Street Food Shapes Portland’s Character

A popular “food pod” in downtown Portland is across from one of the city’s administration buildings / Carol Mayer-Reed

As landscape architects and urban designers, we look for ways to create vitality in the spaces we design. In Portland, Oregon, street food has become a phenomenon, growing in popularity over the last ten years. The result has been a transformation of the public realm, as well as many privately-owned spaces in our downtown and neighborhoods. Our street food goes way beyond the hot dogs and roasted nuts commonly found on street corners in many cities; diverse food is served by more than 525 vendors operating throughout Portland.

The cuisine found on the street has become increasingly sophisticated and delicious, attracting a serious “foodie” audience, along with a hungry everyday lunch crowd looking for fresh air and convenience. Visitors can even tour the city based on the wide variety of street food they would like to sample, along with the environments they’d like to experience.

The creative entrepreneurship of food cart owners has shaped Portland’s character. The carts, which also form pods, make a positive, colorful contribution to the city’s sense of livability, promote social interaction, and support small businesses. After all, the presence of people gathering in places attracts more people.

The Evolution of Street Food: From Pushcarts to Food Pods

First, the evolution of food carts in Portland deserves some explanation; we must distinguish them from ubiquitous, roving food trucks. The city initially permitted a few vendors to offer snacks and light fare from portable pushcarts on public sidewalks and in Pioneer Square. These pushcarts, permitted and regulated through the bureau of transportation, are self-contained. Most of the limited food preparation is done off site in a licensed, commercial kitchen. Then we saw the growth of self-sufficient food trucks, with or without kitchens, which roam the city streets, tending not to be fixed in a particular location. Today, some of the most popular ones tweet their whereabouts to attract a following.

Over the past ten years, the use of private — not public — space accounted for the more recent explosion in food carts, which typically stay in one location. Entrepreneurs found a loophole: a vehicle on wheels does not have to pay systems development charges. Also, city zoning regulations and building codes do not apply to vehicles on wheels, although food preparation and handling remain regulated by the state and county heath departments, like all restaurants.

Far beyond sidewalk pushcarts, more versatile vehicles, such as travel and utility trailers, small panel trucks, and even recycled double-decker and school buses, have been retrofitted and tethered to utilities. These food carts feature more elaborate kitchens, with improved appliances and counter space, thereby allowing the more sophisticated cooking of increasingly skilled chefs.

Food carts, which can cost just $20,000 to $30,000 to set-up, enable start-up “mom and pop” businesses to inexpensively experiment with menus and gauge customer preferences without the larger risk of investment in a bricks-and-mortar establishment. A substantial number of vendors are family-run small businesses from racially diverse backgrounds. Food offerings range from the enduring to the pioneering, with offerings as diverse as tacos, burritos, and Thai food, as well as gourmet stuffed burgers, well-crafted hearty soups, BBQ, breakfast and dessert crepes, Belgian waffles, and Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken, many of which are available in a “Go Box” recyclable container. Some businesses evolve into permanent restaurants; some established restaurants now offer their fare via food carts.

Food carts express their own individuality and culture / Carol Mayer-Reed

Parking lot owners enjoy substantially increased revenues over the simple daily rental of a space for a parked car, charging vendors about $550 per month in downtown and $300 in neighborhoods. Utilities are distributed from the interiors of the blocks. Some vendors rent two spaces to accommodate customer dining beneath wooden or fiberglass canopies, on decks or at counters tacked on the sides. Clusters of food carts are now deemed “food pods,” as they associate together in order to create more varied eating environments and amenities of a food court.

The Explosive Growth of Food Pods

Enough about the business of food carts and back to urban space: food pods have organically popped up everywhere in the city. About 40 are currently in operation, with some vendors licensed to serve beer and wine. Pods now front many block faces of streets in downtown surface parking lots. Micro-businesses crop up in parking garages or blank building frontages at sidewalk level. In one central business district location, food carts have lined the entire 200-by-200-foot block perimeter, appearing like a strip of miniature early Western storefronts or perhaps more accurately, a colorful carnival midway (see image at top).

Public safety is enhanced through this vibrancy, which yields a steady supply of customers. Adjacent parks, plazas, and building forecourts are now dotted with folks enjoying a variety of delectable lunches. The food pods are even encouraged to expand to transit stations. Put up some strings of colorful bare bulb lights and watch the ravenous bar crowds collect during the nighttime hours.

In neighborhoods, food pods overtake vacant lots and corner blocks in the commercial nodes. Increasingly sophisticated developers create pods among the hip restaurants and boutique shops. These developments provide increased outdoor dining amenities such as picnic tables, large umbrellas for rain or shine, fire pits, seasonal tents with space heaters, and porta-pots and restrooms in recycled cargo containers. Add Wi-Fi and suddenly these fragmented urban parcels are converted into animated focal points of commerce and community social gathering, complete with buskers on the street corners.

A food pod in the Southeast Division neighborhood called Tidbit Food Farm and Garden boasts “super-cool food truckery and nick-nackery” / Carol Mayer-Reed
Design elements such as repurposed steel scaffold structures help divide the common spaces from aisles and carry signage, banners, shade cloth, and festooned strings of light / Carol Mayer-Reed
A vendor takes a break in a Southeast Division food pod / Carol Mayer-Reed

The Urban Design Debate

The debate, if there is one, lies in the visual appearance of the downtown’s high-rent district, given the temporal nature of the food cart structures and materials. While the vibrancy cannot be denied, the raw entrepreneurship and ad-hoc nature of the pods has resulted in an eclectic plastic-canopied, add-on visual stew. Day or night, most people will agree they are less unsightly than a full (or vacant) asphalt parking lot.

One could argue a new set of regulations should be imposed to organize, align, or govern materials, signage, lighting, and utility hookups. On the other hand, should the ingenuity of the vendors be stifled?

According to Food Cartology, Rethinking Urban Spaces as People Places, a 2008 study by the Urban Vitality Group, Portland “should allow the food carts to reflect design diversity.” In fact, “creativity in cart aesthetics should be encouraged, not limited, in order to allow vendors to creatively participate in the design of the urban fabric.”

Please know that Portland is a place where it’s arduous to gain design approval of bricks and mortar projects. Ironically, city planners, whose job it is to enforce the comprehensive downtown guidelines that support the city’s reputation as a high-quality, livable downtown, saunter across the street from their offices to enjoy a pungent pad Thai noodle dish or an aromatic Indian curry over basmati rice from the “food shack alley.”

Apparently citizens, including bureaucrats, vote with their lunch dollars in greater numbers than those who voice concerns over the visual character of this colorful chaos. Food pods have already yielded a number of positive economic and social benefits, including an increase in public safety and a sense of community.

This guest post is by Carol Mayer-Reed, FASLA, a landscape architect and partner with Mayer/Reed, Inc., a multi-disciplinary design firm based in downtown Portland, across the street from a lively food pod where she and her staff are regulars. She checks out Brett Burmeister’s website, Carol and Brett were contributors to Cartopia: Portland’s Food Cart Revolution, by Kelly Rodgers and Kelley Roy, published by RoyRodgers Press, 2010.

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