ZEUS: Climate emergency in the old betting shop

How the combination of the Covid and climate emergencies will change the look of our downtown thoroughfares.

Editor’s note: We’re thrilled that David Callaway’s ZEUS column was recognized by the judges of the SABEW business journalism awards this year in the commentary category. Here’s what the Society for Advancement of Business Editing and Writing said:

“Makes a complex subject digestible without losing sophistication and reminds the reader of a very important point: Revolutions and society-changing often require the price to be right. Well written and insightful on a big topic.”

(David Callaway is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Callaway Climate Insights. He is the former president of the World Editors Forum, Editor-in-Chief of USA Today and MarketWatch, and CEO of TheStreet Inc.)

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — When I moved to London 25 years ago, one of the most striking differences I noticed in the urban neighborhoods was the presence of the old betting shops.

Either William Hill or Ladbrokes brands, the shops had no windows to the outside, and once you walked in you were enveloped in the smoky, solitary study of the day’s racing form. Though you could bet on anything, including U.S. politics, the old betting shops were a testament to the bygone era — before mobile Internet — of cheap cigars, horses, betting slips, and delayed feeds from the track.

So I was struck by news last week that some of the old William Hill shops might be remodeled, along with other boarded up stores in downtowns in the UK, as climate emergency centers. The idea that such monuments to pollution and poor health (as well as fun) could be reborn to help the environment seems a very English act of practicality.

The pandemic and the climate emergency have redrawn the lines of how society moves about, from wearing masks to social distancing, to stadium vaccine centers, and the proliferation of electric vehicle charging stations, the look of where and how we live is changing rapidly. The climate centers are meant to be gathering places for people who want to do something but don’t know where to go. From vegan cafes to yoga centers to sustainable workshops, they will offer new activities from the smoky bars and betting shops of yesteryear.

I suspect they will also foster climate communities in local neighborhoods, perhaps becoming the jumping off points for local projects, demonstrations, or investing clubs. In Britain, at least, financial incentives are offered to property owners who want to lease their vacant storefronts out as climate centers.

There is a wider play as well. Airports. Special sections on planes and trains. They could replace gas stations as charging centers along the highways. Mobile apps could develop around them, linking activities and charting progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by each visitor’s experience.

The investment plays are even more interesting. A subsidy or a break on mortgage payments is good, but what about corporate sponsorships? Franchises? Green bond-financed real estate?

The point is that the wrenching changes we are going through right now are starting to yield changes which will affect how our cities and neighborhoods evolve. And perhaps clean up these sections at the same time, starting with the minority and underprivileged areas in need of aid.

We are programmed to think that these centers will simply look like the old buildings, but the designs could be completely different. Gardening focused. Or sustainable cooking or clothing outlets. It starts with the recycling of old properties and can lead to a remake of how we get around our cities, and what we do.

As we begin to venture out of our homes and start to travel again, including internationally, the temptation to visit old haunts will be strong. But we have changed. The familiar places will look like ghost towns, things of the past. Inevitably, we’ll create new places, which will reflect our new perspectives, hard-earned in the teeth of the greatest two crises of our time.

Who knows? Maybe you can even get a bet down on a horse.