Growing a downtown “cart culture”

A couple of weeks ago we had a good conversation about how best to use the Cheapside Pavilion, and by extension, how best to add some spontaneous life to downtown.  The economy that would provide us gleaming new buildings and ever more fixed activities is moribound at best.  What we need is something that can add life cheaply and quickly – we need a “cart culture” here.  Imagine a row of food, craft, and book carts along the block containing the old Courthouse.  Imagine that extending onto a pedestrian mall on Mill Street.  This is economic development at its most basic and most important.  We will be creating the next generation of business owners while creating life and interest in our downtown. 

What do we need to do to get this started?

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Making Space for a Kiosk/Cart Culture from Portland to Accra

Photos and article by Stacy Passmore, re:place Magazine July 8, 2010

 Portland food carts.

Portland food carts.

Kiosks are an opportunity to increase richness in our urban fabric, promote experimentation and deliver goods/services in walkable locations while providing economic development.   Urban designers and planners should consider them in their plans, and look for ways to encourage innovation in kiosk design and placement.

In Portland you might enjoy a steaming bowl of curry, while in Accra a spicy box of jollof.  Both purchased for a low cost and in a convenient location.  What is known as a cart in Portland or New York, a kiosk in Accra or Moscow, might also be a booth, pavilion or a stand.  Each is a different form of micro-enterprise that plays an increasingly important role in our cities today. A kiosk is an efficient way for an individual to start a business with low costs and short time, while providing an immediate service to an urban area.  Congruently, the vibrancy of a neighborhood can be accentuated through the articulation of these small forms.  But in spite of their proven role in developing walkable, socially intense communities, kiosks are an afterthought to urban design, and are impaired by insecure tenure, and generally considered undesirable.

Portland’s ‘cart culture’ is primarily oriented to food services, and within this limited sector, operators offer creatively designed structures and a wide variety of cuisine types.  The carts are distinctively mobile, often in the form of a trailer or a truck, located on temporary sites.  Because of their impermanence, a website called ‘Portland Food Carts’ keeps track of their location and services, helping hungry people find the best taco cart or the closest place to buy barbeque.   Yet, the city does not commit to these structures, and only allows them in specially approved locations, typically vacant lots or adjacent to parking.

The City of Vancouver is stricter, limiting both the size of the cart and allowing only a handful of different food types. (Can we please have something besides hotdogs?) Responding to similar pleas, Vancouver’s Town Council has launched a pilot program that will run from July 2010 until April 2011 to test drive an expanded street food-vending program that aims to diversify the culinary options and expand small business opportunities.  They have added 17 additional locations to the approved list with a distinct focus on healthy and nutritional options.  The pilot program also required applicants to submit a waste management plan that demonstrates how they will reduce the environmental impact of the operation.   Some concern came from the retail community, who worry that these new businesses will offer too much competition with lower prices and more convenience.  Vancouverites can look for these new kiosks scattered around the city this summer, a list of the locations is available on the City’s website.

A kiosk in Tema, Ghana.

 A kiosk in Tema, Ghana.

By contrast, Ghana’s ‘kiosk culture’ is pervasive and diverse.  Set up in public right of ways from shipping containers or wooden sheds, they are rarely mobile by function, yet transient in tenure and construction.  If electric connections are made they are hijacked from nearby wires.  However, the kiosks are essential to neighborhood life and where most daily needs are purchased – from bread and mangos to cell phone credit.  Because there is little regulation and anyone can build a kiosk in a public space without enforcement, they consume all of the sidewalk area, forcing pedestrians to risk their safety walking along the edge of the road.   This has a compromising effect on public space and the social utility of the public realm in Ghanian communities.

So how do we find a balance between over and under regulation? Minimize homogeneity and maximize creativity? Where do we make room for kiosks in our dense crowded cities, and in streets where bikes, pedestrians and cars are already competing for space?    How can we support kiosk owners in offering a wider range of services and goods, while establishing information networks to help clients find their specialty services?  How can their architecture be dynamic and productive, to process stormwater or produce energy, as one architect in West Africa is researching?  Distributed throughout our cities they could even play a role in governance, providing information about political or community related topics.  They may be a great solution for suburban areas, where small-scale retail may be infeasible due to parking requirements and excessive road widths are asking for additional program.

Portland cart culture street scene.

Portland cart culture street scene.

Undoubtedly the answers to the questions will be case specific, and depend on the city and local culture.  Kiosks are an opportunity to increase richness in our urban fabric, promote experimentation and deliver goods/services in walkable locations while providing economic development.   Urban designers and planners should consider them in their plans, and look for ways to encourage innovation in kiosk design and placement.

Portland Food Carts 

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