Community Resource

Reimagining Downtown to Create More Outdoor Spaces: Winter Edition

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
downtown strategies creative outdoor space

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, al fresco dining has become an economic mode of survival for restaurants that have struggled to stay afloat amidst capacity restrictions and mandatory closures.  As we move into winter months and temperatures begin to drop, businesses are scrambling to find ways to prolong outdoor service for as long as possible.

In May, we identified ways that cities could reimagine their downtowns to create more outdoor spaces.

In this winter edition, Retail Strategies’ Director of Real Estate, Elliott Cook, addresses the coming season and uses real world examples and commentary to best prepare cities and their restaurants for cold-weather operations.

What can cities do to modify ordinances to assist with accommodating outdoor areas for dining, shopping, or pick-up?

Cities like Hoboken, New Jersey are permitting businesses to expand outdoor space on the sidewalk, create shared outdoor spaces as “streeteries” and parklets, and create a framework for businesses to operate further into the street during scheduled road closures.

Edmonton, Canada is relaxing regulations regarding temporary patios, sidewalk cafes and outdoor retail expansions so businesses can create more space for their customers in alignment with CDC guidelines.

Back alleys that are currently cluttered and not well-utilized can be cleaned-up and repurposed for outdoor seating and gathering spaces with overhead string lighting.


To make it simpler for restaurants to continue operating safely and successfully, Chicago is allowing temporary tents on the public right of way and temporarily extending the length of tent permits from 60 days to 180 days to facilitate a warmer environment for outdoor diners.

Similarly, the Dallas City Council recently waived parking requirements to ease the burden on restaurants struggling to survive in the era of social distancing and allowing them to move out into the streets for expanded restaurant patios.

And Edmonton, Canada is now offering winter toolkits which provides curated checklists of outdoor social opportunities, with outdoor dining at the top of the list.

Do you have any examples of what downtown shop owners can do to create an outdoor shopping or dining experience?

Consumers are anxious to get back into social settings and return to life as “normal,” however safe social distancing is still top of mind and is likely here to stay. City officials, Downtown District leaders, and shop owners should creatively reimagine outdoor public spaces to temporarily better serve consumers.

Creative activations such as “streeteries” in Tampa, outdoor dining street decks in downtown neighborhoods of Toronto, walk-up windows for retail or quick service food pick-up, and even queuing and pick-up lanes temporarily designated for pedestrians on existing sidewalks will provide piece of mind for shoppers, which ultimately supports local business.


Instead of focusing on modes of artificial heat only, which is common as restaurants stock up on outdoor heaters, restaurant owners should also focus on four other principles for winter comfort: wind protection, light, color, and shelter.

Trees and other landscaping, plastic tent panels, and even propane fire pits create a warm and inviting experience and provide the necessary comfort diners are seeking.

How can cities work with downtown business owners to instill consumer confidence from a health and safety standpoint?

Cities should think temporarily with these activations and installations and coordinate with business owners and Downtown Districts to find out what is needed to safely and successfully reopen. Prioritizing pedestrian activity rather than vehicular will allow consumers to patronize their favorite stores and restaurants, while remaining outside in open air.

Handwashing stations, hand sanitizer dispensers, and walking and queuing lanes temporarily painted or identified within the pedestrian space can give consumers the confidence they need to shop safely.


Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, we’ve also learned that safety elements at restaurants like contactless payment isn’t just “nice to have,” but it’s a “must.” Mobile based apps for reservations and online ordering also simplify the experience for shoppers and operators alike.

As consumer needs and expectations are rapidly shifting, supply chains and staffing needs fluctuating, and restrictions are ever-changing, having the ability to adapt is key.

Should I close my Main Street or interior core street to allow pedestrians to shop with more ease?

In urban, very dense markets, street closures can be potential options for opening up public spaces to consumers. However, we strongly recommend that our more rural community partners implement repurposing strategies rather than closures.

For instance, parking demand is down in most rural downtowns. Cities can temporarily allocate a strip of diagonal or parallel parking as a pick-up lane or as a location for a temporary street deck, while still giving consumers the opportunity to park their vehicles nearby.   

Have Questions About Your City?

A key lesson for all city leaders that has emerged since COVID-19 is to invest in places to loiter. Neighborhood connectivity, walkability, outdoor dining streeteries, parklets, and open-air venues are key components of a vibrant downtown, but they also support restaurant and downtown business vitality, and overall community development.

Bring out that heavy coat, invest in warm weather clothing, activate the streets, and lets all make the best of a surely unforgettable winter.

More Business Resources

What do you need?

Recent Posts

My relationship with the Retail Strategies team has been extremely valuable over the last couple of years as I’ve searched for sites in the Southeast. They have been persistent and provided any information they could gather for available properties that fit my criteria. If they received news that a space was coming available they made sure to immediately give me a call and connect with the owners. I would recommend using this service to any of my colleagues looking in their client cities.

Walter Kelly, Broker

Arc Realty

walter kelley arc realty

Retail Strategies has been a tremendous asset to Cypress. They have access to industry and business intelligence in an immensely competitive retail environment. The relationships they develop with commercial/retail property owners delivers results for the city because Retail Strategies excels at marketing their clients.

Peter Grant, City Manager

Cypress, CA

Community Resources

Do you need more information to help your community thrive?