Saturday, June 20, 2020

City to Open Downtown Streets for Outdoor Dining

The City announced on Thursday, and many circulated the news on social media, that they would be opening streets to restaurant dining and reallocating some of our surplus street space on a temporary and pilot basis. This is very exciting news.

The City's framing is pretty good!
Of course it is terrible that we had to wait for a Pandemic to conduct the experiment. It should have been a topic for the Downtown Sidewalk/Streetscape Study. Hopefully this project is a success and it leads to greater consideration of the ways our present curb-to-curb configuration on many streets is a stagnant monoculture, sometimes even traffic sewer, and should be reconsidered.

As the news was filtered into traditional media, old biases and tropes crept in to shift the tone of coverage.

We need to work on framing - front page yesterday
We should also think more about we frame the project in the evaluation and any debate going forward. "Closing" streets sounds like a loss of space and loss of access.

But it is nothing of the kind! It is an expansion and enhancement, allowing more people and a greater range of people to enjoy public space. We should think of it as sidewalk expansion, not street closure.

The frame of "closure" perpetuates the myth that streets are for cars, and people on foot or other users are at best temporary interlopers, impedance to be managed and reduced.

"Closure" here is autoist framing and should be avoided.

"bustling cafe culture" (May 21st)
Interestingly, an earlier USA Today piece from May pointed to better ways of approaching this. They led with "opening sidewalks," and even though they mentioned "closing streets," did not use that as a dominating frame for the piece.

A Qualification

The stance here has always been that the biggest threat to people in public space downtown are the cars.

But some people find in street campers a greater threat. And if we are contemplating reallocating street space from cars to people dining, we remain reluctant to countenance street camping. While we have successfully excluded people from travel lanes as carspace, we are struggling with trying to exclude the "wrong kind of people" from sidewalks.

Are zooming cars or street people the greatest threat?
In expanding sidewalk space for dining - for paying customers - it may seem we are at risk of privatising public space and reintroducing a kind of wealth check. If you can pay for a seat at the table, you get space. If you lack a house and money, you're out of luck.

At the same time, even when you are not yourself a paying customer, a thriving cafe culture adds vitality to downtown and is an urban good, a benefit that everyone enjoys.

A good city has plentiful outdoor restaurant space for paying customers; plazas and parks for people with sack lunches, picnics, or those who are not eating; and appropriately moderated car traffic so people on foot don't feel like they are playing frogger. Unless it gets out of control, making temporary quasi-private outdoor dining space out of public sidewalk and road space is not an unjust encroachment on the public sphere and instead is an enrichment of street life.

Still, as we rightly expand sidewalk space for downtown dining and shopping in the Pandemic, we should also not lose sight of the need to create more abundant housing at all price points downtown also. The more people who live downtown, the less we will have to worry about attracting non-residents with free parking and other autoist perks. And abundant housing choices will also moderate indigency and street camping and make it easier to balance fairly the different uses of our public streets and sidewalks.

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