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Oct 09, 2020

BSA, BSLA, and Patronicity Call on Massachusetts Cities to Extend Outdoor Dining Opportunities

Blue Nile Outdoor Cafe Sketch

Sketch of The Blue Nile patio cafe by Ben Carlson AIA

We applaud Boston and Cambridge for recently extending the outdoor dining season.

We also want to urge both cities and all municipalities throughout the Commonwealth to extend these less restrictive regulations even further in order to promote equity in our communities and opportunities for our local economies and businesses. The City of Somerville recently extended its outdoor dining regulations until December 2021 in anticipation of the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. This measure allows businesses to better assess the investments they can make toward outdoor furniture for all seasons and opens the door for more innovation, something this region is known for.

When Somerville turned Davis Square into a plaza this summer, the feedback the city received from the public most consistently was, “Why can’t it always be like this?” Walking down the street and seeing it filled with planters, lights, and people sitting outside adds so much more to the vitality of a place than a row of parked cars. Encouraging people to walk and bike instead of driving to these places also helps further achieve our climate goals.

Bench Consulting, powered by Patronicity, recently launched Winter Places, a design competition to collect implementable and affordable ideas for downtowns and main streets to activate their districts during the cold winter months. The best ideas will be published in a guide that will serve as a resource for businesses and communities throughout Massachusetts. Municipalities can support these ideas by extending outdoor dining, opening streets for pedestrian activity, and continuing to ease licensing and permitting processes. This not only gives businesses more certainty in their investments but also creates a more equitable process. These opportunities are then feasible for all who are interested, not just those who can afford lawyers, designers, and permitting professionals.

Both before and during the pandemic, neighbors and patrons have expressed interest in finding ways to support their local businesses. Volunteer architects and engineers from the BSA membership worked with three businesses in Hyde Square throughout 2019 to design welcoming outdoor spaces for their customers. When COVID-19 hit, these same designers stepped up to help restaurants pivot and get their outdoor spaces up and running quickly and affordably. With a small grant from the Boston Main Streets Foundation, three neighborhood businesses were able to reopen in their community. From this initiative, the Boston Society of Architecture and the Boston Society of Landscape Architects also created a program to match business owners in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston with architects and landscape architects to create simple, scaled, permit-ready outdoor seating plans to be implemented when businesses were allowed to reopen for outdoor dining this spring. Our community of volunteers is ready to assist in the next winter phase, and we have learned that a willingness of municipalities to lead in these efforts is critical to success.

COVID-19 and the ensuing changes to our daily lifestyles have caused us all to step back and reassess many of our normal routines. Hunkering ourselves indoors and hibernating in winter has been an age-old tradition in Massachusetts, one that doesn’t exist to the same degree in cultures around the world. In Copenhagen, Denmark, a city with a winter climate nearly identical to that of Boston, outdoor dining at restaurants and cafés has been a way of life year-round for decades. With small electric heaters and warm blankets, it is little more than an afterthought in the planning process of a night out. With proper design and a change in attitude toward winter, we can all support our local downtowns and learn to embrace our coldest, darkest months.

Copenhagen outdoor

Photo courtesy of Laura Bronner @eternal_expat

There is no playbook for how to assist our local economies and small businesses in managing the pandemic and its related restrictions. What we do have is an abundance of resourceful, creative, and entrepreneurial citizens across the Commonwealth. We can amplify this civic spirit and create opportunities for all of us to get through this together.

Signed,

Jennifer Effron, Policy Director, Boston Society for Architecture

Ricardo Austrich ASLA, President, Boston Society of Landscape Architects

Jonathan Berk, Patronicity/Bench Consulting

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