They increase foot traffic, attention, and in some cases, spending.
How you feel about parklets—street-parking spaces converted into temporary gathering spots—depends in large part on how you get around the city. If you walk or take a bike, and generally prefer a more human scale to the urban environment, you probably love these little plazas and sitting places. If you drive and spend much of your life in the endless Costanzian battle that is finding a parking spot, you probably don't.
Those positions aren't likely to budge anytime soon. So the real tiebreaking question, at least in terms of public opinion, is how businesses themselves feel about repurposing their storefront parking spots for pedestrians. If Chicago retailers are any indication, get ready for the parklets.
Chicago started allowing businesses to create parklets called People Spots a few years ago. Nine emerged across the city: two in Andersonville, four in Lake View, one in the downtown Loop, and two in Bronzeville. This past summer, the local Metropolitan Planning Council evaluated the business impact of these spots by recording a full day's activity at each and interviewing parklet users and retailer owners alike.
MPC concluded that People Spots "can be a powerful economic tool for neighborhood businesses." Here are three reasons why.
1. More Foot Traffic. About 80 percent of the businesses near a People Spot experienced more foot traffic, according to the observations and interviews. Overall, a third of the parklet users said they would probably be at home if the spot wasn't there. That suggests the People Spots didn't just displace pedestrian activity from other stores and sidewalks, but rather generated new walking trips. Business owners also said the parklets made the store feel safer, perhaps because they add a buffer between the sidewalk and the street.
2. More Attention. People Spots also generated some unexpected word-of-mouth advertising for retailers. A bike shop owner near one of the parklets said it was "Instagram Heaven," and even motivated him to improve his storefront exterior. In one full day of activity recording at this spot, MPC counted 83 people using the parklet, for an average of 36 minutes each. A clothing store owner at a different spot, who compared the People Spot to a "town square," noted that users sat in the parklet and just stared at the storefronts.
3. More Spending. And then there's the bottom line. About a third of the visitors said they made "unplanned food or beverage purchases," according to MPC. Some of the businesses themselves reported an increase in sales between 10 and 20 percent. The People Spots did require some initial investment by retailers, but at least one owner said the parklet process was much easier than, say, getting permits for a sidewalk café. There were potential long-term benefits, too, as the People Spots helped business associations promote retail corridors and attract special events.
So in some parts of Chicago, at least, pedestrian parklets are good business. The People Spots also serve as a great model for how cities can encourage private investment in public programs. In this case, the businesses themselves paid for the design and maintenance of the parklets, while the city supervised the spots through its "Make Way for People" initiative.
More than that, the MPC findings enhance a broader appreciation some retailers have acquired toward non-driver spending habits. While conventional wisdom holds that businesses need free parking spaces to thrive, recent studies have shown that walkers and cyclists actually outspend drivers on occasion. At the very least, swapping a parking spot for a bike lane or a pedestrian plaza seems to do no harm to business while providing a great deal of balance to urban mobility.