Reflections on Civic Life and the Pandemic: Joe Lule on the Benefits of Parklets

When the sun finally sets behind C-Town in South Bethlehem and when the days’ work is done, where might someone go – during a pandemic – to grab a beer with a book or a friend, and watch families ride bikes on the greenway while surrounded by plants in an urban garden? The parklet at Bonn’s is the perfect place.

This oasis on the South Side may not have existed if it were not for the pandemic and the quick acting by the city and businesses. Less than a year ago, Bonn was ineligible for a parklet and outdoor seating. City regulations have strict requirements for parklets. Bonn was too close to a stop sign, an electric pole, an intersection, and a driveway. But the pandemic has now forced cities to rethink which restrictions are necessary and which are not. Bethlehem has made necessary changes, which paved the way for Bonn to have a parklet.

The parklet at Bonn.

This process of reevaluating city restrictions in order to mitigate the societal effects of the virus is taking place around the world as the global pandemic has changed everyday life. Cities, the epicenter of the virus for all countries, are already very different and will definitely continue to change. Some of the change can have positive effects. Parklets are a good example.

During the pandemic, restaurants were forced to move their operations outside because the virus spreads easier in confined spaces. Many restaurants did not have much room on their sidewalks and were given parklets – a simple solution of blocking off parking spaces in front of a site so that the sidewalk is extended and tables can be put on the street for additional seating.

In North and South Bethlehem, with the help of restaurants and the city, parklets were constructed during the spring in a matter of days. Before Covid, the process of getting the permits and paperwork for a parklet and building a structure could take over six months and cost the business more than a thousand dollars. Many businesses, like Bonn, found they were ineligible for parklets and many more were simply unable to afford them. Now parklets can be seen throughout the South Side, in front of Molly’s and Roasted, and on the side of The Goose and Jenny’s Kuali, making us wonder how necessary the previous restrictions really were.

The parklet outside Sotto Santi and La Lupita.

The obvious question is: “Why was it so difficult beforehand?” Yet, rather than look back, it is worth applauding how quickly the city and the restaurants recognized and accommodated this new lifestyle. And we can hope that lessons have been learned and that when the pandemic is over, the city will not take two steps backwards and take away the parklets. We should continue to move forward, make Bethlehem a more pedestrian friendly and enjoyable city for its people, and allow the outdoors to be more accessible.

A year ago, the only place in Bethlehem with large sidewalks and outdoor seating was a few blocks of Main Street. The South Side, despite its bustling restaurant scene, had very little sidewalk seating. Today, on the South Side, many restaurants, which previously were unable to accommodate outdoor seating, now can do so.

What if the atmosphere you feel while walking down Main Street, the buzz of voices, discussions, laughing, music, and the general bustle of a busy street, was continued throughout Bethlehem up Walnut and Broad Street, and across the bridge to the South Side, where each street, 3rd, 4th, New, and more, each had active scenes? The street scene would be lively and safe and people would see the commercial and social benefits that would come from such a change.

But what commercial and social benefits will come from more parklets and outdoor seating? Adam Heidebrink-Bruno, a Lehigh University graduate student, and a team of other Lehigh students have already thought about this and conducted a study two years ago at a then-new parklet outside of  Joe’s Tavern on Broad Street. The observations from before and after the parklet showed that the parklet attracted more economic activity for Joe’s Tavern, but also for the surrounding shops. The study showed that people who were surveyed, on average, spent $56 at Joe’s or nearby businesses. It also showed that social activity was increased as people lingered longer at the parklet and people passing by ran into friends sitting in the parklet and stopped to chat or have a drink. The reported average time spent in the parklet per visit was 66 minutes and there was a 100% increase in stationary activity. When life starts returning to normal, this social and commercial interaction will be just as necessary as it is today if not more so to help repair the social and economic ties that were lost and to get more Americans outdoors.

Whenever we crawl our way out of this pandemic and life returns to the new ‘normal,’ I do hope that the few positive changes that have emerged will continue to exist. Readdressing how we would like to live our lives will be very necessary. And quality of life and civic engagement should be at the front of that discussion.

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