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Curb Enthusiasm: New Attitudes Emerge Around Urban Spaces

Cities like Los Angeles worked fast during the COVID-19 pandemic to radically change the way we think about sidewalks, curbs and parking areas. Many of the changes government and businesses made are here to stay.

A normally busy two-way street in Sacramento, Calif., has been partially closed to through traffic.
A normally busy two-way street in Sacramento, Calif., has been partially closed to through traffic in an effort to accommodate outdoor dining areas that comply with COVID-19 safety protocols. The street is open to pedestrians and cyclists.
Skip Descant/ Government Technology
The design, regulation and general attitude toward street curbs has been relatively unchanged for the better part of a century. New technology has been making the way for movements like digital curb management, but maybe no force has moved the curb-space needle quite like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we have a real opportunity in this moment,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told the attendees at the Curbivore conference last month in Los Angeles. Curbivore is a form of technology think tank that brings together the worlds of food tech, transportation and urbanism all in one.

It has been well documented how the pandemic reshaped the use of streets, sidewalks and other areas, and allowed city leaders to quickly experiment with new ideas around how these spaces can be used.

“And suddenly our curb space took on a new significance. Practically overnight we created these temporary food retail pickup zones,” Garcetti pointed out, adding, more than 800 food pickup zones were identified and more than 200 retail zones were set up.

“Most of them are probably here to stay. And I think that’s a good thing,” said Garcetti.

Outdoor dining was seen as a lifeline to both keep restaurants in operation and still comply with COVID-19 safety protocols. In Los Angeles, the program was called “L.A. Al Fresco,” and was noteworthy for how easy it was for restaurants to roll out outdoor dining.

“There’s probably 100 ways we could have shut it down and said, 'no, we can’t do that.' But by getting to yes, by figuring out a way to solve a problem, we were able to cut red tape,” said Garcetti. “It was a lifeline for so many of our restaurants.”

The company CityGrows assisted with the al fresco dining processes for various restaurants across the many individual cities spread across the Los Angeles region. The city of L.A. used the software to enable restaurants to quickly apply for the permit, and get it issued.

“Our software is very configurable, in real time, by normal people,” said Catherine Geanuracos, co-founder and CEO of CityGrows, during a panel at the conference titled “Anything But Asphalt: Repurposing Streets, Sidewalks, and Parking Lots.”

"[Los Angeles] was able to configure a functional permit process where restaurants went online, applied and at the end of 20 minutes could print out their sidewalk dining permit and begin using a public space for their operations pretty much immediately,” said Geanuracos. “There’s a lot of perception that government is completely sort of calcified and resistant to that kind of fast adaptation. And I think we’re at a moment where we’ve all seen, that’s not always true."

A city survey of restaurants showed 81 percent of dining establishments would have shut down without outdoor dining, while 97 percent of restaurants reported wanting to make the makeshift outdoor dining spaces permanent.

“And so, that’s what we’re doing,” said Garcetti.

Since the pandemic started two years ago, some 1,700 sidewalk dining permits have been issued in Los Angeles. And today, there are nearly 200 new curbside dining areas in the city, say city officials.

Also, about 50 miles of “slow streets” have been installed.

“These were also steps that kept businesses afloat. It was good for our soul. But it was also good for our bottom line, and our economy,” said Garcetti.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.