This season’s hottest restaurant accessory is the sidewalk patio. We all experienced laughter (?) (horror?) at the site of restaurants slapping together ramshackle ice fishing shacks on the normally trash-filled sidewalks of NYC for use as outdoor (read: indoor) dining rooms for “safe” dining during the pandemic. Since those peak patio shenanigans this past winter, the trend has continued and grown nationwide with designs like parklet-style patios taking over street parking spaces and elaborate roofed patios on sidewalks.
Architects and planners fawn over sidewalk and on-street dining because it gives us a glimpse into how great things would be if we prioritized people over vehicles in the built environment, and I love this; but we’re missing something here and that’s universal design — you can’t prioritize some people to the detriment of others.
Independent restaurants (like those doing all the viral sidewalk patios in particular) are notorious for their sloppy implementation of accessibility regulations inside their buildings where it’s actually quite easy to get universal design right, so it was always bound to be a disaster once they ventured outdoors with sidewalk patios. But it doesn’t have to be this way! It’s easy to design an accessible sidewalk patio, so let’s review a few key design concepts…
First, if you can’t afford to elevate the parklet to the sidewalk’s height, then don’t do it at all. Second, if you are able to elevate the parklet to the sidewalk’s height, then don’t forget to make the gap between the curb and the patio deck accessible. I’ve seen carpenters scribe the deck boards neatly into the curb so there’s a smooth, ADA-compliant transition between the two, but if you’re not able to do that, then you’d need to bridge that gap with an ADA-compliant threshold, which is a unique but easily addressed challenge. It’s possible that a very small gap that runs for a very short length could be spanned with an off-the-shelf full-saddle threshold of some sort, but the more common case would be a larger, awkward gap created by the curvature at the top of the curb. For these larger gaps a couple of possibilities are shown in the details below:
In both of these details, it’s important to note that the steel must comply with the ADA’s requirements for change in surface elevation as shown below:
Umbrellas, Canopies, Roofs, etc.
Shade is more important than ever in our warming climate, so it’s a major sidewalk patio fail to exclude it in your design. I’m not going into shading methods here as that’s a whole other article all on its own, but what I will focus on is the accessibility aspects of shading design. It’s painfully common to see shading devices (usually umbrellas) that aren’t tall enough to be ADA-compliant. The ADA requires 80-inches of overhead clearance along circulation paths (the aisles one takes to and from seats in this case) and umbrella manufacturers have totally ignored this requirement. Fortunately, there are umbrellas out there that do meet this requirement or can be modified on site to get enough clearance, so make a point of using the ADA’s 80-inch clearance to filter what you look for in an umbrella. I’ll also mention that hanging lights (AKA the ubiquitous Edison bulb string lighting) need to abide by the 80-inch overhead clearance rule too.
Just like indoors, thoughtfulness is key when integrating accessible seating into your sidewalk. Diners love booths more than life itself, so I understand when restaurant operators want to build booths on their sidewalk patios, but they need to be accessible too. There are a couple of approaches to making a booth accessible: one is to widen the table to allow clear floor space for a wheelchair user to roll in at the end of the table; and the second is to switch the booth to a banquette, with one side having chair seating and use a table with ADA-compliant height and knee/toe clearance. I’ve included examples below:
Outside of booths and banquettes, table-and-chair seating groups need to be accessible too. The powder-coated steel patio tables and chairs have become a go-to for restaurants because they’re plentiful, inexpensive, and reasonably durable. Many manufacturers in this realm offer accessible tables, and guess what? Just like all the best universal design, those accessible tables are better for all of us. The typical non-accessible steel patio table is tiny and has a leg structure that runs right down from the table center and spreads out as it reaches the feet — you bump it when you sit down or move in your seat and it sucks — none of this is an issue with accessible tables so just use them instead and kill, like, a lot of birds with one stone. Here’s some examples of accessible tables from one contract patio furniture company, Emu:
There’s a lot more to accessible seating, but I have a post on restaurant seating coming up soon, so I’ll elaborate there.
Other Building Blocks
The sidewalk (and deck if you’re doing a parklet) need to be accessible (see ADA Standards for Accessible Design chapter 4) and you need an accessible path between your restrooms and the patio too; and of course, the restrooms need to be accessible as well (see ADA Standards for Accessible Design chapter 6).
This is probably a good spot to wrap up our look at the right way to think about sidewalk patio design. So, go forth and make universal patio design…universal.