7 smart and simple ways public spaces are being adapted for social distancing

Squares indicate where people can stand to keep distance in a public square. (Photograph by Francesco Noferini, courtesy of Caret Studio)

When the Covid-19 pandemic set in this spring, familiar scenes from cities around the world changed seemingly overnight.

New York’s Times Square and Mexico City’s Zocalo sat eerily empty. Paris’s quintessential cafes closed up, and Tokyo’s nightlife went dark. Images of ghostly city centres and neighbourhood streets flooded the news and social media as people were suddenly forced to reconsider their relationship to public spaces.

Eventually people did begin to venture outside again, and in some parts of the world a new normal seems to be taking shape already. Still, the ongoing challenge of social distancing means common spaces such as parks, plazas, markets and restaurants are all experimenting with ideas that keep people safe as they search for some semblance of city life as it used to be.


Often this is a challenge to be met with smart design that communicates the ways that rules, expectations, or even purposes of a space have changed. As streets get reimagined, restaurants spill out their front doors, and signs tell people how to behave everywhere they go, here are some simple and effective initiatives helping people navigate public spaces in a changed world that can serve as models for city leaders just about anywhere.

Vicchio, Italy: Grids on the ground


An artful grid in the Piazza Giotto in Vicchio, Italy, encourages visitors to keep their distance. (Photograph by Francesco Noferini, courtesy of Caret Studio)

As cities locked down, the ground became a canvas for social distancing guidelines. Tape, chalk, stickers and stencils offered quick, low-tech ways to communicate what a safe distance looks anywhere and everywhere.  

In the town of Vicchio, Italy, Piazza Giotto was transformed with a gridded layout of white squares painted on the cobblestones, each of them 1.8 metres apart. Named StoDistante (Italian for "I'm keeping my distance"), the installation was designed by the Italian architecture firm Caret Studio.

Part artwork, part spatial intervention, StoDistance sets a great precedent for humble, no-nonsense architecture that understands the value of aesthetics without compromising effectiveness.

Dallas, Texas: Parking that isn’t for cars


A temporary parklet converted a parking space into outdoor restaurant dining in Dallas. (Courtesy of Better Block)

In the sudden scramble to find more space for people, an old urbanist mantra gained mainstream traction: Take it away from cars. What’s even more surprising is that this is happening in a city as dependent on cars as Dallas, Texas.

In early May, the nonprofit organisation Better Block turned a parking space into a “parklet”, a tiny temporary park in the city’s Arts Bishop District. Occupying an empty parking space, the parklet — a simple, timber-clad deck with a built-in bench — allows the restaurant that maintains it to provide outdoor seating without taking over the sidewalk. The result is a stylish and functional use of public space akin to the popular street-side terrasses of Montreal. The City of Dallas has since launched a temporary parklet program to assist local businesses aiming to do the same thing to assist their economic recovery. Crucially, parklets aren’t just about restaurant seating: They’ve been used for myriad other functions, including microplaygrounds, an outdoor art show, a bike rack, and even an outdoor library.

Bogotá, Colombia: Make way for cycling

Raul Arboled/AFP via Getty Images
Bogotá has long used pop-up infrastructure to encourage cycling, a behaviour that made it easy to find new space this year. (Raul Arboled/AFP via Getty Images)

Pop-up bike lanes have become a favoured tool for getting people to reconsider their streets. From Washington, DC, to Paris, to Sydney, road space is being reallocated to support growing cycling populations and promote a safer ecosystem for a healthy and sustainable mode of transportation.

Bogotá was a clear leader in this movement. The Colombian capital was one of the first cities to introduce pop-up infrastructure, and it has turned to that tool again in this emergency. Since the pandemic began, Bogotá has added 80 kilometres of emergency bike lanes, bringing the city’s cycle network to over 600 kilometres. In the country's effort to fight the pandemic, as well as to improve the air quality of a city often choked by pollution, these temporary bike lanes will become permanent — and speed limits will be lowered citywide. It’s a fitting adaptation for a city shaped by Ciclovía, the government-run program that turns 120 kilometers of streets in a bicycle superhighway every Sunday, from 7 am to 2 pm.

Atlanta, Georgia: Sinks that everyone can access


A man washes his hands at a mobile sink in an Atlanta park. (Courtesy of Love Beyond Walls)

People experiencing homelessness have been especially vulnerable through the Covid-19 crisis. Many public health recommendations – sheltering in place, avoiding others, and washing your hands with soap – haven’t been easy options for people living on the streets.

Atlanta-based Love Beyond Walls, the US nonprofit organization that launched the country’s first museum representing homelessness, has set out to help communities install mobile handwashing stations in their neighbourhoods. Together with Lavamaex, a California-based nonprofit, the pair has launched a #LoveSinksIn campaign, which has already reached 30 cities, including New Orleans, Baltimore, Detroit, and Columbus, Ohio.

"Social distancing doesn’t mean social disregard," the campaign declares. Woodruff Park, in Downtown Atlanta, was one of the first public spaces to receive portable sinks. (In a bid to help its large homeless population find a job or search for social services, the park also became a free Wi-Fi hotspot in 2018.)

London, England: Murals with a subtle nudge


Murals fill a space with easy reminders of how to stay a safe distance from others, even when stopping to chat. (Courtesy of Tactical Urbanistas)

Another city-making principle that’s proving its worth in the pandemic: A little paint goes a long way. In London, a self-organized group of women called Tactical Urbanistas have taken it upon themselves to reclaim the streets with quick and colourful interventions.

To help enforce social distancing and inject an element of play into the public realm, the team painted colourful murals on sidewalks that appear to be crawling up brick walls and swallowing benches. Playful though they may seem, these patterns, which look like mini topographical maps pulled out of a children's book, have a layer of functionality, too. The black dots at the center of each blob are 2 metres apart — ideal for a socially distant chat with friends and neighbours.

Brno, Czech Republic: The 'Gastro Safe Zone'


Yellow tape effectively extends the boundary of each table, indicating to others to keep their distance from diners. (Courtesy of HUA HUA Architects)

In the Czech Republic, local firm HUA HUA Architects has developed a space grid initiative that reconciles the public realm with al fresco dining. The Gastro Safe Zone initiative, which launched in March, aims to transform city squares into safe and defined zones for outdoor dining — a bit like a regulated, open-air food court.

Every zone is surrounded by a circle of tape, with a non-movable, one-piece dining set in the middle, akin to a metal picnic table. The first prototype has already been installed in the streets of Brno, where a confirmed pilot program will soon convert the city’s public squares into "gastro safe zones". The architects have also launched a furniture brand named Stoolky, which offers dining sets in different colors and a varying number of seats. After Covid-19, the furniture can be reused in parks, playgrounds or as street furniture.

New York City, New York: Touch-free play streets 


PLAY NYC will focus its efforts on areas where youth programs have been particularly lacking. (Courtesy of Street Lab)

Play streets are a long-standing tradition in New York City, where communities close their streets to traffic so people can safely play in them. But the pandemic has put them at risk.

Street Lab, a nonprofit organization that creates programs for public spaces across New York City, is launching a new program to support safe, hands-free play for children in high-need neighbourhoods. Titled PLAY NYC, the program rolled out its first installation on an open street in the Red Hook neighbourhood, and will focus on areas where youth programs have been particularly lacking.

The street furniture set-up, designed in collaboration with industrial designer Hannah Berkin-Harper, includes a range of colourful barriers and custom-designed benches that are hand-deployable and easy to disinfect. The socially distanced zones will serve as a safe backdrop for story hours, street games, physical activities like obstacle courses, and learning experiences.

Elissaveta M. Brandon is a writer based in New York City.

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.