More Carrot, Less Stick: Columbia University Students Study Portland's Food Cart "Revolution"

Recently, a graduate studio class in urban planning (MURP) from Columbia University's GSAPP toured the city to learn about  Portland's food cart movement. Their study tour investigated the economic and social implications of Portland’s growing food cart industry, especially as regards neighborhood livability and economic development. To give them a broader understanding of their interests within a context of sustainable food policy, regional food system security, and the artisan economy, First Stop Portland included panel discussions with experts from Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability as well as Portland State faculty.

Columbia Faculty Kaja Kuhl and Julie Behrens evaluate their  lunches at the SW 5th and Oak Food Cart Pod
As of January 2011, Multnomah County had issued approximately 650 food cart permits and continues to do so at a rate of 10-15 per month. Portland's food cart scene involves coordination of  fire, building, waste, ADA, design and nuisance codes. Although this seems onerous to laissez-faire Portlanders, the Columbia students were impressed by the relative lack of regulation compared to New York's model (where an annual food vendor permit can run upwards of $100,000 on the black market); however, they observed that Portland was doing very little to capitalize on the local food cart movement's potential. They asked city planners why, given the relatively low impact of food vending in public space in the city, they had not gotten their creative juices flowing and considered ways to rethink the potential of food carts in public space (for instance by encouraging pedal powered coffee stands along the Waterfront) and also as alternative means of delivering services in areas that were otherwise under served, much like  New York's Green Carts Program. Further, they suggested that the city develop a comprehensive mobile vending plan that would capitalize on the potential of food carts by promoting them in areas where creative approaches to community and economic development were necessary. They suggested Portland look to Singapore's "hawker centers" or even San Fransisco's "night market" as ways of expanding how we think about vending in urban space.

Columbia students love Colombian cuisine!
On a more macro level, they wondered about the viability of an economic development strategy based on small business entrepreneurship and artisan craft shops. New York has a vibrant artisan movement, they noted, but it represents only a small fraction of New York's overall economy. Portland is a small company town, to be sure, but does this sector have what it takes to spur economic development in the city and region, they wondered. Where will the manufacturing jobs come from?

Like most of our visitors, the Columbia University students noted that Portland's success is a matter of scale and for the food carts and other independent, owner-operator businesses like them to survive and thrive in our city, public policy is going to need to continue to keep barriers to entry low for small business owners, to plan where these small businesses should locate in the city, to facilitate coalition building among small business owners and to scale up not at the firm level but at the cluster level . In other words, they need to continue offer a whole lot more "carrot" and a lot less "stick."

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