The Cafe Table Test — What Outdoor Seating Tells Us About Places

You can tell a lot about a place by its outdoor seating. So says Darin Givens at ATL Urbanist, who compares a sidewalk in Atlanta where cafe seating looks inviting to a place where it essentially fails.

In downtown Atlanta, outdoor seating is natural and inviting. Photo: ATL Urbanist
In downtown Atlanta, the outdoor seating is inviting. Photo: ATL Urbanist

The first photo he shares is from Broad Street in downtown Atlanta:

Most every weekday afternoon office workers, GSU students and even a residents like me all descend on the restaurants here. Many people have their lunch on the inviting sidewalk cafe tables al fresco style.

This is the kind of street-level activity you can find in many cities wherever there are buildings that predate cars (the ones in the background above date to the 1880s). Having these tables and people and stores all together serves as a type of signifier of urban vibrancy. You look at this and think, “yep, this is what a city is supposed to look like.” It looks alive.

Darin compares that scene with a Starbucks on Howell Mill Road in Northwest Atlanta:

In a more sprawling part of Atlanta, outdoor seating is paired uncomfortably with a parking lot. Photo: ATL Urbanist
In a more sprawling part of Atlanta, outdoor seating is paired uncomfortably with a parking lot. Photo: ATL Urbanist

These are the cafe tables outside of a Starbucks. The trouble started when I tried to get to the store from the main road; there was no direct sidewalk into retail area, so I had to either walk through landscaping or walk in on the same blacktop asphalt that cars were zooming in on (I chose the landscaping).

The interior of the Starbucks was well designed and inviting – quite a contrast from the outside. A few people were having coffee al fresco on the sidewalk patio, but they were sharing space with a surface parking lot. I thought to myself, “oh wow, european style cafe seating! It looks just like Paris, if you replaced 80 percent of Paris with a parking lot.”

You can find cafe table like these, that front vast expanses of parking, all throughout intown Atlanta. I’ve never understood the appeal. Aesthetically, this just feels ridiculous to me. But more importantly, it’s an interesting reflection of the way society has acclimated to car-centric places. Many of us feel perfectly comfortable with the concept of paying for food and drink while sitting on a small strip of concrete left for human activity, right beside a vast expanse of asphalt devoted to car storage.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Cyclelicious relays the results from a bike-share vs. helicopter race in Manhattan. And Architect This City talks about how Toronto has shifted between favoring single-family housing and high-rise condos.

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