I love cities. I love the way they make me feel. I love the way they move, like invisible waves of highly evolved social connections that have been choreographed anew each day.
Cities with the best public realms evoke curiosity and make people eerily anxious upon the approach from a long journey. The rush of associations when walking through a busy marketplace stimulates the imagination of what may happen next. The smell of a restaurant’s signature dish, the consonance of chatter in a busy plaza and the kaleidoscope of movement in a crowded marketplace can excite the possibilities of what may come while opening nostalgic memories long past.
It is a shared experience, which every person may have for the price of just being alive and sharing a space that all collectively own. A public realm. But the public realm doesn’t work without restaurants. And the culture of cities has been significantly damaged by COVID-19 by virtue of the struggling restaurant industry. It is both tragic and debilitating for the city and its future. This cannot continue and must be remedied.
In 1902 Willis Carrier invented an air conditioning machine that would change the way people use and move through homes and businesses. No longer were people compelled to shuffle from hot to cool spaces at the will of mother nature’s range of unforgiving temperatures and humidity. First successful in manufacturing, air conditioning quickly spread through commercial enterprises including restaurants.
Vanishing were the seasonal floor plans, ceiling heights and courtyards. The restaurant industry easily relinquished its valuable alfresco spaces and public rights of way to other commercial needs. In most American cities these were automobiles. Sidewalks and public spaces shrank precipitously in this country’s cities from the 1950s through the 1990s. Today, most of the public realm has been reduced to a scale that hems in the pedestrian at best, and at worst, makes an American cafe culture a perpetual vision for planners as opposed to a valuable norm. But with COVID-19 continuing to thrash Richmond’s food scene, once widely known for its dynamic and prominent role on the East Coast epicurean trail, the use and purpose of public spaces need to be re-examined.
Hope springs eternal for Richmond’s beloved restaurants. The city can remedy this important sector with creative social distancing in design. People frequent restaurants, not only for the culinary experience, but also for the communal one. The sights, smells and greater sense of belonging to a larger, organic cultural community through food sharing are as old as human communities themselves. The height of this experience has always been open-air dining in the public realm. This is due to the immediate interaction between the dining participants and their proximity to passersby.
Even from a distance, discovering group dining instinctually and unconsciously draws people in. As people approach and pass the tables and umbrellas, they have a collective understanding of their value. After all, food sharing in open air is as old as cities themselves. Here are a few simple programs and changes that Richmond could use to assist its struggling restaurant economy while achieving safe and comfortable social distances.
1) Implement the city’s existing parklet program for every restaurant that currently abuts a city sidewalk. This is an easy switch with a potentially large impact for restaurants. Restaurants will be able to permanently set up two to five tables within existing parking spaces with ample social distancing, perhaps increasing customers by 20% per day, depending on the restaurant.
2) Make the city’s Broad Appétit not an annual, but a monthly event for Broad Street.
3) Designate, in the near-term, spaces for restaurant food trucks to set up in city parks and plazas and deploy movable tables and chairs in designated areas throughout.
4) Allow restaurants to use adjacent alleys for food service by right.
5) Extend 25 feet of curb on every block in the city where restaurants currently exist.
6) Turn two blocks of Carytown into a large, outdoor restaurant on selected evenings. Individual restaurants can apply for space for a nominal fee. The space should maintain the goal of assisting restaurants, and not be considered a festival or a special event. This new use for the street is a direct response to a new and more permanent way of operating the city for the long term. People need to understand that the importance of automobile storage must, at this moment in history, yield to the greater needs of society and economic livelihoods.
So today, amid an air of uncertainty, Richmonders need to rethink radically their public spaces. They should begin with the simple act of alfresco dining and incorporate these measures, either temporarily or long term, to find new and better uses for the streets, parking lots and sidewalks, and save the city’s beloved cafe culture.
Jonathan W. Brown is a senior planner in Richmond.
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