When the city of Los Altos closed off parts of its downtown area to traffic a few months ago as part of the Open Streets program to boost businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, a couple of Stanford University health researchers had a deja vu moment.
A few years ago, Abby King – a professor at Stanford's Department of Epidemiology & Population Health – along with Sandra Winter, her postdoctoral fellow at the time, were conducting research on a number of pop-up parks in Los Altos from 2013-2016. They published a study documenting the economic, behavioral and social benefits of the parks this year, finding that the Downtown Greens were visited by a “large, multigenerational group of users who engaged in leisure-time physical activity, shopped at local stores, attended programmed events, and socialized with others.”
The study also revealed that the majority of downtown businesses during a 2014 closure reported “no decrease in sales compared to the month before the pop-up park was installed,” and city sales-tax data showed an increase in year-on-year sales-tax revenue in the summer quarter of both 2014 and 2016, compared to 2015 when there was no closure.
Researchers found that the pop-up park “created a vibrant space in an otherwise underutilized area that was enjoyed by a variety of people in a host of ways.”
“There are a lot of parallels,” King said. “When I saw the closed streets go into action, I did think, “Huh, too bad we couldn’t activate our team to study this before it happened and after.”
Between 2013 and 2016, Los Altos implemented a series of temporary pop-up parks downtown during the summer due to a construction project. When King, a longtime Los Altos resident, read about the initiative in the Town Crier, she broached the idea of analyzing the project to Winter and the rest of her research group.
The team employed a mix of quantitative and qualitative data, using statistics from businesses and the city as well as observing and interviewing those who visited the pop-up parks. After the first Downtown Green, the research group presented its preliminary findings to the city council and helped encourage members to continue the initiative in future years.
Perhaps foreshadowing the Open Streets program this year, research from the study indicated that if the streets had not been closed and pop-up parks not erected, many residents would not have come downtown.
“Most of the information suggested that they would’ve been sedentary as opposed to more active the way a lot of people were at the parks,” King said. “They would’ve been more disengaged. They would not have been downtown shopping and sitting at the park and buying their coffee. It signaled the importance of having these convenient and very attractive parks.”
Los Altos Mayor Jan Pepper, who was on city council at the time of the pop-up parks, said the success of the parks played a role in creating the Downtown Vision program. That in turn made it easier to implement the Open Streets program during the COVID-19 pandemic, because the council had already indicated support for outdoor dining through the vision document.
Pepper hopes that outdoor dining is here to stay beyond the pandemic, combined with certain pop-up park concepts such as adding artificial turf and more potted plants.
“We’ve seen how the residents of the city have embraced outdoor dining, and my hope is that we can continue this in some way going forward, even when we’re ‘back to normal,’” Pepper said in an email.
Creativity amid uncertainty
Of course, social-distancing and health protocols amid the ongoing pandemic alter the circumstances between the pop-up parks and the Open Streets program, which runs through Sunday. The program does not include any park-like setups, rather simply closing down streets to give residents more room to walk and create a more vibrant atmosphere with outdoor dining for the restaurants. Still, much like the pop-up parks, the Open Streets program has been praised by residents and downtown business owners for its creativity during a period of uncertainty and transition.
“It’s quite an unusual activity for cities to be this innovative and this forward-thinking,” said Winter, who is now executive director at Senior Coastsiders, a senior center in Half Moon Bay.
King and Winter said that during the pop-up park series, they heard similar concerns that are being voiced today from some retailers – that the closed streets and lack of parking would negatively affect sales. During their study, they found that businesses on the whole saw an increase in sales, quelling initial fears.
Los Altos is likely to move into a seven-day-a-week parklet program after the end of the month in lieu of continuing the full street closures, allowing some parking and traffic to return.
“I think it’s so important to make those kinds of policy decisions based on data, to really see what’s happening,” King said.