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The Future of Sidewalk Usage

Over the recent years of the pandemic, few things stand out more than the drastic change in lifestyles and habits that occurred out of necessity for the safety of everyone in the world. In mid-2020, people across the globe were sheltering at home, not going to new places or socializing in what had, up until then, been the “norm”. And while thankfully the causes and needs of such isolating lifestyle shifts have been progressively fading into the past, there are many aspects of these new lifestyles that are persisting onward into the future. Working from home, virtual meet-ups, and more personal-health focused mindsets are all aspects of our current day society that are clearly sticking around just to name a few (McKinsey). Another pandemic-era change that has become more and more the topic of discussion is our usage of streets and sidewalks.

When the world shut down in 2020, most people could look out their window and see the stark difference in activity. Streets were empty, restaurants were closed, and the world was quiet. News reports discussed the reduction of air pollution across the globe due to not needing to drive to work or travel (CBS News). However after our streets emptied out and the dust began to settle in the chaos of the beginning of the pandemic, people needed to get back to work. While many industries could embrace the work-from-home lifestyle, opting for home offices, virtual meetings, and remotely-accessed tools, many others, such as the bar and restaurant industries, could not. On top of labor shortages, alternative dining experiences such as food delivery only went so far in providing employment and sustainable income to an industry that relied on in-person experiences, and was especially challenging for restaurants that had not previously used such business practices (Forbes).

However, with the streets cleared and restaurants hungering to get back to work, it was only a matter of time before outdoor dining was reborn into the world. As research began to find the “do’s and don’ts” of social-distancing and safe pandemic practices (CDC), the doors opened for in-person businesses to figure out how to work in these new circumstances. Empty sidewalks became filled with distanced tables, instead of dense crowds of commuters. And even into the winter, restaurants explored personal “igloos” and other alternative dining methods to provide safe and feasible dining experiences through the pandemic, and into the future as well (MEDILL). These actions didn’t just provide a way for people to be able to dine and support businesses in the challenging times, but also new ways to experience these businesses and places. Dining outdoors in Chicago during the winter is not a scenario someone would have encountered before the pandemic. However, it appears to be an incredibly unique experience that looks to be sticking around thanks to its popularity.

And now looking to the present day, many places, such as Chicago, are embracing the newfound outdoor-dining experiences by signing them into law as fixtures of their city’s business practices (NBC Chicago). What had once been crowded streets, parking spots, and open sidewalks pre-pandemic, are now being embraced as an opportunity to provide new and sustainable experiences for businesses and consumers alike. While these changes in space usage initially stemmed from the absence of a need for large sidewalks and roads when so many people were staying home early in the pandemic, they have been recognized as such beneficial additions to businesses and communities alike that extra measures are being taken to keep them around. This stays true even as more and more people return to the office and a pre-pandemic way of life. These changes can even be seen in places like AGD’s home in San Luis Obispo, CA. Here in SLO, restaurants in the main downtown core will be permitted to continue operating street-based dining experiences via an upcoming permanent-parklet program, while the city explores alternative ways to provide parking and enhanced travel experiences alongside these new dining fixtures (KSBY).

Now that life has increasingly trended toward pre-pandemic behaviors, with businesses fully reopening and public-health concerns reducing, cities and towns around the world are confronted with decisions on these matters of “what happens next” to spaces like sidewalks and roads, that have been used so differently than before over the past few years. While some places are embracing these changes as shown above, others are clamping down on the leniency that was given at the start of the pandemic (ALX Now). The benefits of these open spaces towards businesses and the public have been clearly seen over the past years though, and extend beyond a “need” in handling the pandemic. That is in part because this conversation is not only about helping restaurants stay open, but helping communities as a whole connect and thrive. While outdoor dining started the alternate-street-usage trend, other experiences such as farmer’s markets, concerts, and more have boomed thanks to these new spaces available to be used for them (Bloomberg).

It now remains to be seen how towns, cities, and governments continue to handle these changes that had been embraced during the pandemic. Grappling with a return to increased traffic and commuting creates challenges for continuing to support these alternative uses of street and sidewalk space. But at the same time, their benefits and community support has been largely strong through and past the pandemic’s need for the changes. Voicing, showing, and voting support or input for how we handle these spaces in our communities are great ways to help influence where our streets go next!

Written by Evan Ricaurté


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