Food trucks are all the rage these days. Go-To tools for urban designers, aspiring restaurateurs and festival planners, they are seen as a relatively quick and easy way to activate spaces, test new businesses and market the potential of a street, block or neighborhood. Culturally they have been embraced by young professionals as a cheap, fun alternative to sit-down restaurants and bland corporate cafes. Gastronomically, they have evolved to showcase the best creations today’s aspiring chefs have to offer.
So one would think if you were across the street from the global headquarters of Discovery Channel in the up and coming Downtown Silver Spring, you had won the jackpot! Add to this the fact that you were the only food truck in a 1-mile radius, and your odds for success should sky-rocket, right? And yet on my walk to and from work every day, I have witnessed several food trucks try to make it in this spot, at the intersection of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue, and fail.
Clearly, the density is there and the food is not bad or expensive. So what makes this particular spot a so tough to do business? A closer look reveals that the problem is not with the food, the branding or the pricing; the challenges stem from the nature of the public space around this spot:
- ZERO PEDESTRIAN COMFORT: The spot sits on a gas station parcel surrounded by two very busy roads, a completely auto-oriented environment. Food trucks obviously rely on foot traffic, a tough sell in a zone that every pedestrian wants to get out of as quickly as possible.
- NO PLACE TO HANG OUT: There are no places to sit, eat and socialize anywhere close to the food truck. This makes buying food from them a burden, not a pleasant experience. I have my food, now what do I do?
- NO SYMBIOTIC USES: The food truck has no other food trucks, civic uses, pubs or shops around it. Every destination is a long walk away. There is simply no reason to linger and contemplate buying food.
The food truck is a symbol of entrepreneurism, something we as a country are desperately trying to foster in these tough economic times. If successful, they often evolve into restaurants i.e. small businesses, the backbone of the American middle class. So why is it that we as a nation are failing to provide the right types of public spaces to do business in? So much of the focus in spending our stimulus dollars has been on “shovel ready” projects that create jobs in the short term. As I recently found out, the rule of thumb goes: “For every 1 million dollars spent, we create 1 new construction job”.
But what about the long term implications? 1 million dollars will go a long way in providing comfortable public spaces to our citizens and a business friendly platform to our entrepreneurs. We can really stretch these public dollars if we utilize a Lighter, Quicker Cheaper approach towards public space design. The Public Works Administration was successful not because it created “shovel ready” projects, but because it put Americans back to work by understanding the needs of our country at that moment in time. Today, we need great public spaces more than ever. Not just to do business, but also to meet our fellow community members, discuss politics and even protest. The time is right to make public space design a national priority!