URGENT: New York's sidewalk "dining sheds" that have revitalized public life may be forced to get taken down as soon as August – this is a tragedy that we cannot let happen.

Editor's note: This is a dynamic post that we will be updating over the next few weeks and months as the situation with the NYC dining sheds develops. If you have thoughts or feedback you'd like to share with us on this topic, you can email us at: hello@placemakingfund.org

All around New York, amazing social hubs have sprouted up in the last few years. They are officially known as "dining sheds" or "streeteries." However, neither of those terms is fitting, because these places are more than a mere spot in which to eat – they have transformed our sidewalks and streets into vibrant places that people want to be, places where friends and neighbors gather to laugh, talk, and enjoy life. They have become magnetic destinations because of how valued they are and how they bring us together. Each one has a unique story and together they have shown how Placemaking can create a vibrant future. We call them social hubs.

Outdoor dining areas emerged around the time of the pandemic, as a response to the concerns that indoor dining was unsafe and therefore not allowed, which gravely impacted businesses across the city. What's more, the pandemic was taking a great toll on people's mental health because of how they were forced to isolate and be apart from each other. This separation was terrible for social connection, which elevated an already prevalent problem of loneliness into a full blown epidemic.

The outdoor dining sheds were a brilliant solution

Restaurants were allowed to pull their offerings outside in the fresh air where it was much safer to be, thus staying in business, and people were able to gather and connect once again. It turned the dining sheds into a savior of both commercial and social life in New York. This created a powerful moment of realization about how the shape of our cities – especially what happens in public spaces like our sidewalks – impacts health and wellbeing. This transformation has given us a new idea about how outdoor dining and social hubs in neighborhoods can offer a new vision for the creation of the new "Main Street."

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Main Takeaways

Many of these social hubs have been fully integrated into their neighborhoods, becoming anchors and institutions of community life. Because the pandemic required that indoor activities be moved outdoors, sidewalks and intersections became essential platforms for social connections and commercial activity. In that period, they suddenly became the main venues where our lives played out and the most important public places for maintaining health, vibrancy, and happiness in each community. The activation of these public places quickly became a solution to the major public health issue posed by the pandemic and communities began to revive, creating unique destinations throughout neighborhoods.

The process of creating these dining sheds and social hubs also showed us how each place had to be integrated differently into its setting, becoming unique to each site. Thus, improvisation and reciprocal gestures became essential. It was Placemaking at its best.

Sidewalk life is unique to each community and sidewalks are essential public spaces. They should be set up in such a way so as to offer a multitude of places where economic and social activity can thrive. However, there is currently no agency with the responsibility of managing and supporting sidewalk activity and social life.

The NYC Department of Transportation was the organization that made the dining sheds possible, and therefore the social activity they fostered. But government alone is not going to deliver — this is something that we have to continue to enable from the ground up. These sheds created community-owned hubs that are foundational to local social and economic life. They show us a whole new way of supporting our neighborhoods, and they need to be made possible year-round.

Local economies and community members alike have thrived in this dynamic new environment born during the pandemic, and therefore efforts need to be taken to preserve it and build off of what we have learned.

The Future of Dining Sheds in NYC

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When the dining sheds were still in their early stages, we wrote a post on them titled "Emerging Social Hubs in Brooklyn." Now, it's a few years after they emerged and these places have evolved into an integral and beloved part of our communities. However, in a turn of sad irony, they are now at risk of being taken down. New regulations by the City government are threatening to get rid of dining sheds for nearly half the year and to limit their creativity and uniqueness with a long list of rules for when they are allowed to stay up. What's worse, this program is scheduled to start in only a couple of weeks, and the dining sheds that don't comply with the new rules will be forced to be taken down.

We cannot let this happen. These places have become institutions in our communities that have fundamentally shaped our neighborhoods. They have made them better, more interesting, more economically resilient and more enjoyable. They have become woven into the fabric of our communities and have given new life to our streets. They are the building blocks of the "Main Streets" of the future, where people and social life take center stage instead of cars and traffic. Because of this, we need to fight to protect their right to exist before they are lost and all the wonderful benefits they have brought to us are lost with them.

Dining sheds have brought an energy back to New York's streets like nothing else has done in the last few decades which have been defined by cars and traffic. The plan to make them seasonal, getting rid of them in November only to bring them back in April, will deprive our streets and sidewalks of their vibrant activity for a significant portion of the year. During that period, communities will be denied the wonderful atmosphere and sense of place that each hub has created – the magical spots that community members have learned to love. A drop in temperatures doesn't change our need to connect with each other or enjoy our lives... why then should our cities become less enjoyable, by design, for nearly half the year?

When the dining sheds were quickly erected during the pandemic, benefiting from a time of minimal bureaucracy in 2020, they were an economic lifeline to restaurants. In fact, they have saved an estimated 100,000 jobs. Since then, most restaurants that have fully embraced their sheds as social gathering places have continued to thrive economically — especially businesses that operate from tiny spaces and have limited inside seating. This new ill-advised City plan to limit dining sheds puts all these businesses at risk.

What's more, the rules of design and set up that the City plans to impose will limit their creativity, uniqueness, and ability to adapt to the feedback, needs, and specifications of their businesses and the patrons they serve. This will end up draining the soul of the neighborhoods where they make their home.

And even if businesses choose to abide by all the rules and retrofit or rebuild their sheds to be compliant, they will still need to take them down for half the year. Where will the average business be able to store something so large? The lack of storage space alone will force many businesses to opt out of having these sheds, stripping our streets of the best thing to happen to them in the last few decades. Why are we doing this?

What It Was Like Before the Pandemic

Most people probably don't remember what our streets were like before Covid allowed us to pull restaurant activities outdoors. Pre-Covid, the government-led DOT and planning department made it very difficult to get any kind of café or extension of uses onto the sidewalks in front of businesses. This led to our sidewalks and streets feeling bare, unattractive, boring, and often hostile because cars dominated these spaces rather than people. Even the rare seating along the street was not a pleasant place to gather because of the fumes and noise from the adjacent traffic.

The Pandemic Opened Up New Possibilities

A silver lining to the pandemic was the opportunity for massive street-level change that we thought could never happen. All of a sudden, because it was unsafe to eat inside and countless businesses were in danger of closing, cafés and restaurants were allowed to use their sidewalks and the street along them to create structures where their patrons could gather. It felt like breaking free from restrictive rules and regulations. A sense of fun, vibrancy and creativity filled our streets.

These changes, as well as additions of amenities like benches, have shown us the value of a process we call "reciprocal gestures," where adjacent businesses see the powerful impact that an intervention has on foot traffic and business visitation, so they feel inspired to add something similar to the outdoor presence of their own business.

As part of the resurgence of sidewalk activity brought to us by Covid, dining sheds were allowed to be set up. These structures created charming eating areas protected from traffic while still benefitting from being in the open air. They had the effect of making the sidewalk feel wider and safer because they created a barrier between pedestrians and cars. Thus, the sidewalk experience improved immeasurably, becoming much more vibrant, comfortable, and interesting.

Heavy and onerous regulation and stiff design requirements had previously posed a major impediment to improving the sidewalks and streets in NYC. The era of improvisation and creativity around the dining sheds showed us how the future of the public realm can be different, better, and we are now at the cusp of finding out if those improvements will persist or be torn down for no good reason.

What We Have Gained and What We Stand to Lose

The freedom to improvise and revitalize the sidewalks during and after Covid improved our public spaces and gave us numerous benefits. All of them are now at risk of being taken away with the new regulations. They include:

  • A relaxed, safe urban environment where kids can explore and roam free and where baby carriages are ubiquitous because parents seek out such places where they feel comfortable strolling and stopping
  • Year-round community hubs offering places for people to connect and gather
  • A pattern of reciprocal gestures that empower and embolden local business owners by giving them the freedom to improvise
  • Open windows for food offerings which create opportunities for families who don't want to or can't do a sit-down meal
  • More opportunities for connection because people like to gather with friends on the street, not inside a restaurant in a more formal way
  • Calmer traffic and safer streets because dining sheds creates visual friction and pedestrian activity, slowing down drivers who intuitively feel they must drive more carefully
  • Much more engaging and interesting sidewalks since double loading creates a "pedestrian aisle" down the middle of the sidewalk where there are things to see and do on both sides
  • More contact with the proprietor who is often out on the street with patrons, creating a relationship between community members and local business owners
  • A feeling of community ownership and investment in local business activity because it takes place on the shared territory of the sidewalk, not inside of a private building
  • People behaving in a more natural, comfortable, and relaxed way and being more open to connection. The sidewalk becomes shared space that welcomes everyone of all ages and types
  • Neighborhoods that have transformed from "bedroom communities" into 24/7 destinations where people enjoy spending their time because there is a greater variety of things to do at all hours and all seasons

Dramatic Change to Community Life - Court and Henry Streets

In our neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, we had an explosion of outdoor cafés/eateries and something amazing happened – many of them became much more than just a place to dine. They became hubs of community life, and beloved destinations that are frequented by all.

There are many exceptional dining shed examples that stand out in our neighborhood, as well as a series of other sheds throughout the area that have spectacular design. These places are still changing and improving as their initial round of changes showed a great positive impact and they are now evolving to be better and better.

Businesses are expanding this street revitalization with new seating options, turning the inside out by opening up their buildings and creating beloved destinations on sidewalks throughout neighborhoods. The entire community is now an exciting work in progress. But with new DOT rules, we could be near the end of this golden age. If the new rules take effect as they are planned to in just a few weeks, we will see businesses lose their right to improvise, be creative and the entire community will suffer for it.

Brooklyn is a very different, much more vibrant, place now than it was before Covid and it is one of many models throughout the city that is worth exploring. It has helped us understand the implications of a new street paradigm in which sidewalks can act as destinations via their social hubs (such as dining sheds). Using this strategy intentionally can help us expand on the connections that people are able to make like never before.

It All Started with a Bench - The Power of the Domino Effect

Darna, a small Yemeni restaurant run by a local family, led the way to this block's transformation by putting out benches to protect the trees along the block. The first bench was in front of their restaurant, a popular, mostly take out, falafel food place.

One bench became two, then two benches became a series of benches spreading up and down that block on Court Street and even over to Henry Street. This kicked off a trend in the neighborhood of creating places to linger. As additional benches were added, they became extensions of dining sheds, creating an entire block full of activities or what could be called a "super hub."

Darna's bench idea spread like wildfire down the block, creating a chain reaction of reciprocal gestures. Together, these places played off of one another, amplifying the social and commercial effects in an exciting way.

Reciprocal Gestures

Once a catalytic intervention is set up, like Darna's bench in this case, it attracts activity. People start interacting around it, gathering there, etc. Neighboring businesses notice and react by setting up something similar but unique to their own brand and offerings. This is a great example of the “reciprocal gestures” we mentioned above. It creates a chain reaction that starts spreading down the street and can lead to the revitalization of a whole area.

This process can be further enhanced by activating what Placemaker David Engwicht calls "eddy spaces" – those underutilized spaces on sidewalks between cafes and other elements on the curb side of the sidewalk. Eddy spaces can often be found between sheds, benches, and street trees. These little spots are often overlooked but hold great potential. They can be turned into play areas, small sculptures for kids, drinking fountains, game tables, a small kiosk for a start up businesses, etc. The combination of reciprocal gestures, "inside out" design, and activating eddy spaces leads to the further development of a "hub."

In the process of reciprocal gestures, gradually other features start being added – string lights, murals, umbrellas, etc. – extending the vibrancy and transforming the full extent of the sidewalk. Compare the "Darna block" before to after Darna added the benches and the dining sheds were erected. This block quickly became the center of social life on Court Street in Cobble Hill.

Before the dining sheds

After, with the new sheds and activations

As it gained momentum, the cumulative impact of added amenities and assets can even grow to extend across the street or to another corner and down another block in a kind of domino effect. Through this process, something as simple and straightforward as a great bench or a dining shed can turn into the catalyst for a vibrant neighborhood.

We also see this kind of impact in a nearby hub on Henry street where the main social anchors are across the street from each other, playing off of each one's improvements via reciprocal gestures.

The Farmacy and MozzLab – Two hubs on Henry Street anchor this historic neighborhood

Certainly one of the best social hubs in Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens is the Farmacy – a true heart of community life. Everyone can enjoy their lovely outside seating area without being required to make a purchase. Most of the people in the images below are community members just gathering with their neighbors to chat and connect.

The young and old and everyone in between enjoy the atmosphere here. The Farmacy is open from 2 in the afternoon until 10 in evening. The afternoon is when the families with kids come. It is a major community asset with all kinds of people hanging out here at all times.

Gia (below) and her family are the creators and owners of the Farmacy and true leaders in the community. They are an inspiration to others in our neighborhood.

This wonderful community hub will also have to be removed by NYCDOT according to the new rules about dining sheds. Removing this community institution anchored by the dining shed will be a great loss, especially to the 30+ older women who love this place dearly and make it lively year round.

The Farmacy is an iconic soda fountain and community institution.

MozzLab

Across the street, a relative newcomer, MozzLab, has created another public gathering place, competing to make this one of the most social intersections around. Both corners provide seating that is available for anyone, day and night, open or not. Both provide food, but are not cafés and have no table service. They are places where people from the neighborhood love to gather and connect in a peaceful environment.

The third corner of this intersection and local "security"

More Examples of Thriving Hubs

"Poppy's" on a crosstown street

A very popular takeout restaurant nearby is another important gathering place for the more trendy crowd that often come round with children and pets. The best aspect of this area is that kids can roam free because the dining sheds create a barrier between them and the cars, turning the sidewalk into a safe corridor.

With the new regulations, they will be forced to take down this dining shed and are reluctantly soon going to remove it. This will be a disaster for the community.

Court Street - full block activation

Back on Court Street, an entire block became a major destination with multiple businesses, four food offerings/restaurants including the popular Sociale, a karate studio, a bodega, and a bus stop. This is the place to be, but it might soon be gone.

This mural is a recent addition, making this intersection one of the best in the neighborhood.

These photos speak for themselves. This corner instantly transformed from a quiet intersection of pedestrians crossing to a magnetic meeting point.

Mid-Block

Gradually, a variety of neighboring cafés pulled their offerings outside, creating a unified outdoor experience for the entire block, including children's classes that spilled onto the sidewalks with outdoor waiting spaces for parents. It was community building at its best.

Unfortunately, without the dining shed, we lost the vibrancy of this great block

Because of the impending rules and changes, the dining sheds were removed from this block. Now, without the sheds which allowed restaurants to stretch their reach on the street, most of the activity has gone from this once magical area and it is back to what it was before Covid... a dull strip of sidewalk and a significant loss to the neighborhood. This is what is about to happen to all the currently vibrant sidewalks where the dining sheds are to be taken out.

Le Petit Cafe in Carroll Gardens

This iconic streetery was designed with great attention to detail and beauty, and fills almost an entire block in Carroll Gardens with a sense of elegance and excitement that was missing before. The inside and outside are woven together to create one of the best-designed hubs in the city. It would be a tragedy for the neighborhood to lose this treasure.

Frankie's

The buildings here weave together in a wonderful way to create a thriving hub. The Frankie's 457 block is a group of open air "rooms" perfect for community events. On the corner you have a great area with a row of tables and chairs with table service. Inside of Black Gold Records there is a combination café, antique and record store.

The double-loaded sidewalk, seating, open window for ordering, and the record store café create a unique and interesting multi-layered setting to the benefit of all.

Inside the buildings on this section of the street is a network of courtyard spaces for sit-down dining and events, in this case a wedding.

Baby Luc's Pizza

This very popular pizza parlor has an extensive outdoor seating area that is open to everyone. Families and groups meet here, socialize, and have extended meals and meetups. The outside-the-fence seating makes the sidewalks come alive with small groups that add energy and activity to the sidewalk. The area behind the fence has large groups gathering and hosting parties.

Along the sidewalk, smaller groups of seating add a lot of activity, making it a lively shared space. Collections of baby carriages line the sidewalk.

Boran Restaurant

The beautiful, somewhat enclosed shed adds a special atmosphere to the sidewalk of this Thai restaurant in Carroll Gardens. It turns the sidewalk into a safe corridor for pedestrians, children especially, because of how it creates a barrier between them and traffic.

What We Have Lost

This intersection of Warren and Court used to have a bench on the corner. It was a major meeting place because this type of seating is a place to hang out, not just a place to sit and people watch. Being at the corner naturally became a place to spend time with friends, neighbors, and even dogs.

However, this beloved corner bench was taken out and the loss is still felt every time we go by the corner which is now much less lively. The good news is that this bench was so popular it has been replicated in other places throughout the neighborhood.

Book Court - Everyone's Favorite Book Store

The Book Court was an amazing community hub centered around a book store where people loved to spend time on the plentiful benches. However, we lost this great place, and you can see on the lower right hand corner what became of it. The chain stores that have occupied the Atlantic Avenue end of Court Street do not understand the dynamics of the street life that older, more established businesses do.

What we are getting instead - places where improvisation doesn't or can't work

When the organic process of a community shaping itself is stifled, the blocks or sections of blocks that are defined by modern buildings or contemporary storefronts of chain stores dominate the urban landscape. They are defined by design that feels generic, out-of-place, and doesn't fit with the community, and they don't integrate with neighboring establishments or sidewalk life. They replace traditional anchors like small local businesses, which are what give communities their unique character, vibrancy, and lovability.

There are also various examples of new developments, like the residential tower below, that feel so out of place that they become rejected by the community, true "eyesores" that people avoid and that destroy the lively energy of a once vibrant block.

Summary

The Need for Improvisation and Reciprocal Gestures

An "emerging social hub" is by nature community led. It is local, even hyper local. It happens when changes to the sidewalk are chosen and implemented by shop or restaurant owners themselves because they resonate with the business' offerings and goals and reflect the patrons and the community. This leads to a sense of ownership and pride in the vibrant hubs that end up being created.

Improvisation is the driving force behind this process. It happens when the business owners and community members develop a unique look and feel for each place that reflects the neighborhood. Improvisation and creativity flourish when there are no mandated rules, but rather each individual store, restaurant, or other kind of establishment is empowered to create their own space using the "laws of attraction" that work best for their business. Local business owners are sensitive to their neighbors' wants and needs and adapt their offerings to them in ways that benefit both.

Social hubs have become the lifeblood of so many communities. The best ones are developed and managed by community members, often business owners who have an idea of what will make their place great based on an understanding of their offerings, customers, and neighborhood. They start experimenting, trying different ways of attracting attention, adapting to feedback, changing from day to day or week to week. This is improvisation at its best.

Reciprocal gestures naturally happen as neighboring business get inspired to make changes too. People get creative, seeing what works and improvising. With the freedom to test and grow this creativity, these great spots are able to evolve and sustain themselves organically. There is almost a kind of local self-governance at the level that matters most to community members.

Despite the fact that New York's dining sheds have become a powerful catalyst for sacred social hubs and a resurgence of community life, they are now at risk of being destroyed. Why? It comes down to pushback from a vocal minority that is stuck on how things used to be, failing to realize they haven't been very good for quite some time. People say dining sheds take up parking spots, attract rats (we'd argue that the bags of trash on the street do that) and anything else to get rid of them despite how popular they are and how much they've improved our previously car-dominated streets.

To pull the dining sheds back under government control, an extensive set of new rules has been passed that would strip them of their uniqueness and allow them to be open for only part of the year. These restrictive rules will likely put a stop to the recent progress we have made in revitalizing our streets. This new and exciting practice of long time owners making their businesses better through improvisation, initiative, and creativity will have to end.

COVID gave us a sense of what it would be like if NYC was a place for people and active social life instead of for cars and traffic. Considering the fact that the vast majority of New Yorkers don't drive, as well as the fact that the city is actively taking measures to decrease the presence of cars in the city via (hopefully) a congestion tax implemented soon, doesn't it make sense to pursue and support this less car-focused way of living?

What's more, it make sense to empower communities and local businesses to shape their environments into unique and interesting destinations that they take care of and take pride in. This is a practical, hands-on approach to revitalization of both businesses and public spaces. As such, it should be encouraged, not stifled by limiting the freedom of those who want to be involved. This is an iterative approach which can draw people in on multiple levels, from community members to business owners to local leaders, creating a powerful collaborative effort towards city betterment. It is a great way to get people engaged and invested, improving and maintaining their communities.

To keep this great initiative alive, there could and should be an agency or a public/private entity developed to help guide and support these community-led efforts, through a set of flexible guidelines, a kind of "Pattern Language." Helping businesses attract foot traffic and customers by letting them expand into vibrant social gathering spaces that people flock to is just plain good business. This should be supported, not stifled. It is true Placemaking in action and we should fight for it.

To Save the Planet, Start With the Social Life of Sidewalks
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

“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” - Jane Jacobs

Further Reading

The following posts are drafts of follow-up articles on this topic that we will be posting soon.

*POST 1 - What We Learned From COVID Has Given Us a Vision for Creating Main Streets
How creating sidewalk social hubs and inside out design can be the foundation for a “New Main Street” The backbone of towns and city neighborhoods has historically been the main street. On these special streets, commercial and social life flourish. Businesses spill out onto the street through their outdoor displays
*POST 4 - Start with the Social Life of Sidewalks: A Sidewalks Resource Guide
A guide to our best articles on sidewalks The most overlooked and simultaneously most important public spaces are the sidewalks. When people wonder why public life is suffering and why community is in crisis, we’ve been known to respond with “it’s the sidewalks, stupid!” because the answer feels so obvious.

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Creating a New Heart and Soul for Midtown, NYC
A vision for a dynamic “Green Zone” connecting Central Park, Bryant Park, Times Square, Rockefeller Center and two clusters of performing arts institutions, Lincoln Center and Broadway, along with Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art.
Creating the Heart of Brooklyn — Brooklyn Borough Hall, Court House, Cadman Plaza down to Fulton Landing
Many people think that Brooklyn Borough Hall, Court House, and Cadman Plaza may be the most underperforming public spaces in New York City. They just took a step forward. The potential is enormous.

Who We Are

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.If you are interested in collaborating (articles, presentations, exhibits, projects, and more) or supporting the cause contact us.
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