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Urban Development

How Portland's beloved food carts transform public space and ask, "What's next?"

The Doable City Reader

There is so much that can be done to make our cities happier, healthier and more prosperous places. Every day in cities around the world, citizens and city planners alike are showing us how small actions can scale up to have massive impact. And they can in your city too.

That’s what the Doable City Reader is about. In June 2014, 8 80 Cities, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, brought 200 civic innovators from around North America together in Chicago at the Doable City Forum to share and discover methods for rapid change making. The Doable City Reader is inspired by the rich conversations amongst presenters and participants at that forum. It is a resource for any and all people who want to make change in their cities and is meant to educate, inspire and empower anyone to do so.

A bubblegum-pink trailer hawking a saccharine rainbow of Hawaiian shaved ice sits perched just off a sidewalk in southeast Portland, Ore., inviting passersby into a 15,000-square-foot urban culinary experiment — the Tidbit Food Farm and Garden, a food cart pod.

A phenomenon Portland is now famous for, the food cart pod is a relatively simple concept: small carts, from which vendors sell food, group together on private lots, sometimes parking lots, creating a sort of outdoor food court. And while this is great for satiating hungry urban explorers, there’s more to the trend than that.

Ethan Seltzer, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, sees the emergence of food cart pods in parking lots and empty spaces as a fantastic experiment in enlivening urban spaces and helping them evolve. Not only do the carts bring vibrancy to blocks that might otherwise be lifeless, but they also spark the public’s imagination and help them reimagine what potential that space — or others like it, for that matter — could hold. “In many ways, to me, what food cart pods in parking lots do is they beg the question: what is the next step?” Seltzer says.

Portland’s Tidbit food cart pod, for example, transformed an empty space into a neighbourhood destination. The lot, previously occupied by an auto repair shop that burned down in the early 1990s, sat vacant for more than 15 years before developers Aaron Blake and Christina Davis scooped it up and created Tidbit.

Now, more than 20 bustling food carts, some oriented towards the sidewalk and others thoughtfully positioned to frame pedestrian pathways that wind through the lot toward a central courtyard, serve up waffle sandwiches, coffee, burgers and other treats to hungry customers. On any given summer night, neighbourhood families gather around the pod’s fireplace below strings of glowing lights, listening to live music and chowing down on local fares.

The space that Tidbit Food Farm and Garden now occupies, before.
The space that Portland's Tidbit Food Farm and Garden now occupies, before.

The Alder Street food cart pod, on the other hand, is flipped inside out. Located downtown, where it is dwarfed by surrounding towers and shopping centres, the Alder Street pod serves thousands of tourists and employees in the business district each day. Here, instead of being oriented toward a central courtyard that serves as a community social space, the carts instead line the outside of an operational parking lot. In fact, as you stroll alongside the carts browsing your options — which range from traditional street food-style pad Thai to gluten-free vegan grilled cheese sandwiches (it’s Portland, after all) — you might nearly miss the fact that the bustling facade is masking an otherwise boring downtown commuter parking lot. (Check out the video above to see what we mean.) It’s like having your gluten-free vegan cake on a sidewalk patio and eating it too.

So how did Portland make this all happen? Part of it comes from the city’s famously relaxed regulations. When it comes to food carts, so long as they remain mobile, vendors can operate them anywhere in the city, be it in parking lots or on private land. The location of brick-and-mortar restaurants does not limit the location of a food cart pod like they do in some cities, and there is currently no cap on the number of food cart licenses.

And they are a big part of the small business ecology, especially for their size. Blake estimates the roughly two dozen carts at Tidbit alone employ about 80 people.

But, like Seltzer asks, what’s next? While other cities look to Portland as a food cart mecca, Portland is already trailblazing new uses for otherwise empty lots.

Tidbit has gone one step beyond food carts, allowing retail operations to take place out of vehicles in the same space. The Alder Street pod leaves space for downtown parking and activates the streetscape. One new food cart pod owner dreams of transforming an old gas station, currently a food cart pod, into outdoor space with a big-screen television to show sporting events, a cart that sells beer and an on-site brick-and-mortar bike shop.

Image courtesy of Caravan.

But one lot in Portland is really pushing boundaries: Caravan — The Tiny House Hotel. At Caravan, owners Deb Delman and Kol Peterson rent six minuscule mobile homes ranging from 100 to 200 square feet to visitors. The miniature dwellings sit atop trailers, rendering them mobile and therefore regulated as vehicles, just like food carts.

Unlike a traditional hotel, Caravan does not offer room service or have a restaurant. Instead, they send their patrons out to the many restaurants and bars in the artsy shopping and dining Alberta Street district to support the thriving business ecology they exist within and also thrive from. “When you don’t have everything you need in your own small space, you tend to reach out to your neighbours or interact with your community more,” says Delman. “It creates more of an interaction with the world outside your door.”