Two Buildings that Build Life: Fostering Sidewalk Social Life in Brooklyn and Paris

A building needs a base, At the street level, buildings with small shops that spill into the public space that has a plaza with a market or double-loaded sidewalk, buildings can come alive. What is outside becomes inside, and what is inside becomes outside.

Two Buildings that Build Life:  Fostering Sidewalk Social Life in Brooklyn and Paris

Two historic buildings, one in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and the other on Place Maubert in Paris, each create a multi-layered destination on "double-loaded sidewalks." Here's what we can learn from them.

Court Street, Brooklyn

Court Street is the Main Street in two neighborhoods in Brooklyn: Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. To start, we are excited to have seen some wonderful changes to street life all along Court Street, as new hubs of activity have emerged in recent months. What has been happening because of Covid-19, and the resulting pattern of public space-based improvisation is both remarkable and prophetic. It is a great example of how streets can change to become more local and communities can achieve their full potential. This trajectory could fundamentally remake the corridor.

View of Court Street, main street for Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens

Soon, we will have a larger discussion about Court Street, its cross streets, and two parallel streets in a future post, but here we focus on the Foster Building, now a centerpiece in the Cobble Hill section of Court Street. The Foster Building has been an epicenter of the transformations mentioned above: An example of adapting our spaces to fit our needs, especially in times of great change.

Inside out and Double Loaded Sidewalks.

As we've written before, turning storefronts "inside-out" revives local economies and social life. Storefronts that spill onto sidewalks and restaurants that have outdoor cafés have long been fixtures on great sidewalks. Add to that, we have seen an explosion of  "double-loaded sidewalk," something new as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic

Double-loaded sidewalks not only accommodate the spillover benefits from storefronts and restaurants but also have space for gathering--with a walking path in between. Carrying these two streams of activity means more opportunities to spark social interactions. Walking between vibrant storefronts and cafes and seating, often occupying former parking spaces, makes a lively place to walk as well as sit down and stay awhile. We also see small children roaming freely near their parents and caregivers in these situations.

The two historic buildings in Brooklyn and Paris

The Two buildings we would like to highlight here have their differences to be sure, but what they have in common is a building base that is open and engaging, with retail storefronts that are small and market-like in scale. Businesses animate the public spaces where they are located — and are successful as a result.

Both buildings have evolved over time. In Brooklyn, during the pandemic, small businesses that have only space for a few tables and chairs were allowed to take over parking spaces where they now have extensive seating and cafes.  In Paris, an adjacent street was closed, creating a space for a now-popular marketplace that operates a few days a week. These changes to public spaces made a difference, but it was the design of each building that really set the stage for success.

The Foster Building in Brooklyn

The historic Foster Building along Court Street between Warren and Congress Streets enlivens the area. It creates a hub where folks gather to eat, get a haircut, and shop while providing a place to meet or just people-watch. It has evolved over the past decade, and now is a shining example of what's possible with changes in sidewalk policy and some creative investments in place.

But first, let's look back in time: The image below is the Foster Building in pre-pandemic times. There was limited activity on this block and the small stores in the building had a lot of turnover.

The ground floor of the Foster Building as it stood for many years with space for small businesses.

Just prior to the pandemic, signs of new life began to appear along the sides of the building: Activity began to come outside in front of some of the small stores, and a few benches were added. But what really broke the ice was Darna, a small, mostly takeout Middle Eastern food purveyor. After their arrival, the sidewalk started to come alive.

The transformation begins with "illegal" seating

These benches, located at the curb, are technically illegal but when called "tree guards," the seating is generally not questioned. The "tree guards" quickly became a fixture in the community and other similar "benches" began emerging around the neighborhood. This simple bench became transformative and spurred other businesses on Court Street to add seating in front of their stores or restaurants.

Prior to the pandemic, there were very few outdoor cafés, mostly because of oppressive regulations and difficulty in getting approvals. During COVID-19, regulations were relaxed in order to save New York City's restaurants. Because people were not able to eat indoors, cafés blossomed in front of restaurants which – to get adequate serving space — used sidewalks and extensions into the street.  Darna led the way and added cafe tables and chairs to its "tree guard" and bench seating in front of the restaurant (which had been permitted before).

Other businesses followed

Other food and beverage businesses in the building and next door added their own cafés during the pandemic. Taking things one step further, they took over parking spaces to locate seating, thereby widening the functional area of the sidewalk significantly. Now double-loaded, it's a wonderful place to stroll and hang out day or evening.

Additional small cafés, delicatessens, and a local bar flanked by local small salons continue to pave the way in "bringing the inside out." This spirit of welcoming and new energy can be observed in the diversity of seating options, planters, and floral arrangements framing doorways.

If we continue to embrace the ideas that communities are made by focusing on social life and local improvisation/placemaking, the future can be quite exciting —supporting a long-sought goal of a city that is made up of many villages. Every village main street is made up of a series of "hubs" that apply the principles we can learn from this example in Brooklyn: a place that has benefitted deeply from the spilling-out and widening of the social spaces around buildings.

47 Boulevard St. Germain, Place Maubert, Paris

When we first began our frequent visits to Paris more than 30 years ago, the area in front of the Georgian-style 47 Boulevard St. Germain was a street. Then, weekly markets were started, and later the street was removed. From there, the area in front of the building became a large plaza and marketplace. As a result of this string of transformations, the plaza, along with its popular markets, form a major draw to this day.

Twenty-five years ago Place Maubert was overrun by parked cars (left). Since then, a street, including its parking lanes, has been removed from the plaza and some of the surrounding streets have been narrowed, making more room for a market and pedestrian activity. In addition to the 11 stores at the base of the building, there are many other cafés, restaurants, shops, news kiosks, and a metro station.

The building at eye level

From a distance, the Georgian Building on Place Maubert commands a strong presence. But its qualities really shine at the “eye level” — where shops extend out onto the former street space and local businesses encourage interactions between merchants and customers.

Market days in the Plaza

Three days a week, the Marché Maubert fills the plaza with some 45 food vendors. During the market, the sidewalk becomes double-loaded, and as a result, transforms into an especially wonderful place to browse storefronts and markets stalls. There is even a seamless transition between surrounding food stores and the marketplace: It all becomes one big dynamic destination.

On market days the plaza is full of activity and the entire square becomes a major destination with many vendors and merchants.

Sunday Antique Market

On Sundays, an antique market is held. It's a regional attraction, where one can unearth marvelous treasures. Vendors are knowledgeable about their products and enjoy talking about the origins of each item for sale.


Takeaways

Evidence that double-loaded sidewalks are safe and comfortable for everyone is that small children can roam freely--while still being supervised by an adult enjoying a nearby bench or café. These "front porches" for small businesses create mini-plazas that can be game-changers when applied along entire blocks.

Architecture can play a much bigger role in contributing to social life in our communities. Attention to fine-tuned design details, and having the right uses and activities, makes all the difference.

We have a favorite quote from Holly Whyte, who wrote that "benches are artifacts, the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. They are not so good for sitting." When buildings are just designed as objects, little attention is often paid to how the building hits the ground or what purpose adjacent spaces and amenities serve. The character of a building, and the dynamic underlying how it interacts with its surroundings, radiates outward. In short, a dull building creates a dull public space.

The base of the building is a different design challenge than what's upstairs. At the street level, a building with small shops that spill into the public space, is a start. Add to that a plaza with a market or double-loaded sidewalk, buildings can come alive. What is outside becomes inside, and what is inside becomes outside.  The sidewalk and building are integrated into one. It is the true meaning of the phrase, "Architecture of Place."

To read more about similar topics:  

The Best Sidewalk in North America
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To Save the Planet, Start With the Social Life of Sidewalks
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Its the Sidewalks, Stupid
Paradigm-shattering change will happen when streets, sidewalks and intersections are transformed into community gathering spots through the simple act of giving human beings priority over motor vehicles.
Building Back Better, Together: 10 Ways to Restoring Social Connections and Local Economies
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Creating the Streets We Want
Rich street life is no frill. It is an expression of the most ancient function of a city—a place for people to come together, all kinds of people, face-to-face. — William “Holly” Whyte
The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection in public spaces around the globe. Through our online publication, presentations, campaigns, and catalytic projects, we can create transformative impact on communities everywhere. Our work grows out of more than 50 years devoted to building the global placemaking movement. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of leaders who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities. We gladly accept donations to advance our work.