To help restaurants after COVID-19, we must rethink our cities

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

COVID-19 has given us a new appreciation for what we took for granted. Chief among them is the central role that restaurants, cafes, and bars play in our lives: places to eat and drink, but also places to congregate and socialize.

The picture is bleak. Food service and brick-and-mortar retail have been hit hard; many are facing the possibility of closing permanently. And as these businesses remain closed, we’re rethinking how we use space in our cities—opening streets to bikes and people, for instance, to create more social space.

But few businesses are as important in shaping how we experience the city’s spaces—or to the health of our cities. Food businesses and urban space go hand-in-hand; in crafting solutions for one, we must consider the other. To do this, we’ll have to be creative. I’ve proposed three solutions below. If you’d like, you can skip the context and jump straight there.

Food businesses are more important than we realize

They make cities pleasant to be in. Cities are attractive because of the people and activity within them. The people are often drawn by restaurants, bars, and cafes; the activity, too, is often sparked by these food businesses. (Imagine a street lined with cafes versus one alongside a parking lot). To be interesting and pleasant, cities need these spaces to support and invigorate social life.

They anchor and regenerate neighborhoods. Restaurants and cafes have always been hubs of neighborhood life. Over the past decade, restaurants have also emerged as economic anchors for their communities, helping revitalize entire neighborhoods. As covered in the Times:

“Restaurants are extremely valuable to cities,” said Andrew Salkin, a founding principal of Resilient Cities Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on strengthening cities, and a former official in New York City’s Finance Department. “The benefit of having good restaurants outweighs just their tax benefits. They are the anchors of communities. They support tourism and the neighborhood they are in.” […] In any one of [these communities], the failure of even a few key independent restaurants could spell devastation for their local economies.

And they power jobs and our economy. The numbers speak for themselves. Restaurants alone employ 9.7 million people across the US, and the broader retail, leisure, and hospitality sector employs 32 million. They’re also a key contributor to cities’ tax base; in Washington, D.C. for instance, restaurants and bars accounted for $1.3 billion of the city’s sales taxes in 2019.

And they’ll only grow more important

One effect of the pandemic is that many office workers aren’t going into the office anymore, as they’re working from home. We’re already seeing the longer-term impact this might have. As William Fulton speculates:

In the wake of COVID-19, more people will work from home more often. In the long run, companies will need less office space” and as a result […] if office workers work remotely more often, then the neighborhoods where they work — their home neighborhood — will become more important. They may choose, for example, to work in their neighborhood coffee shop. Even if they work at home, they’ll need to get out more during the workday, so public spaces — bars and restaurants, parks and trails — will become more important to daily life, not just after work or on the weekends. [emphasis added]

What’s more, if we see brick-and-mortar retail struggle further due to e-commerce, cities will become even more dependent on restaurants for tax revenue—and to attract residents, draw tourists, and feed life in the city.

Three solutions that rethink how we use space

As we consider life post-COVID, we should find solutions that both help small businesses back on their feet, and also create more space for people. This will require our cities to significantly change how they provide for their communities. Below are three examples to get us thinking.

It’s hard for a brick-and-mortar retailer to compete with online shopping. Harder still if that retailer is independently owned, and even harder now that they’re closed.

Before the pandemic, some retailers were adapting, often successfully, by orienting their spaces to cater to both services and purchases. In other words, in transforming from not just places to buy things, but places to enjoyably spend time as well. As Tracy Hadden Loh writes, “IKEA was already a furniture showroom, warehouse, and restaurant. High-end grocers were encouraging shoppers to have a beer. Restaurants were increasingly not just dine-in, but fast-casual or mobile food trucks.”

Most talk so far has focused on loans, funds, and other financial lifelines for struggling retailers. This is necessary, but not sufficient. We also need to work with local businesses to help them reinvent—offering expertise, talent, and funds to help them provide not just retail, but also accessible, quality third spaces. Doing so can both help small retailers, and create new spaces in a city.

Restaurants already operate on thin margins. If and when they’re required to reduce seating capacity, many will find their financial prospects untenable. Meanwhile, as many office workers continue to work from home, parking lots will remain below capacity. A win-win solution? Convert some of that parking space to dining space. An added bonus: parking space is often outdoors, and research has started to indicate that being outdoors might be safer than indoors.

In the wake of the Great Recession came urban innovations such as parklets, where businesses can sponsor the transformation of a parking space into a mini-park. These can just as well be used for eating and drinking. Perhaps there can be a city fund to sponsor parklets, where the cost of building out the parklet is covered by the city. This would reinvigorate street life in that area (especially as people cautiously emerge from sheltering-in-place), and it gives the restaurants more seating capacity.

We could also do this at a larger scale. Imagine repurposing a parking lot, or the top floor of a parking garage. Each week, a different local restaurant can take over. Diners get a large space in which to enjoy, the restaurant gets more space to serve customers, and the parking space actually gets used.

Finally, we must prepare for the inevitability that trends aren’t looking great for brick-and-mortar retail—something that COVID-19 has only accelerated.

As William Fulton summarizes:

Amazon will kill off a lot of retailers during the COVID-19 crisis — not just mom-and-pop stores but — most likely — some sturdy chains as well. […] Urban street life in the future will look something like this: More multifamily housing on old retail sites, more bars and restaurants, more coffee shops, more ground-floor personal care businesses (hair and nail salons, gyms, yoga studios) — and much more carefully managed curbside parking, to accommodate the vast increase in delivery trucks.

As former retail spaces empty out, they too can be repurposed to both create public third spaces, and to foster local businesses. Imagine re-purposing a large retail space into smaller, more affordable spaces for independent gyms, restaurants, salons, and more. This could all be centered around a public space—with comfortable seating, tables, and gathering areas.

This is a known template, and it’s worked before: if ever you’ve seen a community space fashioned out of shipping containers (like Boxpark), or a mall get repurposed, you’ve seen a large space get subdivided and set aside as experiential, social space.

In fact, none of these solutions are novel. Each has been tried and tested at a smaller scale and, thus, each has shown that it works. The challenge now is having the guts to scale non-traditional solutions—while also ensuring local businesses can compete against better-capitalized companies, and that these new spaces benefit everyone, not just those who can afford them.

This isn’t the natural trajectory. If we want local businesses to succeed, and more space for more people, we’ll have to make it happen.

I like cities, sustainability, tech, and—ironically—printing things out. Currently doing product @Pinterest.

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