Café terraces: Bigger is better?

Jes’ thinking about the whole café awning issue (see Outdoor cafes: Gimme shelter!") I was complaining that café owners and the cities that regulate them don’t encourage enough shelter for us outside sitters in these sun-searing days.

They had outside awnings for Vincent back in 1888...

Then the beautiful Carla found an image of a Paris café that had roll-out awnings. See this pic of Café Beaubourg in Paris. (OK, the awnings don't go all the way, but this is cool Paris, not hot Arles, where Van Gough was painting.)

But here’s what really hit me, looking at these pix: It’s just the sheer size of their sidewalk seating. I mean enough for hundreds, just about.

Why does this make you yearn to be there, be part of it?

And suddenly you get it.


The sociological question in this situation is: who are the animals in the zoo, and who are the spectators looking at them? Is it the café customers sitting watching the world go by, or the passing world looking at this clump of peeps on exhibit?

What it comes down to, I say, is critical mass. Like, if there’s just one little mean row of tables, and they’re fenced in by the regulation wrought-iron railing, then the customers are the zoo animals. We passers-by are looking at them as they sip and chew with a little embarrassment at having their chewing style put on display.

But if, like with Café Beaubourg, the numbers balance tips in favor of the cafeistas, suddenly, they are the majority. So hey, now it’s the passers-by who feel like they’re being scrutinized like models on a runway, animals in the zoo, to be watched by this crowd of sippers. I think that's the Grand Cafe secret: People come for this very reason, to watch the world go by, supported by fellow-sybarites/epicurians/bon vivants/lotus-eaters (heh heh, jes’ looked these up).

Where would we have the space to do this in San Diego? No contest: Broadway is way broad enough. It has the potential to become our Champs Elysées. Just narrow the traffic lanes a bit, and widen the sidewalks.

And while we’re about it, let’s put the traffic underground where Horton Plaza is, and then it could become a true plaza, with big-terrace cafes sprouting on every side, specially in front of the US Grant Hotel. What a terrazza that would make!

We’ve got the weather. Have the planners got the guts?

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I highly doubt that narrower streets will ever happen in a commuter heavy city like this. Automotive travel is a big part of our lives. The big problem with adding sidewalk seating here in the USA is that it's absolutely forbidden to compromise the sidewalk systems. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which has done a lot of good for disabled citizens of all sorts, is pretty much the most ironclad and thorough legislation that has been made national law since, well, since the Constitution itself. If public or private industry reduces the efficacy of the sidewalks and someone brings an ADA lawsuit over it, the plaintiff is going to win like 99.9% of the time. Since our existing structures aren't built to accommodate patio seating AND accessible sidewalks, the sidewalks are going to win every time. Sidewalks like those ones in the pictures of France will never become commonplace in the US. They're techincally unconstitutional.

This isn't to say that there's no way more sidewalk seating will ever happen. It just won't happen in the way it happens in other countries because our laws and social structures don't allow for the same design parameters. The trick is to be creative, to think outside the proverbial box and find different ways to design in the future. Existing structures would be better left the way they are and sharper eyes and minds turned towards rethinking the way we do things in coming years...the answer won't look like anything else because it will be a truly original thing.

Well, never say never. I see the narrowing of car lanes in streets to prioritize pedestrian life is already happening in a lot of downtowns. The big push for public transportation, bikes and walking is talked about endlessly in city planning classes. Plus, with iPads set to do most of the walking and talking (!), I'm predicting freeways will be market gardens within fifty years, only used by construction and emergency crews and vacationers. We'll all live in villages again, cars will be parked at the edge.

In the meantime, the first thing planners should do is set back buildings, don't let developer greed push buildings to their maxo sidewalk limit, as they (tragically) did in Little Italy's last big development burst. Because what they don't see in their short-term gain perspective is that people go to where people like to be. We're like bees, birds, porpoises. We like to gather. And we don't like being second-class citizens walking like refugees on the edge of God-almighty car corridors.

It's so simple, really, at least in my simple mind. People first. I think a constitutional lawyer could argue that one pretty successfully. And I do think the zeitgeist is changing. We have seen how it could be. We don't want to go back.

I was listening to a radio show about shared streets in London. They do this kind of crazy thing where pedestrians and motorists have to occupy the same space. I don't remember the details but now I think I should go back and listen to it again since it has become germane all of a sudden. It seemed to work out very well except that blind people were uncomfortable with it, despite the statistics suggesting that they would actually be safer. Fair is fair and, were I blind, I would be hard pressed to put my life in the hands of a statistical anomaly. Still, if it proves to be safer then I guess there's no reason that the community couldn't come around to the idea in time.

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