Sidewalk Eating: Is It Here to Stay? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Sidewalk Eating: Is It Here to Stay?

Dinners are served food inside their private plastic "space bubble" pop-up tent at Café du Soleil restaurant parklet on Manhattan's Upper West Side, New York.

Sidewalk Eating: Is It Here to Stay?

By Andrew Hirschfeld


These small, open spaces occupying parts of the street have helped restaurants stay alive during the pandemic. Now people are pushing to make them permanent.

By Andrew Hirschfeld

  • From Tampa to Tulsa, Seattle to Syracuse and Brooklyn to Burlington, cities are embracing parklets — mini parks and public squares — like never before.
  • Now city officials and urbanists are pushing for these parklets — which have helped restaurants survive the crisis — to be made permanent fixtures.

Franklin Avenue in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn is lined with restaurants that embody the city’s diverse, lively and fighting spirit. In the spring, when New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants along the street and across the tri-state area were shuttered and limited to takeout. 

As New York City and other urban hubs slowly started allowing restaurants to reopen, eateries took dining outdoors to the streets. Parklets ­— mini parks, squares or just parts of the street partitioned off using plants — that have long been a pipe dream of urbanists quickly became a reality. Now as they’ve become vital lifelines to millions of restaurants across the country in the wake of the pandemic, officials and activists are pressing for parklets to be made permanent fixtures of America’s urban landscape.

A Parklet Rises In Boston

A parklet in Boston being built on a side street near 506 Park Drive

Source Jim Davis/Getty

From Tampa to Tulsa, Seattle to Syracuse and Brooklyn to Burlington, cities are embracing parklets like never before. Urban designers, city planners and architecture firms alike are scrambling to come up with innovative designs for parklets, prompting competitions like the Design for Distancing planning initiative in Baltimore, Maryland, focused on outdoor spaces.

We’ve seen how successful parklets have been to keep our economy going.

Keith Powers, New York City Council

The need for these spaces is increasingly clear at a time COVID-19 remains a threat, especially in closed spaces. In July, 83 percent of New York City restaurants and bars could not pay their rent, according to the NYC Hospitality Alliance. That’s why New York City Council Member Keith Powers is working with Mayor Bill De Blasio to devise a plan for permanent parklets. In late September, De Blasio announced that outdoor restaurants would be made “permanent and year-round.”

“We’ve seen how successful parklets have been to keep our economy going,” says Powers. “Now more than ever, it is so clear that we need to invest in our public spaces.”

To be sure, the idea of parklets isn’t new. The movement to take over parking spaces and convert them into open spaces started in San Francisco in 2005. But the drive is gaining significant momentum amid the pandemic. Challenges remain, however. For one, parklets risk getting caught in the age-old fight for cities to take back the streets from cars. Their real test is just beginning. As the weather cools, will the appeal of outdoor dining decline? 

Proponents of these spaces say there are innovative ways in which they can be enjoyed effectively even during the winter months. “We should utilize these outdoor spaces similar to the holiday pop-up markets,” says Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director for New York-based Center for an Urban Future. “It could be a great way for restaurants to improve take-out or even use spaces to serve to-go specials you wouldn’t otherwise get at a restaurant.” All of this, he adds, “could help the local businesses that make the city so special get through this rough patch.”

Mission District

Pedestrians pass a public parklet where a street musician performs in the Mission District of San Francisco.

Source Getty

Other cities are witnessing a similar push from community development groups. In the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C., “parklets have provided a lifeline to businesses in the recent months,” says Kristen Barden, the executive director at the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District. For the winter, they are exploring heat lamps and covered tents with flaps — though that risks at least partly defeating the biggest benefit of outdoor dining, creating a semi-closed space.  

In Long Beach, California — despite its entrenched car culture — Mayor Robert Garcia has proposed making parklets along Pine Avenue permanent. Wilmington, North Carolina, has extended its parklet program through mid-October, while Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently announced the city would extend its outdoor dining program through the end of 2020. In Brooklyn, parklets have cropped up everywhere from Greenpoint and Fort Greene to Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope.

For restaurants, parklets will be critical if they’re to survive into next year. If they help revive public spaces in our cities, that would be one positive to emerge from the nightmarish year that is 2020.

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