Food Cart City – Are You Building One?

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016
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Sustainability is about leverage – one unit of investment delivering at least three units of benefit.

We fail if our efforts deliver individual, unconnected, and isolated solutions, so I continually seek out practices and strategies that display these qualities. I’m looking for examples to share, for us to learn from and potentially replicate. And with that, I introduce the food cart.

From crepes to coffee, sandwiches to soup. Portland’s food carts are dishing up delicacies from all over the world, from Japanese dumplings to Polish hotdogs to Iranian kebabs. They bring great food, street vibrancy, social interaction, and a playground for foodie start-ups. And when they are clustered together into pods, as in more than 18 locations throughout Portland, we have great place making in action.

The modest food cart is a pathway to realizing dreams, a budding chef finally getting establishing his or her own restaurant, entrepreneurs who start small and sometimes make it big. Lardo, Cheese and Crack, Tamale Boy, and even the bike smoothie cart Moberi have transitioned into shop fronts now while still maintaining their food carts.

In Portland, the humble food cart has been used as an economic development tool for years, originating back to the 1960s, but really making a foothold in city life in around the 1990s. And it has earned the city many accolades, often ranked as a top destination for street food. For an Australian, it has been a unique experience, the opportunity to walk out of the office at lunchtime and have a global food offering at my fingertips, with a side of socialization!

Food carts are also a proxy metric for illustrating the delicious benefits to a growing ethnically diverse community, as many immigrants own and operate food carts and trucks. Like green infrastructure, food carts are one of few sustainability strategies that have such a significant return on investment, building so many opportunities for more people benefit.

But for food carts to establish a foothold in a city, they need a particular culture – one that is supportive, authentic, and above all, civic. Oh, and of course, the city must have the space, streetscape, ambiance for it. Portland’s 200 foot by 200 foot street grid provides the perfect bones for this economic development strategy.

When I say its part of the city’s culture, I am not talking it up. One just needs to arrive at Portland’s airport, where alongside the staple airport food court offerings, one finds food carts. Yep, there are food carts inside the Portland Airport food court!

But even with these qualities within the DNA of Portlanders and their city, it hasn’t always been easy, particularly when it comes to the issue of codes and regulation. The concern of health, utility connections, and safety is often on the minds of regulators. But, as former Portland Mayor Sam Adam’s once put it, “we have worked really hard to stay the hell out of the way.” The community supports them, and many are situated on private parking lots, whose owners have worked out they can generate 50 per cent more revenue from a food cart than a parked car. I suppose for Portland, it just all seems to work out.

While Portland has incubated a thriving food cart and food truck culture in the city, I have enjoyed street food in some other great cities across the US – Austin, Washington DC, and Chicago to name a few. As the risk of making this competitive, Austin might just run a close second to Portland. And competition is good; it matters. It is a food cart-type culture that builds vibrancy in a city, strengthens walkability, and visitor experience. Its these qualities that contribute to those ‘livable cities’ rankings. Those qualities that build an awesome city experience.

So, with Portland having more than twice the number of street food vendors per capita than New York City, as well as the accolades to support its achievements, you can see that it really is a food cart city. You just need to stroll down to SW Alder and 9th at 1 pm on any given day, and the place is abuzz, the sidewalk packed. Activity and exchange, great food, and much chatter. Walking meetings between staff and clients, who discuss business while chowing down on some of Nong’s Khao Man Gai’s famous chicken rice dish or other eclectic fare are common.

I imagine a Portland food cart pod transplanted in King George Square in Brisbane, along Spring Street outside Parliament House in Melbourne, or along Castlereagh Street at Martin Place in Sydney. Sadly, the red tape alone would probably kill it. Why hasn’t Australia embraced this opportunity? When you design your city streets for cars, I suppose that’s what you get.

But there are pockets of opportunity emerging, signs of some street food life across Australia. With the continued emergence of tactical urbanism and a greater appreciation of quality urban design and place making, we get a step closer. I spotted a lone food truck in Federation Square at Easter. I’ve heard the Barangaroo development had some food truck activity. Adelaide is making some moves, and Eat Street in Brisbane is giving it ago. Even the new greenfield masterplanned community in Southeast Queensland, Yarrabilba, is playing with foodcarts as an activation strategy in the parklands. This is good. This is important city-building activity. This is important community and economic development.

As the famous urbanist William Whyte once said, “food vendors have been the caterers of the outdoor life of the city.”

Who’s dining in your streets?

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