Chicago’s pleasantly mild summer hung on through September, save for a brief cold snap that so rudely intruded before its time, and as such Chicagoans have been spending a lot of time outside. That’s to the benefit of their wellbeing, but also to the pockets of local businesses that happen to be located by a People Spot—one of several “placemaking” initiatives underway across the city.
Such was the conclusion of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), members of which spent the summer studying People Spots to gauge what impact they had on local businesses. People Spots are small parks that take the place of parking spaces for pop-up, seasonal parks. (The parking is replaced somewhere else in the neighborhood, lest Chicago’s parking overlords at Morgan Stanley feel put upon.) The city has experimented with nine people spots, from the far North Side to Bronzeville. Part of the “Make Way for People” program, People Spots are all handicap accessible, and typically feature planters, benches, and functional art along a street with high foot traffic.
When the idea was first floated a few years ago, some local business owners and commentators were skeptical—wouldn’t displacing street parking make it harder for small business owners to attract customers who might arrive by car? According to MPC, who observed 400 visitors across all nine People Spots, the opposite was true: 80 percent of businesses by People Spots saw increased foot traffic during the summer survey period. What’s more, MPC interviewed 100 visitors and a few dozen adjacent business owners. They found roughly one third of People Spot users surveyed said they’d be at home if not for the parklet, and one third said they had made unplanned purchases in the area before, during, or after hanging out in the space.
Michael Salvatore, owner of Heritage Bicycles at 2959 North Lincoln Avenue told MPC the People Spot in front of his space was “Instagram Heaven,” and the free advertising on social media corresponded to more customers. Other business owners had similar observations. Some even said their spots led to sales upticks of 10 to 20 percent.
“Even if [people] do not patronize the business that day, they may be more likely to return another time,” said Mark Robertson, who told MPC he’s planning to open an upscale restaurant on the south end of Andersonville and would welcome a People Spot.
It’s important not to overstate the power of putting a parking space to pedestrian use as a parklet, even when they’re nicely designed. The spots don’t enliven streets on their own, of course—so far they’ve mostly invigorated already attractive retail corridors like Bronzeville’s 47th Street and Clark Street in Andersonville.
But MPC’s survey helps urbanists put the value of public space in business terms. It should be a little clearer now that placemaking—activating streets, giving preference to pedestrians, whatever you want to call it—can be good for economic development. Let’s hope that’s a lesson we’ll find verified again as more public spaces pop up around Chicago.