As society steps out of the fog of that we have endured over past two years, downtowns should continue to look to the measures we took during the COVID-19 pandemic for ways to re-engage people in our public spaces. One action many communities quickly took was ensuring that bars and restaurants could use and expand their outdoor dining beyond their patios. For some cities and towns, this meant blocking off parking spaces to allow for extra seating away from the confined indoor model that was not going to work in cooperation with enacted social distancing guidelines. For many, this was a shift in policy. Prior to COVID, expanding restaurant space into designated parking sometimes proved difficult. In fact, for most of the 20th century and to the modern day, automobiles almost always took precedent. However, in the midst of a global health crisis, with many working from home, our once congested downtown streets were wide open.

This led to an urban revolution. Not only were parking spaces used for dining, but whole streets were shut off to vehicles and people-oriented programming took their place. Cities like Oakland closed over 70 miles of streets to vehicular traffic citing an effort to “give Oaklanders space to spread out”. In New York, an entire avenue in Queens was closed for folk dancing lessons. These are just a couple examples of ways cities gave their residents areas to socially distance while remaining connected to their community.

Locally in Manchester, we have implemented temporary and weekend closures on one of our side streets in the heart of downtown. In coordination with the RiseUP Group, we programmed Purnell Place to become an oasis of public art, yard games, and live music while simply providing a space to enjoy the beautiful architecture and attractions that Main Streets offer.

All of this is not to say that cars will not have a future in our downtowns. Main Street merchants rely on automobile traffic and available parking in order to attract and retain large enough customer bases to sustain their business. Put simply, the effort to add more space for pedestrians is not to take away from our downtowns but instead to add another dynamic element of attraction. We ought to ensure that our Main Streets are adapting to the public’s desire to attend activities like outdoor concerts, dine alfresco and enjoy the ambiance and experience that a downtown setting provides.

Hear more from Dan about Manchester’s successes in our webinar Small Things that Make a Big Difference with Dan Pesce, Matt Conway of the RiseUp Group and Win Davis from New Haven’s Town Green District.

About the Author
Dan Pesce received his BA in Urban and Community Studies from the University of Connecticut. He currently serves as the Downtown Development Specialist for the Town of Manchester.