphery to free the streets up for tables and chairs rather than cars. A masterplan was developed, providing two metre spacing between tables, allowing for pedestrians to flow through the streets, and making use of car parking/loading bays which could accommodate roughly 10 restaurant covers.

The concept for Social Soho was pitched to local businesses who supported it wholeheartedly. This was then taken to Westminster City Council who took up a version of the scheme that has seen 90% of Soho restaurants reopen. This project has been welcomed by many and some are even calling for it to become a permanent fixture. Soho was made for walking and its future may depend on the quality of its outside spaces.

Ben Masterson-Smith from Transit Studio has worked on a wide variety of restaurant, bar and hotel and residential projects, both in London and internationally. He has worked from inception to completion on a diverse mix of complex and challenging projects achieving striking and innovative designs on time and on budget.