This blog was written by Susan Scarlata, Community Engagement Specialist for the Town of Jackson, Wyoming in response to a call for contributors. If you are interested in writing a blog for Community Builders, click here.
Last spring, as summer approached, Town staff and Council in Jackson Hole, Wyoming realized that extra planning for summer visitors was a necessity to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19. Summers in Jackson are always a rush of streets packed with RVs, SUVs, Campers, and Sprinter Vans, and around Jackson’s Town Square, people trying to wend their way through the traffic to find stores for souvenirs and restaurants to tuck into for sustenance.
Envisioning the summer, no one knew how much of the usual hiking, swimming, boating, wildlife touring, horseback riding, or national park visiting would be able to happen. But there was consensus among Town staff and Council that either way, planning to help people spread out and have space to keep a healthy around Town was a necessity. But how to make this happen?
The answer, it turned out, was parklets. The Town mobilized a working group with community development, planning, public works, and pathways staff to quickly create an application process for restaurants and other businesses to host parklets. The potential to expand their footprints meant businesses could comply with health orders limiting capacity in their spaces and serve guests spaced out at safe distances. Placing faith in the saying, “If you build it, they will come,” the Town worked hand-in-hand with local businesses to make the downtown corridor as welcoming and safe as possible.
The maxim proved true and plenty of visitors showed up from mid-May through October. When tourists arrived at Jackson’s Town Square, they were greeted by numerous outdoor eateries where they could soak in the summer sun, take deep breaths of fresh mountain air, and worry (at least a little bit) less about the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifteen restaurants and galleries hosted parklets for as much as 150 days, all closing their outdoor shops by October 31 or sooner. A true collaboration, these seemingly simple outside spaces met Fire, Health, Police, Planning, and Public Works Department standards and those serving alcohol complied with state liquor laws as well.
Jackson’s parklet project may be one of the most positive outgrowths of the COVID-19 pandemic. It helped people re-envision what before were seen only as parking spots but were transformed into areas for people to occupy and more fully engage in the commercial district. Activating Jackson through parklets and other flex-spaces encouraged people to enjoy the amenities around Town Square more fully, to shop, eat, and be outside all while maintaining physical distance from other parties. One integral part of this success was a strong partnership with local businesses from the start. Before the pandemic, when changes to the downtown core were presented to Town Council there was always pushback and perspective that everything was working so everything should stay the same. But last spring an opening appeared, and enough mindsets shifted to make adaptations to the downtown core a reality.
In post-summer surveys 100% of businesses that hosted parklets expressed interest in hosting them again. Various restaurants estimated that up to 50% of their summer revenue was generated from parklets. Owners of one restaurant shared that, “Customers loved the [parklets].” A survey of community members also resulted in a positive response overall. Of nearly 440 community members that responded, 73% agreed that parklets and flex space were a good use of public space. Anecdotally, people shared that they enjoyed having fewer vehicles around town square and the “Community Feel” these changes created.
While Jackson Hole has long been referred to as the “Last of the Old West,” adding parklets, a contemporary use of public space, reinvigorated the downtown and as one respondent shared, “Made downtown radiant and quaint.”