The best European City in the US

“Because if your aim is to attract people, food and drink are the main attractions.”

We violate a fundamental rule of urban design here:  for the most part, we banish food and drink from public life.  Why are Thursday Night Lives so successful?  Why are so many of the other festivals so successful?   Because we can stand around and eat and drink and talk with one another.

But the other 95% of the year, our streets are devoid of food and drink.  We must change that if we are going to increase livability here.   The great news is that this is simple.  We can encourage existing bushiness as well as entrepreneurs to grow a local food and drink culture merely by changing the laws that prohibit outdoor action.   Below, read what Portland, Oregon is doing.  Think about how hoppin’ Cheapside would be during the week.  The truly emerging corridors of Limestone would also be a natural.

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Cafe Life, PDX Style: Recreating the Euro Bar

Published in Urbanist

Outside Stumptown coffee in Portland
Coffee shops where patrons spill outside onto the sidewalk are Portland’s best approximation of the atmosphere of the Euro café. Photo: Dustin Eppers/EnzymePDX

Note: Urbanist recently returned from a trip to Portugal and Spain.

Nothing symbolizes the singular nature of European public life more than the ubiquitous neighborhood bar – a place where people of all ages gather for a variety of food and libations, including coffee, alcohol, ice cream and maybe a local delicacy or two such as anchovies or squid.

Such establishments, also known as snack bars or café-bars depending on the country, are more than community hangouts. Featuring ample outdoor seating, the Euro style bar is also an anchor for the lively street culture that is the envy of many an American urban planner.

Enter Portland, a metropolis that considers itself “the best European city in America,” a phrase coined by former city commissioner Charlie Hales.

“We’re slowly evolving our own style of European café life,” said Lloyd Lindley, an urban designer and former chair of the Portland Design Commission. He pointed to the bustling restaurant scenes on inner Burnside and NE 28th Avenue and the city’s thriving coffee and brewpub businesses and burgeoning food cart market.

But the obstacles to developing a genuine – and alluring – café/bar culture in Portland are legion. For example, a critical feature of the Euro bar is its mixed-age character, yet American drinking laws discourage adults and children from congregating in the same venue.

Another challenge is our car-oriented society, which limits the amount of pedestrian space available for café seating and discourages patrons from moving directly into the street – to sit or play. “We’re not there yet, and there’s a lot of work ahead,” Lindley said of Portland’s street café status.

As a pioneer of mixed-use development, Portland has another stake in recreating the Euro bar, where multiple urban stories are often played out in the confines of a single small business.

Consider, for example, a bar scene Urbanist witnessed in Lisbon last month. An elderly couple sat at a table, digging into a plate of snails. Two businessmen stood at the bar, one sipping an espresso, the other a glass of port.

Outside, several children licked ice cream cones while kicking a soccer ball against a makeshift court – one framed by the café wall, an adjacent apartment building and a small pedestrian plaza. A street sweeper taking a break sat at an outdoor table and pulled out his own sandwich.

It’s the kind of scenario that seems to unfold organically in European cities. Not so in the United States, where people tend to frown on the mixing of public and private space and activity, said Philip Myrick, vice president of the Project for Public Spaces, a New York City nonprofit.

“In this country, there is also a strange banishment of food from street life,” Myrick said. Exiling food concessions from the public realm violates a fundamental rule of urban design, he added, “Because if your aim is to attract people, food and drink are the main attractions.”

Echoing those sentiments, Lindley said one of the primary obstacles to developing a café culture in Portland is the American tendency to “draw boxes around everything.” For example, Lindley noted that zoning policies and American Disability Act provisions mandate specific and separate places for cars, pedestrians and business operations – laws that inhibit outdoor seating.

But against these odds, in Portland, there are signs of boundaries breaking down. At the Stumptown coffee outposts on SE Belmont Street and SW Third Avenue, for example, patrons spill outside and “take over the sidewalk,” Lindley said.

Compared to Washington, Oregon has “a more relaxed attitude” toward minors in brewpubs, said Mike de Kalb, owner of the Laurelwood Brewing Company, a venue “for friends and family” that de Kalb explicitly modeled after European bars. De Kalb said kids in the company’s Laurelwood Battleground, Wash., location are banned from the entire bar area, while in the Portland locations, children can sit anywhere except an actual bar stool.

Then there are the active street clusters such as Mississippi and Williams Avenues, where the combination of food cart pods, cluster of restaurants and retail, and on-street bike parking help create the kind of synergistic energy associated with European cityscapes.

Portland’s continental aspirations began in the late 1990s with the development of the streetcar and continue today with the 2030 bike plan, which takes its cues from Amsterdam. But European-style urban revitalization is more than grand schemes and expensive infrastructure. Just put out a few chairs and tables, offer ample food and drink, and let people move about at will.

“The ingredients for creating a human habitat are simple,” Myrick said.

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