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Part I- San Francisco's Public Space during COVID-19: An interview with the experts

While the concept of outdoor dining and extending dining into streets has been commonplace as far back as the 1800s across Europe and to this day can be seen on the streets of Paris or alleyways in Italy, it hasn’t been incorporated into design and planning until the last few decades in San Francisco. The phrase “parklets” was first coined and developed in San Francisco in 2009, and in 2020 we are seeing a resurrection of these outdoor dining structures. Instead of taking 13 months to build, they are being built in 3 days.

If I could choose two words to describe 2020 it would be ambiguous and abnormal. Other words like trapped and overwhelmed come to mind as well. Typically to combat these emotions, we try to escape, enjoy our neighborhood, and end up at a delicious, restorative, restaurant. However, this summer in San Francisco restaurants and the streets are looking quite different. Our outdoor community spaces and businesses were not immune to the abrupt changes that took place in the late winter/ early spring months resulting from the pandemic. All industries, especially restaurants have had to completely rethink and reshape their operations and processes. To see iconic, decades-old restaurants with boarded-up windows was more than depressing. If they were lucky enough to survive the first few months of the pandemic, delivery and to-go orders were the only option.

Henry's Bar has a shared space platform extended into the street. Photographed in August 2020.

By June things had started to change. On my weekly run, I began to notice new outdoor dining structures being built in my neighborhood, Lower Pacific Heights.

I began to wonder: Who and what are they benefiting? How do owners and residents feel about them? Are these outdoor dining structures just another item to add to the list of ‘forever changed’, or is it just a weird summer in San Francisco? I searched to find these answers through experiencing the parklets for myself, and by interviewing locals, restaurant owners, and employees/organizers of the SF city parklet program.

A few google searches later I discovered, a multi-agency program of the City and County of San Francisco, as a great resource for San Francisco’s already existing public parklets program. I spoke with Robin Abad, Senior Planner of Urban Design and Resilience of San Francisco’s planning department and Urban Planner, Maria de Alva to get the full scoop of how, the City and County of San Francisco, and the new outdoor dining parklets, Shared Spaces, are all connected.

Maria started by giving Robin credit for the public program, “Robin started the parklet program in 2009. Its core value was it’s public-ness and allowing the public to take space back from a car parking space.” Abad went on to give a bit of history and a quick lesson of the important differences between public parklets and the shared spaces program. “The policy goals and civic goals were to create a publicly accessible open space. In 2016, the city passed an ordinance formalizing parklets and their public civic nature. Many of the public parklets, before COVID, were sponsored by restaurants and cafes. Anyone could occupy the parklet without being a patron of the sponsored business.” This is the key distinction and was emphasized by Abad to be an important semantic difference.

“Parklet’s are very distinct typology. They have a different public purpose and programmatic profile than the curbside shared spaces that we see serving dining and commercial uses. Shared spaces or ‘curbside shared spaces’ are exclusively for commercial activities and intended to support the recovery of our small business community.” De Alva chimed in and let me know they’re also calling them “shared spaces platforms”. Abad said, “We’re also trying to call them ‘streeteries’.”

I wanted to get a sense of how many parklet's there were before COVID and how many there are now. Abad stated, "Pre-COVID, there were nearly 70 public parklets." Since the shared spaces program launched at the end of May, the city has seen a staggering 967 streeteries (which is growing every day) constructed across San Francisco. Abad pointed out, “there are different types of shared spaces, they are applied for using the same permit. Some are just on the sidewalk, others in the curbside lane, some taking up the entire road, and some in small alleys. Of the 967, 330 used to be parking lanes. Their numbers increase every week. The sheer numbers demonstrate the program is regarded as a very important solution and a lifeline for small business.”

I commented, “Absolutely, it’s a survival mechanism right now. I mean it’s just really exciting. It seems like San Francisco is doing what it can to help businesses survive during a really difficult situation. What does this program look like in terms of post COVID? Will they be taken down?”

De Alva responded, “We are thinking about ways in which the guidance is extended so that we alleviate any issues the structures have now. This way they could continue into the parklet program. The host would then have to agree to open it up to the public and not make it exclusive. So there are programmatic matters that we need to take into consideration. The physical elements that make the parklet very safe and accessible to the public.” With safety and managing the next steps, top of mind, Abad gave more insight into the program’s response.

“We’re undertaking impact reporting where we’re going to be surveying many businesses’ and participants in the shared spaces program (and even those who didn’t participate) to understand what the impact and benefits have been. Shared spaces are one of the key central responses to the pandemic, and the economic crisis that has attended the public health one.”

The shared spaces permits are set to expire on December 31, 2020. With just four months until the expiration date, I asked about the program’s options. In keeping with this year’s theme of ambiguity, they too aren’t sure what will happen next. In light of this uncertainty Abad laid out three likely possibilities:

  1. Extend this temporary program for another interval

  2. Create a permanent program; This would require legislative intervention as this program was created by Mayoral Decree

  3. Incorporate features of these programs and allow people to continue operating under specific pieces of code

The efforts from the public parklet program from a decade ago prepared the city well for this type of response to COVID. There was an optimistic understanding that, it’s already being done, we know it works, so let’s do it. That type of response has added thousands of seats to the streets and allowed for restaurants to continue serving, and for people in San Francisco to continue dining. With Mayor London Breed’s swift action, San Francisco’s businesses have an opportunity to sustain themselves while we ride the COVID wave.

See part II for the North Beach outdoor dining experience, and the thoughts from locals on their take on the COVID, shared spaces, parklets.

For a daily updated map of the “streeteries” go here. The manual for the shared spaces parklet program can be found: here

A big thanks to Maria De Alva and Robin Abad for their time and all they do for adding to the cities’ resilient fight of COVID-19.

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