Bethany Celio: Thank you to our local governments for initiating outdoor spaces
I’d like to thank the City of Grass Valley and City of Nevada City’s initiative in creating pedestrian spaces in their downtowns as a response to the COVID-19 restrictions on indoor dining. I applaud the city management and city council members, as well as certain businesses that went above and beyond in utilizing parking spaces in front of their establishments by turning them into beautiful spaces for outdoor dining.
These spaces have proven over the last few weeks to be incredibly popular with the community, as evidenced by the lively atmosphere in the downtowns since these spaces have been created. Mill Street in downtown Grass Valley blew me away with the beautiful natural wooden planters, airy grasses and greenery, and dedicated spaces for picnic tables and outdoor dining. On Spring Street in Nevada City, you can see the lovely area outside Sushi in the Raw and the Golden Era parking lot transformed into a festive place replete with soft ambient lighting, comfortable and spacious seating, and buoyant music.
As the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce noted, these restaurants and others “are combining the great European tradition of street cafés with Gold Rush scenics.” The speed and nimbleness with which our city governments worked around a difficult situation to create an effective solution impressed me. Simple but beautiful designs and the ability for a business to design their own parklet area makes for the opportunity to create beneficial spaces that enrich and enhance our lives.
The importance of a thriving public space cannot be underestimated. When we collectively utilize public space in an economic core, we have the chance to create a place to be that’s not home or work, but rather a collectively owned and operated space. It means a place for kids to play, teens to grow and gain independence, adults to connect and weave ties of friendship and camaraderie, elders to connect and cherish life’s beautiful moments. It’s a place where we can gather and grow as a culture, a civil and sane society. Without these public places, we are left to our own homes or to places where we must pay to enter. The importance of outdoor public space is magnified when we look at not just the COVID-19 pandemic (which of course needs to be taken very seriously with appropriate physical distancing), but also the concurrent pandemic of isolation that was already taking place in our country. The need to connect and belong is core to our humanity. Providing places that facilitate community is a necessary and noble cause.
Public space spans the ideological spectrum. It helps to bridge the gaps and form those necessary ties between people of different backgrounds and identities. It acts as the glue that can bring us together and help us to find solace in the company of our fellow citizens.
It’s not only good for civil society, it is incredibly critical for our local businesses to thrive. Studies have unequivocally shown “that people-oriented streets are more economically productive than auto-oriented streets — from big cities to small towns … Compact, walkable places produce far more tax value per acre than auto-oriented places — and that holds true in communities across America” (Strong Towns). It’s easy to see that when people are “milling” around Mill Street rather than driving swiftly by, they’re more likely to stop in and patronize the small businesses. A property owner in Nevada City who was pleased with the changes recently said to me, “I would gladly walk a few more blocks to be in a pleasant downtown with open spaces and community than squabble over 12 parking spaces.”
We are living in a turbulent time. Now more than ever, we need safe places to convene, to relax, to come together. With the converging pandemics of COVID-19, racial injustice, isolation and mental illness, in addition to the threat of wildfire on our doorstep, we must find ways to stay resilient and connected.
I believe that this year, with all the challenges and obstacles it has presented to us, we will find a way to not just overcome the difficulties, but transcend and transform into a stronger and more resilient community. I believe that during this unprecedented time, the creation of vibrant public spaces is one of the silver linings and signs for hope that we will indeed get through this together.
Bethany Celio lives in Grass Valley.
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