The Case for Neighborhood Bars...and Why Planning is Like Cooking

Beyond permits and specific plans, urban planning is the creation and facilitation of a user experience, where the neighborhood bar is an essential ingredient to the cohesiveness of a neighborhood.

9 minute read

June 1, 2014, 1:00 PM PDT

By Reuben Duarte @reubenduarte

Surly Goat in West Hollywood / The Happy Hour Tour

There are two things I’m decently good at. The first one is cooking. In fact, I almost chose to go to culinary school in San Francisco instead of UC Berkeley. My mother put the kibosh on that real quick. The other is planning. I love urban planning, ever since my first LEGO set and SimCity game. But how do you go from cooking to urban planning? Well, urban planning is like cooking. No, seriously. When you look beyond the plans, permits, renderings, proformas, and community meetings, great planning, like great cooking, should stimulate our senses with the finished product. It should facilitate the user’s interaction and help the user feel and experience everything from nostalgia to excitement to curiosity. One example of how planning can elicit such sensations is the neighborhood bar. It’s time we embrace the benefits and necessity of a neighborhood bar and recognize that cities and urbanism are a user experience.

Cities and urbanism as a user experience

Before you pack your keyboard and click away, hear me out. Great planning is like great cooking. It is a user experience where we are the chefs and our city is the restaurant. As planners, we try to create great recipes and menus for our city—mixed-use here, open space there, retail here, and then sprinkle in a little streetscape. Then other chefs, like developers and business owners, come in and use our recipes to create a dish, or developments and neighborhoods. Each restaurant has multiple and unique dishes, just like cities have multiple and unique neighborhoods. Residents and visitors alike are now our customers—they come to our city and experience what we have created. And, if successful, our creation should stimulate their senses. The lights, sounds, even the smells of the city should all enhance the user’s experience (except the smell of pee. You should really do something about that, San Francisco). You should remember a neighborhood and city the same way you should remember a great dinner at a restaurant. So why a bar? The truth is that this argument applies to all of planning—it should all facilitate a great user experience. But the neighborhood bar is unique.

My experience

One of the most memorable experiences with my father before he passed away was traveling from our home in the Central Valley to San Francisco to visit my uncle, his brother. We would stay with my uncle in his townhouse in Noe Valley. Assuredly, at one point I would go with them to a bar down the street from my uncle’s home called "Noe’s." (Sadly, it’s now closed.) I was very young and I would find a booth made of that dark red plastic rubbery-feeling material. My father would order me a Coke from the bar, and I would sit at the table drinking from a straw, watching my father and uncle drink beer at the long wood bar. They would laugh and enjoy themselves, listening to the ambient rock and blues music, talking about San Francisco in the 70’s, Giants baseball, and Bob Dylan. My father would check up on me to make sure I was doing alright, but you could tell he loved spending time at the bar with his brother.

To this day, I remember the smell and sound of the neighborhood as we walked down the hill. I remember the sound made by feet falling on the concrete sidewalk. I remember the small street frontages of the shops and bar, even the music playing inside drifting out to the street. Today, a relatively calm corner bar playing blues is one of the places I enjoy most (which says a lot considering I’m pretty pretentious). This experience may be personal and unique to me, but that is also the point. When I move to a new neighborhood, one amenity I look for is a good neighborhood bar. As cooking has some basic ingredient, so do neighborhoods. The success of a great and complete neighborhood relies on the existence of a bar as much as great dishes require the addition of salt.

More to bars than drinking

While I have fond memories of a neighborhood bar growing up, the bar is not necessarily everyone’s favorite neighborhood ingredient. The problem that has traditionally followed bars has been the "nuisance" complaint—that bars attract a large group of people who will consume alcohol (obviously) and belligerently leave the bar, cause loud noise, litter, loiter, and attract crime. Because naysayers are usually the ones who show up at public meetings, their arguments severely hinder the ability to create a complete neighborhood with a local bar (or anything else they simply don’t like). In fairness, the nuisance complaint can be true to a limited extent (there will always be that obnoxious person at a bar), the same way that too much salt is bad for you. However, this argument tends to overshadow the positive effects bars have on a neighborhood, the same way salt enhances the flavor of a dish.

Bars are social gathering spaces

Think of the most entertaining and vibrant neighborhood or street you've visited over the years, the one that, as I said, stimulated your senses and the experience now lingers like the flavor of a great meal. Most likely, there were bars on the street. 

Bars are these great places in neighborhoods that serve as social gathering spaces in a similar way that one would expect from a park. Michael Hickey, a community development consultant, does a good job explaining why a bars inclusion is an essential part to a vibrant neighborhood, a "third-space":

"The vaunted 'third space' isn’t home, and isn't work – it's more like the living room of society at large. It's a place where you are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect. It's a place at least one step removed from the structures of work and home, more random, and yet familiar enough to breed a sense of identity and connection. It's a place of both possibility and comfort, where the unexpected and the mundane transcend and mingle.

And nine times out of ten, it’s a bar."

As Hickey points out, bars are great places of social gathering that bring people out of their apartments or jobs and let them simply "hang out." We meet friends and co-workers, but we also meet our neighbors. We plan for parks for this same reason and we expect this from a café, but it would be wrong to assume that those "PG" rated establishments are the only spaces for such social interaction. Instead of an overly-priced cup of coffee, a decent neighborhood bar offers something for all income levels the same way a park is free for all. While we can no doubt throw down a lot of money at a bar on a good (or bad) day, a casual neighborhood bar is a relatively inexpensive experience that is defined by the user based on the existence of options. Again, like your mood for food, sometimes you may want to go to a nice restaurant, but other times you just want a burger and fries in a brown bag

Vibrant and safer streets

The idea of bars making streets safer seems incredibly odd to many people. But it can be easily true. First, I must concede that it is not a blanket truth for all bars and entirely depends on context of the neighborhood. But bars can definitely make a street safer because they do one thing really well: bring people to a street and provide, as Jane Jacobs would say, "eyes on the street." The argument against this depends entirely on the assumption that all patrons of bars are completely drunk (or dare I say, “wasted”), which is unrealistic. Seriously, do you get wasted every time you go to a bar? (If you answered yes, please click here.)

When a bar is great and popular, you also have brought in a constant stream of consumers to your street. On weekends in West Hollywood, California (where I live), some bars open in the morning and serve food for brunch, others in the afternoon for sporting events, and the rest at the traditional happy hour. The point is that when they open, people begin to walk back and forth between the bars on Santa Monica Boulevard, throughout the city. As they move, they also visit local shops, stop and eat at local restaurants, or relax at local parks. The weekend becomes an inclusive local experience, triggered by this third-space that serves as a "home-base" for the outing.

The above is also evidence we need to bring bars into the context of the complete neighborhood—a place where one can achieve the bulk of their activities within walking distance or short transit ride from home. Not only does this mean that we want to shop and eat near our residence, but we also want the ability to go out—to spend good times with friends and enjoy a beer or cocktail if we want, or to find a bar to watch the game. When we don’t have a bar nearby, we lack that special place where we can simply mix, mingle, and drink. Without it, we are forced to find an alternative away from our neighborhood, which raises the option of drunk driving.

When we lack the neighborhood bar, we begin to force those who seek them out to find them outside of the neighborhood. And unless you live in New York or San Francisco (both cities have a great collection of bars), you will likely end up driving to that bar and, thus, be inclined to drive back home after drinking (looking at you, Los Angeles).

Multiple bars

Finally, complete neighborhoods require multiple bars to stimulate market competition and to meet varied consumer preferences. When there is only one bar, that place has little incentive to be the best bar in the neighborhood or on the street. If you want to go to a bar near home, you really only have this one choice (or you go somewhere else outside the neighborhood if you don’t like that choice). I’m sure we can all think of a place we’ve lived that had only one mediocre but conveniently located bar that we reluctantly patroned. Having multiple bars forces each bar to improve the quality of their experience by attracting new customers and their competitors' customers—it's pure market economics. The other part has to do with trying to meet the preferences of everyone: not all residents want to spend time at a sports bar. Some may want a pool table and darts. Others may want a bar that serves food. Others may want a nicer cocktail than what the pub is serving. Providing options allows residents of every stripe to enjoy these third-spaces and meet up with neighbors with similar preferences. Again, the user is defining his or her experience based on available options. And when there are multiple bars spread throughout the street or neighborhood, you allow for movement between bars, thus making the experience of "going out" more inclusive to the rest of the storefronts who wish to remain open and take advantage.

More than a physical environment

The city is truly a user experience that should be facilitated by great planning. The argument for why planners need to publicly embrace bars is focused on facilitating social interaction and using the bar as an essential ingredient when creating vibrant and, arguably, safer streets. But this argument can also be applied to planning on the whole. In essence, it’s time to view planning and urbanism as a total sensory experience rather than simply the organization of geographic places where the user exists. And in this experience, the bar is not simply an amenity, but an essential ingredient to complete the cohesiveness of our neighborhoods. Without it, our streets and our neighborhoods seem rather bland.

Reuben Duarte

Reuben Duarte is a Land Use Planner at Sheppard Mullin in Los Angeles, California, where he assists real estate developers, property owners, and other business entities in guiding their projects through the entitlement process, including permitting, regulatory and environmental compliance (CEQA), stakeholder engagement, and community outreach. Reuben has also written as a contributing editor for the Climate Change Law & Policy Reporter.

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