Food trucks: Serving street food with a side of placemaking

While placemaking is principally focused on creating public spaces with good form, where good form is lacking, attractions such as food trucks can contribute to place by attracting people, enlivening an area and stimulating other business activity.

A food truck in Washington D.C. Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes
A food truck in Washington D.C. Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes

Placemaking is about creating a physical environment that helps activate a public space with the presence of people, whether passing by or lingering to socialize. Good design is a principal component of placemaking. What else is there? We know that a mixture of uses helps to activate a space by providing diversity in terms of activities and 24-hour use. But what if a space lacks good form or a mixture of uses? Can a space absent one or both of these key attributes become a place that attracts people without redevelopment?

Enter the food truck. A mobile form of food vending, food trucks are emerging in cities big and small and in suburban office and industrial parks as a source of unique ethnic food and a social condenser. “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food,” William Whyte wrote in The social life of small urban spaces, because "food attracts people who attract more people". It would be an oversimplification to suggest that if a food truck pulls up on a sparsely-populated street that people will just show up, but increasingly, cities are allowing food trucks to do business in struggling districts of the community as a way to enliven an area, stimulate other business activity and provide healthier food choices where few previously existed.

From an economic development standpoint, food trucks have also been promoted as a relatively low cost food business startup opportunity and a transitional business to help food-entrepreneurs ‘grow’ into a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. Additionally, the allowance of food trucks in a community signals to budding entrepreneurs that government is helping to create and support an entrepreneurial culture.

Of course, food trucks are not without their share of potential problems. Existing bricks-and-mortar restaurants may perceive them as unwelcome competition and aspects of food truck operation, such as permissible locations, time of operation, provision of seating and trash receptacles, signage and more are aspects that should be discussed and potentially regulated. For these reasons and more, any community exploring the expansion of food trucks should do so in a thorough way and include various stakeholders in the development of the regulations/permissions.

The National League of Cities studies food trucks thoroughly in their report Food on Wheels: Mobil Vending Goes Mainstream and recommends five overall considerations for cities looking to address food trucks (and other forms of mobile vending) in their jurisdictions:

  1. Hold town hall forums and private meetings with core stakeholders.
  2. Encourage dialogue and the building of relationships among competing stakeholders.
  3. Implement pilot programs to determine what regulations to adopt.
  4. Use targeted practices as a way to address underserved areas of the city.
  5. Identify private vacant lots and create partnerships for mobile vendors to gather and vend in the same location.

Additionally, the American Planning Association recently published a Zoning Practice resource on Food Trucks. In Michigan, numerous cities have already addressed food trucks by amending their ordinances, some of which include Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Traverse City and Grand Blanc Township, and Michigan State University Extension educators can assist communities as they manage this placemaking decision.

For more information about food trucks and placemaking:

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