Reimagining Our Streets in the Era of COVID-19 - CivicWell

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Reimagining Our Streets in the Era of COVID-19

Community Design

Livable Places Update


August 30, 2020

“The streets and cities we see on the other side of the pandemic will be different from the ones we knew a few short months ago. As city and transportation leaders, our job is not to return to the inequitable, dangerous, unsustainable patterns of the past, but to help shape a better future. The streets we create today will provide the foundation for our recovery for years to come.” – Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery, National Association of City Officials and Global Designing Cities Initiative.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) reports that the requirement to maintain physical distance to protect personal and public health – combined with what we currently know about the transmission of COVID-19 and its increased communicability in indoor settings – “requires that we reallocate our streets and sidewalks for public use during this crisis and for the future.”

More than ever, the conversion of public right-of-ways, parking lots and other vacant or underutilized spaces in our downtowns and main streets can help protect the health, economic and social needs of local businesses, employees and residents.

In this transition, local governments can increase the amount of outdoor space available to help businesses and services survive, recover and ultimately prosper. As COVID-related restrictions are eased, streets, sidewalks and parking lots can provide outside room for restaurants, shops and salons to serve customers, gyms and fitness studios to conduct classes, and schools and daycare facilities to resume care, allowing businesses to reopen and more people to return to work safely.

Cities and counties can help lead the way:
1.    Rearrange streets to create more outdoor space and support walking, biking and outdoor activity.
2.    Allow flexibility with clear, simple procedures for use of public streets and sidewalks for physically distanced commercial activity and services.
3.    Allow flexibility and relax rules governing the use of private outdoor spaces for physically distanced commercial activity and services.4.    Provide resources and services to facilitate and support these outdoor activities for individual businesses, neighborhoods and commercial districts.

Open Streets and Parklets

Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. Open streets, parklet programs, and outdoor dining and retail ordinances provide good models.
Open streets programs temporarily close streets to cars for use by people for walking, jogging, rolling, biking, skating and other types of exercise, social and educational activities.

Open streets programs temporarily close streets to cars for use by people for walking, jogging, rolling, biking, skating and other types of exercise, social and educational activities.

California’s first open-streets event – Car-Free Sundays in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park – was staged in 1967, nine years before Bogota, Colombia, introduced the weekly closure of streets to cars for bicycling and walking (dubbed “ciclovias”) that is credited with inspiring many similar events throughout the U.S. San Francisco hosts Sunday Streets, a series of monthly open-street neighborhood events, and Albany, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Redding and San Mateo have held similar events.

Parklets extend sidewalks into the street by converting parking spaces to places for eating, lounging, greening and beautification. San Francisco first introduced the parklet in 2010, following an unofficial temporary conversion of an on-street parking space by feeding the meter, unrolling grass sod, and placing a potted tree on top. Numerous California cities have since adopted parklet pilots. San Francisco, Long Beach and Los Angeles are among the cities that have established robust permanent programs.

Quick Conversions of Streets and Sidewalks

The City of Oakland Slow Streets Program – targeting 74 miles or nearly 10% of all its streets – uses a modified citywide open-streets approach to promote physical distancing by creating low-traffic, low-speed streets and intersections to create more space for physically distant pedestrian and bike activity. As of July, 21 miles of slow streets have already been installed with “soft closures,” including signage, traffic cones and barricades, along with 15 intersection improvements to support safe access to essential services such as grocery stores, food distribution sites and COVID-19 test sites. Community engagement efforts are helping to identify improvements that respond to the needs of specific neighborhoods, especially communities suffering disproportionately from the pandemic.

The City of Long Beach Open Streets Initiative will temporarily transform public areas into safe spaces for physically distanced activity funded through a repurposed LA Metro grant, which was originally allocated for the City’s Beach Streets event (canceled due to the pandemic).

Its commercial component provides businesses and restaurants with temporary parklets and sidewalk space to provide physically distanced options. The City is looking to streamline its permit process for permanent parklets so that temporary outdoor spaces may transition to permanent status when the program ends.

Businesses submit a free online application for sidewalk dining or temporary parklets. Public Works provides barricades as needed, while establishments provide chairs, tables and any additional materials – like a parklet deck or potted plants. Some cities, such as Sacramento, have used their CARES federal stimulus money to provide grants to help with these costs.

The residential neighborhood component places temporary barricades on approved residential streets where cut-through traffic can be limited to create more outdoor space and encourage physically distanced walking, biking and skating. These streets create opportunities to get to and from destinations safely, while also providing space for healthy recreation.

The first phase of Los Angeles’s Al Fresco Program was launched on May 29 to support outdoor-dining opportunities for restaurants hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Eligible businesses were granted immediate approvals to provide outdoor seating on sidewalks and private parking lots; and the program was expanded in June to include parklets, lane closures and street closures. In this new stage of this effort, 55% of program resources is being directed to Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) businesses or those located in areas that have experienced disproportionate job loss due to COVID-19.

Eligible applicants receive immediate approval for sidewalks and private property, while applications for parklets, lane closures and street closures are reviewed in approximately five business days. Once approved, 90-day permits cover the duration of the Mayor’s Safer at Home Order, with no limit on renewals.

For parklet and lane/street closures, the City provides free traffic-control equipment (barricades, planters, bollards) and shade umbrellas where needed, prioritizing impacted/BIPOC communities. Parklet and lane/street-closure applicants may also have access to pro bono architecture and landscape-design services. For more details: A user-friendly manual

San Diego’s Temporary Outdoor Business Operation Permit extends beyond eating and drinking establishments. Amid City restrictions on indoor activities, this program allows the temporary use of streets, sidewalks or parking lanes. Businesses with an active business tax certificate and other applicable licenses or permits are eligible, including eating and drinking establishments, retail and wholesale businesses, gyms and fitness centers, instructional studios, personal services (including hair and nail salons), massage establishments, and places of religious assembly. Business Improvement Districts, commercial centers, owners and businesses can apply jointly for permits, and can work together to request complete-street closures.

Districtwide Approaches to Reopening and Recovery

To help restaurants, retail and other businesses that can re-open under phased restrictions, the City of Davis has created a free expedited permit for the use of public space, enabling them to quickly expand to accommodate physical-distancing requirements and serve more customers. The Davis Downtown Business Association (DDBA) and the City have started Open Air Davis which consists of two major street conversions with weekend closures to vehicle traffic as well as dozens of other locations for outdoor seating. The public can experience these open spaces every Friday morning through Sunday night through the end of summer.

The City of Ventura has a 30-day pilot to allow businesses to expand their operations (with a permit) onto public or private property. In partnership with the downtown business district, the City has closed the five-block historic area to vehicular traffic as part of “Main Street Moves” through September.

“Main Street Moves is a business-friendly solution to help our local restaurants and shops recover from the losses they have suffered during the shutdown,” said Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere. “This program is also an innovative way for businesses to welcome back more customers while helping residents feel comfortable about being outdoors.”

“Our economic recovery is going to happen through safe public spaces, and that’s our motivation here, to create safe public spaces that people can feel good about coming to” said Kevin Clerici, Downtown Ventura Partners’ executive director.

Downtown Ventura Partners pays for the street closures and puts up the barricades, and opens the streets in the mornings for trash pickup and commercial deliveries.

Closing the core downtown blocks of Main Street will eliminate around 150 parking spaces, out of more than 2,000 spaces downtown, said Councilwoman Christy Weir, adding that, with fewer cars during the pandemic, parking should not to be a problem.

The program turns valuable downtown space, which was used for storage of empty vehicles, into a community “living room,” and provides a demonstration of how the future of Ventura’s city center can be reimagined.

Resources to Keep Business Going During the Pandemic

In addition to removing regulatory barriers and streamlining permitting for outdoor uses, local governments can also help provide direct and informational assistance for small businesses.

The cities of Davis and Ventura partnered with business associations for consistent branding and communications to support their commercial districts. LA Al Fresco offers free design assistance to eligible businesses. Long Beach and Los Angeles have detailed handbooks, drawings and templates for designing outdoor spaces. In Florida, West Palm Beach’s Dining on the Spot Toolkit is an excellent example of simple off-the-shelf, ready-to-use requirements, text, logo and door decal templates.


Best Practices for Open Streets and Public Spaces

Some of the best practices for temporary programs for parklets, sidewalks, and partial and full street closures include:

Streamlined permitting

  • Simplified application.
  • Diagrams and templates for design compliance
  • Fast track approval with self-certification if possible for fast implementation (inspections can follow for any needed corrections or adjustments).
  • Fee waivers or reductions.

Clear approval requirements and responsibilities

  • Materials, traffic controls, signage and furnishings (ideally, jurisdictions provide cones, barriers, signage, etc.).
  • Maintenance.
  • ADA compliance (all permits require access compliance and minimum walkway clearance).
  • Required agreements, licenses, permits and agreements.
  •  Liability insurance (typically $500,000-$1,000,000, depending on jurisdiction)
  • Compliance with latest Department of Alcohol Beverage Control licensing and permit requirements (COVID-19 Temporary Catering Authorization).

Districtwide planning and coordination

  • Partnerships with chambers, business and community groups and associations (implementation and marketing, and branding and communications for business owners and consumers).
  • Consolidated point or points of contact for consistent information.
  • Business and Community surveys and listening sessions, feedback and adjustments.

Benefits of Better Places for Today and Tomorrow

Many of these interim measures also address pre-pandemic challenges and that will continue to persist, including e-commerce impacts on retail, small businesses and downtowns.

These efforts should be extended – and some made permanent – because we will need to be flexible and adaptive for future closures from the next outbreaks and other natural or human-caused events. These measures need to be long-lasting since the pandemic could easily affect commerce for another 24 months; and flexible, because we will need options for businesses to generate revenue in the face of future business and regional closures.

Moreover, walkable streets are both more economically productive (tax revenue per square foot) and healthier (physical activity). These measures can help reduce the glut of commercial space, oversupply of parking, vacant and underutilized streets and parking.

These measures can help to reduce dependence on driving and associated vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions— reduced vehicle use will also result in fewer traffic injuries and fatalities.

By reimagining our streets and public spaces to make it through the pandemic, we can also test and experience new ways to increase community livability, vibrancy and resiliency and reap benefits that can extend long after the current crisis.


Examples/Case Studies: