After years of passing laws against loitering, cities from New York to Atlanta to San Francisco are creating new mini-parks and plazas where passersby are encouraged to sit and stay awhile.
According to data from the New York nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, outdoor seating areas boost foot traffic by 20%, leading to 10% more retail sales. Local property values also increase by 7%. In San Francisco, four new pedestrian plazas and five “parklets”—tiny parks made of two or three consecutive parking spaces—will be open this summer, with more to come. Neighborhood businesses and corporate donors are funding the projects; the city will pay for maintenance. The trend is spreading to smaller cities and towns, too. Morristown, N.J., is considering turning a parking lot behind a municipal building into a park, and Tigard, Ore., is adding sidewalks with benches to downtown streets.
Experts warn that the plazas must carefully balance the needs of pedestrians, drivers, and merchants. “They make cities friendlier, but they can choke traffic,” notes Ann Forsyth, a professor at Cornell University. “In most cities, businesses still need parking and visibility to drivers,” says Patrick Phillips of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute. “If you overreact against the car, you can cause problems for retailers.”