I’ll take economic recovery for $600, Alex. And the answer is…

text John T. O’Connor

For decades, cities across the globe have been reclaiming space from an onslaught of cars. For some cities, this clawback has been limited, for others it has been extreme… and extremely successful. From Milan to Copenhagen, cities in Europe have been busy reclaiming streets for people since 1962, turning dismal, dangerous city centers coated in exhaust filth into vibrant spaces where small businesses thrive.

The point is, freed from total submission to the automobile, these spaces have come alive… becoming in many cases their own engines… engines of the economic variety. Restaurants and cafés once hidden behind sealed glass walls, have spilled onto sidewalks and former parking spaces allowing residents and visitors to truly enjoy city life. With COVID-19 killing off dining establishments, this is more important than ever.

Maybe we cannot ban auto traffic as they’ve done elsewhere, but we can use ingenuity to enhance our outdoor experience… and create economic stability in turbulent times.

A new program in Richmond, Virginia assists restaurants in their reopening phases. Owners receive design and permitting assistance for their requests for more outdoor space, particularly parklets.

Since COVID-19 has proven hard to shake in the U.S., a lot of smart reinvention has been going on to help small businesses survive. One successful example of that is how Cape Cod’s Provincetown relaxed –– and sometimes erased –– its requirements for parking at local restaurants as, with indoor dining off limits this summer, many were ready to throw in the towel. Some restaurants reconfigured parking lots for outdoor dining and did so brilliantly. Others were allowed to make the most of any outdoor area they had or to which they were adjacent. What could have been a dismal summer of unemployment littered with “closed” signs instead saw restaurants hold on, some even find- ing business to be brisk as diners love an outdoor dining experience… especially now.

As greater Fort Lauderdale enters its glorious winter season, doesn’t it make sense to greatly relax sidewalk dining rules, even turn over a few parking spaces to be used as al fresco dining “parklets”? These are installed on parking lanes, usually going over 2 or more spaces, surrounded in a strong barrier of planters, and are perfect at extending the width of the sidewalk… especially valuable in this time of social distancing.

If you’re listening, Wilton Manors, this idea applies especially to you. Small restaurants along Wilton Drive are withering on the vine as diners are not ready to eat in sealed spaces with recirculated air. This pandemic dictates we throw the old rulebook away and think cre- atively. How can we help businesses survive? How can we activate the street for those who live nearby, creating an urban vibrancy at the same time? The answer is right in front of us… in the parking lane.