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Flex Zones Stimulate Local Economies by Reopening Main Street Businesses

Coastal cities in the U.S. are feeling the pressure to open as the warming temperatures and sunny skies have people beginning to venture outdoors. Throngs of people, who’ve been cooped up inside for the last few months, are hoping to get a taste of summer. From funnel cakes on the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore to fish tacos while dining al fresco at a cafe in Long Beach, tourists and locals alike are ready to bask in the ocean breeze and feel the sand between their toes. Even in non-coastal cities, the warm weather is enticing people to take a stroll down Main Street and hit up their favorite spots. 

The problem is Main Street is still closed. And many cities do not have infrastructures in place for businesses to safely reopen. In coastal cities especially, local businesses often rely on tourism from the summer months to financially sustain them year round, but regardless of where a city is located, its economy is sure to be feeling the burn of COVID-related closures. So how can cities quickly and efficiently adapt their infrastructures to support Main Street businesses in safely reopening and benefitting from seasonally increased pedestrian traffic?

Those are tall orders and could appear difficult or expensive to execute. But not for Alan Pullman, of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the founding principal at Studio One Eleven. With over thirty years of experience, Pullman has used his passion for architecture and urban design to help communities like Long Beach, California thrive. Pullman worked with the city to develop Long Beach’s parklet program and flex zones, which repurpose unused spaces to better suit the needs of a community. Parking lots, street-side parking lanes, and sidewalks are all areas that can be repurposed into multi-use space, or flex zones, for things like outdoor seating and curbside pickup. Flex zones are of particular interest right now as cities are looking for innovative ways to stimulate their local economies.

Pullman sits on the board of the Downtown Long Beach Alliance, which piloted a one day demonstration of a flex zone concept just last week. “We used four parking spaces and striped them to indicate they weren’t in use. We added signs for curbside pick-up and used astroturf to extend the curb and designate an outdoor eating area,” Pullman explained. The pilot was successful, and it generated a good deal of interest from other cities who also want to get back up and running safely. “These cities want to support their local businesses on main street, and flex zones do that by helping customers feel comfortable to sit down and enjoy a meal while still maintaining a safe distance from others,” said Pullman. 

These cities want to support their local businesses on main street, and flex zones do that by helping customers feel comfortable to sit down and enjoy a meal while still maintaining a safe distance from others.

Alan Pullman, Senior Principal at studio one eleven

For seasonal summer traffic that brings an influx of cars as well as foot traffic, Pullman recommends cities experiment to see what set up works best for their particular needs. 

“Right now, Long Beach has a lot of unused space in terms of parking lots and street-side lanes. We are simply testing ways to use this space in a way that benefits everyone—customers, local businesses, out-of-work employees, and the local economy,” he said. Cities that rely on seasonal tourism may want to experiment with using parking spaces or lanes as a flex zone during the week when traffic is slower and changing it back to parking on the weekend when traffic surges from day-trippers. Cities can also use flex zones to encourage walkability and biking as opposed to driving. After months of being cooped up inside, there’s a good chance people may not mind walking, even if it takes a little longer. The benefit of flex zones is that they allow for plenty of trial and error while cities figure out the logistics. 

Because flex zones are typically built upon a low-cost infrastructure, they can be easily set up, taken down, or moved, allowing cities to adapt quickly once they have sufficient feedback from customers and business owners using the space. Flex zones are created with physical barriers like potted plants, free standing fences and partitions, signage, astroturf, street decals, and sidewalk tape. Almost all of the materials can be reused, repositioned, and repurposed, making it easy for cities to experiment. Seasonal tourist destinations should consider testing different flex zone configurations based on modest estimates according to historical data, keeping in mind possible COVID-induced travel limitations. Cities can also review traffic data and ask participating businesses to maintain transaction records during testing, so that they have objective data as well.

Up until now, most restaurants have only been offering take-out or delivery in order to comply with COVID-related guidelines. While scientists and health experts remain unsure exactly how COVID-19 is transmitted, basic probability laws indicate that transmission rates are most likely higher in confined spaces with no access to fresh air, as opposed to outdoors, simply because the concentration of COVID-19 droplets increases as surrounding space decreases. Therefore, outdoor seating at restaurants can be a safe alternative to take-out, as long as distancing guidelines are still followed. Outdoor dining could be a solution for restaurants who are hoping to do more business and get more of their employees back to work. “The restaurant industry has lost more jobs than any other sector during this pandemic. We are hoping flex zones could be one way to get people back to work,” said Pullman.

The restaurant industry has lost more jobs than any other sector during this pandemic. We are hoping flex zones could be one way to get people back to work.

Alan Pullman, Senior Principal at studio one eleven

Even outside, however, people should still practice recommended guidelines for maintaining a safe distance apart. To maintain that distance while still allowing businesses to operate, flex zones can use decals on the sidewalks to indicate where people should stand for curbside pickup and where remaining pedestrian traffic can safely pass. Restaurants can also use sidewalk tape to indicate which dining seats should remain empty, and they will need to create new seating charts to ensure all parties remain at a safe distance from one another. In order to make customers feel safe, businesses operating in flex zones should also adhere to all other safety guidelines, like requiring staff to wear masks at all times and frequent hand-washing. Cities may also want to include hand sanitizer dispensers in flex zones, which Studio One Eleven’s design recommends. 

Because of how easily flex zones can be implemented, cities around the world are hoping to capitalize on unused, outdoor space. Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is just one of the cities trying to use outdoor space to bolster its local bars and restaurants that have been suffering from lack of patrons. Israel’s Tel Aviv is another city planning to convert eleven of its streets to flex zones for pedestrian only use by blocking off streets and bringing in outdoor furniture to expand establishments into the street. In New York City, council members are asking the mayor to implement an outdoor eating plan on the Upper East Side, where residents are growing impatient with social distancing rules and beginning to congregate outside of local establishments. The plan will incorporate parking spaces, sidewalks, and streets as dining space in designated blocks on Second, First, and York Avenues. If successful, the plan could be used as a model for other areas of the city.

Flex zones have potential for use cases outside of restaurants, too. “The lessons we’re learning here are applicable in a lot of different areas. Flex zones could also be applied to shopping centers or even office parks with outdoor cafeterias,” said Pullman. Retail spaces could expand store frontage outdoors to include pop-up shops or sidewalk displays. Drive-in movie theaters are another option that could turn empty parking lots into a revenue-generating business. With the weather warming up, cities have an opportunity to begin testing flex zones, a much needed reprieve for laid-off workers, shuttered businesses, and local economies.

Smart urban planning requires flexibility. Regardless of location, weather, and tourism, cities need infrastructures that can support adaptation. Despite the dire effects of COVID-19 on people, businesses, industries, and economies, it has done some good. Just look at the clear skies in place of smog above some of the world’s cities. In this case, Pullman believes COVID has provided “a free pass of sorts. It gives us the opportunity to experiment with urban planning in ways that we might not have otherwise been as eager to try.” COVID-19 has caused people all over the world to reconsider the spaces we inhabit. Cities and business owners now have the chance to develop new revenue streams and expand existing ones. Innovative urban planning, like repurposing infrastructures to extend the built world outdoors, has the potential to create cities that are more intuitive to human needs but also environmentally sustainable.

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