How Parking Lots Have Been Reinvented Amidst COVID-19

April 15, 2021
By Ralf Quellmalz

The COVID-19 pandemic has powerfully struck the parking industry. With people having to work from home, restaurants being opened to limited capacity, and universities moving to online learning, it’s typical in a lot of places to see parking lots and curbs empty. From the long list of industries that have been affected by the coronavirus, the parking industry was no exception.  

Yet, COVID-19 has also brought opportunities for creativity. As The New York Times reports, the role of cars has been reinvented due to COVID-19-related frustrations. People have started using their cars not just for transportation, but also to enjoy outdoor activities that the pandemic has altered, such as going out for a picnic or celebrating birthdays.

Our innate need to connect has spurred people’s imagination to create new ways to get together while socially distancing. One of the ways businesses have been able to bring people together was by reinventing vacant parking lots. Empty parking lots provided an opportunity for businesses to innovate and explore while creating new forms of revenue. 

Here are just a few examples of how parking lots have been reinvented during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Outdoor dining to help struggling restaurants survive.
  • Food trucks gaining momentum.
  • Drive-in movie theaters are back! 
  • To safely host farmers markets.
  • Opening space for kids to recreate safely. 
  • Keeping the arts alive!

Parking Lots Used for Outdoor Dining

It’s no discovery that restaurants have been heavily impacted by the coronavirus. With no fault of their own, restaurants have seen their traffic decrease, their business impacted, and were forced to adapt to new realities. There’s a growing list of restaurants that were forced to shut down due to low demands and many are still operating in the thin line between staying open and shutting down.

Yet, outdoor dining has seen a huge boom during the pandemic. Cities from all around the world shifted their policies to enable restaurants to adapt to outdoor dining. Public officials have informed us that outdoor dining is much safer than gathering indoors to eat. As a result, restaurants have been reinventing their curbside parking to open space for outside dining. 

converted parkA converted parking spot, Philadelphia
Customers sit and eat in a converted parking spot outside of Flannel, a restaurant in Philadelphia.

 In Philadelphia alone, more than 400 restaurants have taken advantage of a city order that enables restaurants to set up dining tables in parking spots and curbsides. The existential threat that restaurants face during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought sympathetic support from the locals, creating a win-win for both restaurants and locals.  

In New York, local restaurants are bringing their dining to sidewalks, streets, and parking lots as well. By expanding their dining space for outdoor service, restaurants have found a bloodline to keep their businesses going. All of this has been enabled after the city of New York created an application process for restaurants seeking to use their sidewalk or parking space for outdoor gatherings. 

Curbside dining in New York City, curbside parking reinvented
Curbside dining in Brooklyn, NY, United States. Photo by AM Sowder.

According to CEBM, restaurants’ efforts to revitalize urban space led to the increase of Times Square pedestrian volume to 11% and a reduction of pollution coming from car traffic of 63%. This provides further proof that reinventing parking lots and curbside for outdoor dining not only benefits locals and restaurants, but also the environment as a whole.

Food Trucks are Gaining Momentum

Not only are restaurants reinventing vacant parking lots, but so are food trucks. As ABC News Channel 12 reports, in places where restaurants have been forced to shut down, restaurant owners have pivoted to food trucks in vacant parking lots.

In Greenville (and so many other places too), for instance, indoor dining has been banned. Such a mandate has forced restaurants to shut down and find new ways to survive. For self-employed restaurant owners, food trucks present a huge opportunity to keep their businesses afloat during the COVID-19 outbreak. As a result, more and more food trucks can be seen taking advantage of the empty parking spaces around the city.  

Old Drive-in Movie Theaters are... New Again!

Back in the days, drive-in movie theaters were one of the most beloved and popular weekend activities. Today, we mostly remember them from old and classic movies… or do we?

Even though there are less than 400 drive-in movie theaters in the US nowadays, they are becoming a trend! To further reinvent themselves, many businesses and restaurants are transforming their vacant parking lots into drive-in movie theaters. This new survival strategy has enabled restaurants to find new and creative ways to keep people both well-fed and entertained while encouraging social distancing.

In Omaha, Nebraska for instance, The Corner Kick restaurant has tested this innovative idea when the pandemic first started. After a very successful first few rounds and positive reception of the public, The Corner Kick has made drive-in movie theaters a weekly event.

In Long Island, Simon Properties Mall, which was struggling to keep afloat amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, decided to partner with Starfish Junction to create a pop-up drive-in movie series at its Lake Grove mall parking lot. The mall began testing their new drive-in movie theater with an Indiana Jones movie and enabled visitors to both bring their food and snacks as well as encouraged them to buy from the mall’s restaurants, which offer curbside pickup on the way to the theater.

A drive-in movie theater hosted in a vacant parking lot

The popularity of this once-old entertainment event has captured the attention of mall owners around the US. As CNBC reports, mall owners are renting out parking lots during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brookfield Properties, which owns several malls throughout the country, has recently signed a deal with entertainment company Kilburn Live to transform vacant parking lots into drive-in movie theaters. At the moment, drive-in movie theaters from Brookfield Properties can be found in Denver, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, and New Jersey.

The pandemic has centered businesses’ attention towards parking spaces for the opportunities they present, as vacant parking lots are being reinvented for greater sources of revenue. 

Parking Lots to Safely Host Farmers Markets

In Portland, empty parking lots are being used to safely host farmers markets. Just like with outdoor dining, outdoor grocery shopping also presents a safer way to shop than when done indoors. Vacant parking lots are a great place to start.

Keeping farmers markets alive amidst the pandemic also helps support Black-and-Latinx-owned businesses. As Streets Blog USA cites, farmers markets are usually located in predominantly white neighborhoods. Allowing for them to be safely hosted in vacant parking lots enables farmers markets to diversify the diet representation within the community.

A farmers market hosted in a vacant and reinvented parking lot
Source: Streets Blog USA.

Parking Converted to Kids Play Zones

If you ever stop and think about your childhood, socializing with your friends outdoors was probably a huge part of it. Kids need and seek social and physical activity, even when in quarantine. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it especially difficult for kids to interact with one another safely.

At Battleground Elementary in Lincolntown in North Carolina, teachers and staff reinvented the school’s empty parking lots by painting an interactive no-contact play zone, as can be seen in the image below. 

An aerial view of a kid’s play zone, parking lots reinvented
An aerial view of a kid’s play zone in North Carolina. Source: Lincoln Times News.

Teachers and staff planned simple and popular games such as ‘Tic-tac-toe’ through easy-to-follow paintings. Such a kind-hearted effort enables students to keep the fun of quarantine alive whilst still getting some physical activity done. 

Parking To Keep the Arts Alive!

Live shows such as concerts, theater, and opera have all been affected by the outbreak of the pandemic. It seems unlikely that these events will return in the near future.

Yet, entertainment companies and organizations have found ways to bring people these events back to life from the safety of their cars. Lyric Opera of Chicago is just one of the many entertainment companies that are taking the lead.

In the parking lots of Chicago’s famous Millennium Park, the Lyric Opera of Chicago will be showcasing a series of live performances, videos, and installations brought to life by singers, small instrumental groups, and actors as visitors drive through the parking garage. This is a unique and creative way to keep the arts alive and lure fans back from the safety of their cars. 

Innovation is the Key to Surviving This Pandemic

Innovation has allowed businesses to steer away from preservation mode and into unveiling new and powerful ways to thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic. The parking space is just one of the many examples in which we can clearly see how businesses that best adapt to changing circumstances will be the ones to both outlast and outperform competitors.

The reinvention of the parking spaces also shows how businesses can take advantage of their unused assets. Even though the pandemic is slowly coming to an end, there is always room to let creativity and imagination thrive!

Continue reading