The Science of Sidewalk Cafes

There are two things that humans enjoy more than anything else: feeling enclosed and sheltered, and watching other humans. Both stimuli are deeply rooted evolutionarily to when we were still nomadic people spreading around the planet. Unfortunately, with the way we have now designed our cities with extraordinarily wide streets with high speeds, and vast parking lots, we do not get to experience those stimuli as frequently now. Main Streets that have been preserved for the most part help to buck this trend, along with well-designed downtowns in general that provide a feeling of intimacy and socialization. Those two ideas may sound like an oxymoron, but that is exactly the intersection where a well-designed sidewalk cafe lands. Pittsfield is beginning to usher more onto North Street, and with any hope, maybe into some more neighborhoods to come.

Sidewalk dining outside of Brooklyn's Best on North Street.

Sidewalk dining outside of Brooklyn's Best on North Street.

Sidewalk cafes now create some of the greatest contributions to the Sidewalk Ballet, allowing us to be both performers and observers. For those unfamiliar, the sidewalk ballet is a term coined by renowned urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs (who you will undoubtedly hear more about in the future). She used this symbolism to describe the seemingly disordered nature of a city sidewalk, which, in reality, was simply a well-choreographed interaction between everyday people attending to their own affairs.

How do sidewalk cafes and outdoor dining do their job? When well designed they will provide the feelings of enclosure and intimacy, as well as provide the opportunities for socializing and people-watching, both for the patrons and for passersby. There are many tools for accomplishing this. Another principle illustrated by Jane Jacobs was the clear delineation of public and private space. When boundaries are clearly defined, both public and private spaces perform their best. Sidewalk cafes are able to delineate their space usually by some form of rope or wall barrier, though they are not always necessary. These real or perceived barriers provide the first step in the feeling of enclosure and safety for visitors.

Other methods of creating enclosure can come from tree canopies, awnings, or other decorations and plantings. Awnings and trees work twofold by providing shade, and by creating a "soft wall" that delineates an outdoor room. The feeling of enclosure here also helps patrons to unwind and enjoy themselves. Different restaurants will mix and match different components, and hopefully observe by the evidence of usage if they have created a pleasing environment, and continue to experiment.

A sidewalk cafe at Patrick's Pub on Bank Row.

A sidewalk cafe at Patrick's Pub on Bank Row.

Socializing at a sidewalk cafe can take place between patrons exclusively, passersby exclusively, or a mixture of the two. What makes a place more inviting than anything else? Other people. If your family booked a vacation to Disney World, and ended up being the only family visiting the park that day, chances are it would feel a bit unnerving (after the initial thrill of no lines wears off). And the only thing that makes a visit to the mall more unexciting than the lack of stores is the lack of people. Sidewalk cafes in dense, busy districts allow the chance to create your own personal space while still being able to look out and observe or interact with strangers. Passersby will also feed off of the vitality of an active sidewalk cafe by making brief eye contact, catching a snippet of conversation, or just seeing and smelling the food being enjoyed.

In summary, some of the most common elements that make sidewalk cafes inviting and successful are: 1. Proximity to the host restaurant and staff (this separates sidewalk cafes from just general public seating or food courts), 2. Shade from the sun at peak hours, 3. A way to socially interact and people watch, 4. A canopy, awning, or other soft wall to help create an outdoor room, and 5. Separation and protection from vehicles and road noise. These points correlate with the picture to the right, which is another example of a sidewalk cafe in Pittsfield.

Getting more visitors and residents alike to linger in the public realm should be an overarching goal of any city that wants to "revitalize" its core. Encouraging sidewalk cafes is one very big arrow in the quiver to help accomplish that revitalization. To quote an idea from architect Jan Gehl, you can double the number of people in a place by doubling the number who come or by doubling the time they stay. The latter is easier.