Restaurants and retail stores are beginning to reopen after months of closure due to COVID-19. Bringing people back to downtown and shopping streets requires confidence that the health crisis is abating, and that the risk of a future outbreak is minimal. Restaurants are opening with reduced capacity under state or city social distancing guidelines depending upon the circumstances of each area. Cities are needing to adjust public space in downtown and shopping streets quickly to meet the current demand of customers with distancing in mind. For restaurants, there is an opportunity that already has many success indicators: repurpose sidewalks, streetside parking, and parking lots into outdoor dining areas. 


Al Fresco dining offers the community a way to enjoy the outdoors while supporting restaurants. Outdoor dining areas are already proving to be popular. As the warmer summer months are here, moving tables outside provides the space needed for establishments to enact social distancing while maintaining feasible occupancy levels. 


Main Streets are critical to our cities' economies and social culture, and they need support during recovery to bring people back. More outdoor dining sends a signal to consumers that it's safe to go back out, with people being the biggest attractor of people. 


As reported by Jon Henley, in the Guardian, Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, is turning the city into a vast open-air cafe by giving much of its public space to the hard-hit bar and restaurant owners. They can put their tables outdoors and still observe physical distancing rules.


Kerry Cavanaugh, Los Angeles Times editorial writer who focuses on housing, transportation, and the environment, advocates that when Los Angeles could take a cue from Lithuania. She writes, "Of course, Lithuania is very different from Los Angeles. But L.A. could take some inspiration from Vilnius' willingness to experiment with public spaces to help the city return to some safer version of normalcy. How about closing off parking spots or lanes to cars on some neighborhood commercial strips, so restaurants and cafes could place more tables outside? Or perhaps closing some less-traveled streets, so people have more space to exercise outdoors while still socially distancing?"


Creating Flex Zones 

Cities can quickly establish retail and restaurant zones or 'Flex Zones' to meet customers' current demands. The idea is to be nimble, act now in a way that can be adjusted or refined as time goes on.


With many cities enabling quick zoning to accommodate businesses trying to reopen at this time, Flex Zones are opportunities to provide temporary infrastructure that is light, quick, and cost-effective. Flex Zones serve to calm traffic while facilitating socially distanced dining and curbside pick-ups. Cheerful surface graphics use materials such as spray chalk and stencils or even vinyl decals, along with modular structures and protective barriers like potted plants, and water-filled or concrete k-rail.


These are nimble ways to create temporary or longer-term outdoor zones that add atmosphere while establishing and communicating new ways of interacting. Starting with the street, demarcation of crosswalks and added median structures and landscapes set the tone. Passenger loading zones (or restaurant take-out zones) are clearly marked with consistent, easily recognizable, easily read signs that indicate passenger loading zone and its restraints, as well as direct drivers to the nearest long-term parking. To manage foot traffic for social distancing, a distancing lane on the sidewalk is marked for six feet while stations supply hand sanitizer to help stop the spread of infection.


Pop-up dining areas within these Flex Zones expand the capacity of a restaurant while attracting diners to the open-air seating that is pre-set for social distancing. The pop-up dining areas can be indicated with graphics that include where to sit and where not to sit. Cleaning standards and schedules are also posted. Flex Zones with dining areas can be created by repurposing existing streetside parking spots on traffic-calmed streets, the boundaries of the zone are set by using impact-resistant planters. 


Creating a flex zone in a downtown or shopping street requires support and collaboration from both businesses and city departments. Cities are engaging multiple internal departments and pulling from their existing toolboxes to either waive or expedite outdoor dining permits, and contribute resources such as protective barriers and signage. To assist with challenges in procurement, some businesses and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) provide furniture (cafe tables, chairs and umbrellas), art, potted plants, temporary lighting, programming, and maintenance for the flex zones, giving each one a unique aesthetic and feel. 


After an initial period of transition and pilot program, it is possible, or even likely, that perception will shift so communities will come to believe curbside space is actually too valuable for parking cars. These temporary zones can then be further developed as permanent parts of the urban fabric. 


Studio One Eleven partnered with the Downtown Long Beach Alliance to design and install a temporary flex zone in Downtown Long Beach that was an influencer in the City Council’s decision to move forward with its Open Streets Initiative that allows for outdoor dining in the city.


Relaxing Requirements

Traditionally, making changes to public space can take time and effort, working with various city agencies. In the wake of COVID-19, cities across the nation are making changes to permitting requirements to quickly enable temporary dining zones. Speed to market is an important part of this process, and permitting that may have taken weeks or months, and stops at multiple agencies, are now in some places being offered as 14-minute to two-day application processes. City resources are most often online, and local information usually can be found on easily searchable web sites.


The tactical interventions that result in Flex Zones quickly and affordably make space for new uses, including curbside pick-up and drop-off zones and pop-up dining. Repurposing a vehicular travel lane or parking lane creates an extended sidewalk addressing the current demand on the public realm due to the number of people walking right now for their mental health and exercise. Some municipalities are developing city-wide or district 'Al Fresco' pilot programs that may become permanent installations.


Temporary relaxation of permitting and licensing requirements helps facilitate the changes, bring signs of much-needed vitality to shopping and dining districts, and most importantly, create conditions that serve to rebuild restaurant patronage.


Examples of relaxed permitting and licensing are now plentiful, with New York, Los Angeles, West Palm Beach, and Chicago announcing their plans, and Atlanta providing early inspiration. As Henry Grabar writes in Slate: "In Brookhaven, a suburb of Atlanta, Mayor John Ernst has given restaurants permission to turn their parking into restaurant space. 'For the next 90 days, Brookhaven will embrace alfresco dining,' he said." 


The City of Los Angeles' "L.A. Al Fresco Program" offers streamlined permitting through an online portal, and immediate approval for eligible restaurants to provide additional outdoor dining space in sidewalks and private parking lots. The approval also allows restaurants to serve alcohol in these areas. Many of the Al Fresco programs provide the temporary allowances valid for 90 days. In addition, the L.A. Al Fresco Program provides templates with outdoor dining layouts and guidelines and protocols for the cleaning and sanitizing of these spaces.


In Glendale, CA, the City Council authorized the establishment of the Al Fresco Glendale Program, allowing local retail and dine-in restaurants to apply to extend to outdoor dining and retail sales on both public and private properties. This provides businesses with a low-cost alternative to re-establish their customer base to pre-COVID levels by offering outdoor dining and retail alternatives. City of Glendale outdoor dining permit fees will be waived between now and August 31 as a way to support businesses.


A proven example, The Long Beach Parklet Program, which started as a pilot program, has inspired other cities in California and in Europe to inquire as to how to replicate the program in their respective cities. Now is the time to embrace this program and roll it out as a way to build community, encourage people out of their homes, and support the restaurant business and culture that is a distinctive part of what makes our cities cultural centers.


An existing Parklet, At Last Café in Long Beach, offers sidewalk dining, pictured here pre-Covid-19. The At Last Cafe Parklet site plan illustrates how this project, built as a bulb-out, added a four-way stop that calms traffic and encourages pedestrian activity. 


As a good idea generally for creating community, this becomes an even better idea for reopening our cities.