The data proves businesses want people spots not parking spots

The data proves businesses want people spots not parking spots

Sept. 21, 2016

By Chrissy Mancini Nichols

It’s a beautiful summer day.  It’s not humid (in NYC what a treat) but your stuck inside the office.  Then finally, lunch!  You run out to the nearest all local, organic, salad place and while you wait in line, are sad at the thought of eating back in an air conditioned building.  The sun calls to you.  And then you see it, a little park that looks like a cafe—and it’s in the street.

A parklet in front of Essex Street Market in New York City.

A parklet in front of Essex Street Market in New York City.

That’s a “parklet."  Parklets repurpose existing parking spaces into mini parks to park people instead of cars.  So instead of one car parked all day, lots of people have a place to hang out and have fun. 

Every summer lots of cities build these low-cost sunny sanctuaries.   Parklets have seating, planters, sun umbrellas and are wheelchair-accessible. Often local businesses and neighborhood organizations pay for and maintain the spots.

While it’s nice to sit in a parklet and people watch, these mini parks have a big impact, they actually generate community and economic benefits.

In 2014, three years into Chicago’s parklet initiative called People Spots I conducted a study (with my colleague Kara Riggio at the Metropolitan Planning Council and Sam Swartz Engineering) to find out if and how they impacted local business.   We recorded activity at each People Spot on an average weekday, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. interviewing more than 100 people and some 40 local business owners and business associations affiliated with the Spots.

The findings—Once these little “parklets” arrived each summer local businesses near them saw increased foot traffic and sales. 

I’m talking pretty big numbers. 

A Chicago People Spot.    Credit:  Streetsblog

A Chicago People Spot.    Credit: Streetsblog

Business owners overwhelmingly agreed that People Spots promote economic activity. Some 81 percent said the Spots were better for business, and 80 percent agreed that the People Spot brought more foot traffic and customers to the street.

Some businesses found that the People Spot contributed to a 10 to 20 percent increase in sales. Dane Redaway, manager of the Akira clothing store in Andersonville, said the Spot outside his store is “like a town square” that’s better for business because “people sit and stare at the storefront windows.” Even if they do not patronize the business that day, he thinks they may be more likely to return.

At Heritage Bicycles owner Michael Salvatore said the People Spot out front is “absolutely better for business.” He found that customers visit Heritage Bicycles while hanging out in the People Spot, calling it “Instagram Heaven,” which also helps to promote his business on social media. Importantly providing this type of amenity created a once underused street into a bustling place throughout the day and evening.

A whopping 93 percent of people said the vibe of the street was more positive since the People Spot opened.

Becca Girsch, owner of the She One clothing boutique across from a Spot on Southport Ave. said it best, “Build it and they will come. Every time I look at the Spot, people of different ages are enjoying it. It has taken on its own life. The community has made it its own.

And of those who responded to the survey, 73 percent said that if it wasn’t for the little park, they’d be at home and 34 percent said they made unplanned purchases at local business, all things that drive up sales.

A whopping 93 percent said the vibe of the street was more positive since the People Spot opened. They added, “It makes people comfortable,” “gives a better sense of community,” “slowed down traffic,” “gives us a better image,” “makes the street look cleaner“ and that “no question it has enhanced the pedestrian experience.”

Many business associations tied the People Spots into overall marketing campaigns for their retail corridor. For instance, Christyn S. Henson, of Quad Communities Development Corporation, organized a jazz night at the People Spot in Bronzeville in 2012 and “Bronzeville Nights” in 2013, which featured an evening of arts, culture and entertainment, with tap dancers in the People Spots. In West Lakeview, 50 neighbors came together for a potluck dinner and in Andersonville a brass band performed.

The People Spot out front is “absolutely better for business.” — Michael Salvatore, Heritage Bicycles

So Chicago’s People Spots work. People get out of their house or workplace. Neighbors meet each other, children play, dogs nap, local businesses find new customers, people driving by see activity and might stop or come back to check out what’s going on.  Instagram lights up. 

In my study of Chicago’s People Spots I found some common best practices for parklets:  

1.     Location—Parklets are best suited in retail corridors in front of businesses that have customers that would normally linger—coffee shops, cafes, taco stands, pizza joints, juice bars.

2.     Design—People like options so a mix of café chairs with umbrellas for dining and permanent benches for lounging work best.  Don’t forget flowers and greenery. 

3.     Corners don’t work, too much interaction with cars trying to turn.

4.     Wi-Fi—Parklets are more successful with Wi-Fi access.  Often that means granting access to the local business’ Wi-Fi and posting a sign with instructions.  

5.     Tell people to sit!  Post a sign that welcomes people to sit, let them know it’s a public amenity not a private outdoor café.

6.     Evaluation—The beauty of parklets is they are a nimble, flexible investment.  If funded by a city or neighborhood organization, it’s important an evaluation take place.  It doesn’t have to be a big study, a simple observation or even a survey at neighborhood events will tell you if and how people use the space.  When it doesn’t work, try a different location.

7.     Consistency—When a parklet is well used, leave it!  In my Chicago study I found that, especially for popular People Spots in the city, people expected they would be there.  When it works, be consistent, it pays off.

I saw People Spots in many cities I visited this summer—San Francisco leads the way with over 50 parkletsNew York City, Chicago, Portland, Philly, Roanoke, VA, Montreal, SeattleMinneapolis, Washington, D.C., Charlotte ….. the list goes on.  Everyone wants a parklet! 

People Spot outside of Heritage Bicycles in Chicago.

People Spot outside of Heritage Bicycles in Chicago.

In most cases, cities have an eligibility process, such as working with a local community organization or receiving permission from the business in front of the parklet.  The typical cost is about $10,000, which can be paid by the city, business owners or a neighborhood organization.  In New York City, for example, the Dept. of Transportation reimburses up to $12,000 for eligible purchases related to materials, fabrication and installation of their parklets called “Street Seats.”  In Chicago, People Spots are funding by local organizations and businesses.  It's a mini public private partnership.

This is a small investment with a big return.  As the Project for Public Spaces puts it, “The growing success of “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” (LQC) projects all over the world is proof that expensive and labor-intensive initiatives are not the only, or even the most effective, ways to bring energy and life into a community’s public space.”

Cities do give up metered parking revenues, which is an issue in Chicago because of the parking meter privatization—Chicago must relocate the paid metered parking spaces to another spot.

I like parklets because they focus on people.  The most used word in this post—people! Thriving places that people find appealing attract investment and more amenities and those investments all add up to what makes a city a place people want to be. 


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