How placemaking through mobile food can help cities revitalize public space, create economic opportunity and drive social connection.
Welcome to the third and final installment in our series on why mobile food matters to cities.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve looked at how mobile food as a placemaking strategy can have positive impacts on street vitality in a rapidly changing urban landscape. We’ve also examined its capacity to bring new and innovative food options to convenience-seeking diners while uplifting small business owners and the communities they serve.
To conclude our series, we’re investigating the ways in which mobile food — and the passionate individuals who drive it — can help foster social cohesion, connection and cultural understanding in the places and spaces where it’s needed most.
WHERE THERE’S FOOD, THERE’S FAMILIARITY
To first understand the important role that mobile food plays in fostering community and civic engagement, we need look no further than the outdoor food courts — or “hawker centers” — that punctuate the dining landscape in much of Southeast Asia.
An inextricable part of daily life in places like Singapore and Malaysia, hawker centers serve local, affordable fare to diners across a wide swath of social classes and backgrounds, at all time of the day or night. Often, they’re adjacent to flea markets and playgrounds, or might even play host to concerts, demonstrations, and other civic activities.
Ask any Singaporean where to get the best laksa, chili crab or chicken rice in town — and they’re likely to send you to the nearest hawker center. But more than just places to grab a satisfying meal, they’re also a vital part of the social fabric of the cities they inhabit.
A 2015 Smithsonian article likened the role of Southeast Asia’s hawker centers to that of a “third place” — a term coined by influential sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describes places outside of home and work were people can congregate and socialize with old friends and new.
- “An ideal third place is welcoming to people of different social classes, is free or inexpensive, and serves both regulars and non-regulars, so you never know who you might meet.”
Indeed, both hawker centers and mobile food experiences go beyond just the food itself, providing a spontaneous gathering place where friends, neighbors and strangers can connect.
On a given day at one of our public markets, we’ve experienced first-hand the power of welcoming spaces to be a catalyst for good, fostering empathy and improving civic life.
In partnership with the City of El Cerrito, Off the Grid plays host to a weekly public market in a parking lot space adjacent to a local hardware store. The Wednesday night event sees a rotating lineup of mobile food creators (tailored to local tastes), live music performances, and special community programming, including a recently launched series of poetry readings on the first Wednesday of each month.
According to Maya Williams, Assistant to the City Manager for the City of El Cerrito, these weekly mobile food events have become something of a cherished civic institution in the community. “The Off the Grid: El Cerrito event has become a key gathering place for our small community. It brings both residents and visitors to our city that might not otherwise spend extended time in the area.” She further adds,
- “In addition to the economic impact for neighboring business, the City of El Cerrito has leveraged the attendance at these events to engage citizens on a number of civic activities, including infrastructure improvements and other city initiatives.”
Said one guest when asked about the friendly environment at our markets, “al fresco dining is conducive to building relationships, and the food truck atmosphere is ideal for breaking down barriers. One can let their hair down so to speak. I’ve conducted dates, as well as job interviews at various Off the Grid gatherings.”
In short, mobile food lends itself to the growth of those vital third places, creating opportunities for social interaction, facilitating shared experiences amongst diverse groups of people, and — most importantly — transforming spaces into places.
THE TEMPORARY TOWN HALL
Back in part one of our series, we talked about the agile, flexible nature of mobile food, and its ability to shift and shape to meet the needs of changing communities.
But if the not-so-hidden talent of mobile food is to seamlessly insert itself into neighborhoods in flux — leaving street vitality, foot traffic and improved safety in its wake — then its superpower is to pick itself up and serve the same role when disaster and tragedy strike.
In the fall of 2017, a series of powerful wildfires ravaged Northern California (the deadliest firestorm in state history) burning upwards of 245,000 acres of land throughout Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte and Solano Counties, and forcing 90,000 people to evacuate from their homes.
With a vast pool of mobile food creators eager to help, and the logistical capability to organize and deploy quickly, Off the Grid mobilized its platform to serve meals in the hard-hit communities of Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and elsewhere in the affected counties. Within three weeks, and with the help of local community organizations on the ground, we successfully facilitated the delivery of over 10,000 meals to people in need — including first responders coming off 36-hour shifts, farm workers facing uncertain futures, and displaced community members dwelling in temporary shelters.
Said one Santa Rosa resident in response to the presence of mobile food in the aftermath of the fires, “what every single one of my neighbors has said is that they forget to eat when they come here. And then all of a sudden they’re really hungry.” She added,
- “Food trucks can be a real center of a community. All of the sudden, it’s like a hurrah — there’s food in the neighborhood. We come together for lunch and it feels like a community center, and that’s been really important.”
With many civic spaces damaged beyond repair, these impromptu mobile food gatherings functioned as a surrogate town hall — a place for people to see their neighbors, commiserate, and feel restored.
Beyond satisfying the immediate need of a nourishing meal, they provided people with a feeling of collective hope for the future of their community.
COME FOR THE FOOD, STAY FOR THE COMMUNITY
If there’s one common thread we’ve observed through our years of activating public space, it’s the ability of mobile food to act as a leveler, bringing diverse groups of people together over a common experience that’s larger than themselves.
In part two of our series, we explored how the lower barriers to entry and relative flexibility afforded by mobile food sets the stage for risk-taking and innovation. We concluded that mobile food offers a viable “way in” for entrepreneurs shut out by a frequently rigid and unsustainable restaurant industry. Often minority or underserved populations, these entrepreneurs face a lesser burden of high operating costs cutting into thin profit margins.
And such an environment is one that, we believe, encourages greater diversity and equity in business ownership.
Within our own microcosm of mobile food entrepreneurs, a survey of our creator pool revealed that 30% identify as woman-owned, 30% identify as immigrant-owned, 8% identify as LGBTQ-owned and 2% identify as military- or veteran-owned.
Off the Grid insights™
In recent years, the proliferation of food halls in urban centers has opened up even more doors for small business owners, including underrepresented and immigrant-owned ventures. In our own backyard, the recently announced La Cocina municipal marketplace is a prime example of a creative temporary use of vacant space, offering a replicable model for equitable development for cities across the nation.
And as rapidly changing cities continue to demand flexibility, the emerging field of mobile architecture is providing planners with new ways to activate public (and private) space while creating pathways to entrepreneurship.
Innovative mobile architecture like Off the Grid’s ‘Cubert’, a modular pop-up kitchen and retail space, allows vendors to serve anywhere they might find hungry people — from office lobbies to public plazas and even wide open fields. With recently passed legislation in California that allows hobbyist chefs to sell food cooked out of home kitchens directly to the public, flexible mobile vending spaces are likely to play host to a new generation of enterprising, passionate and culturally diverse cooks.
Brought forth by the volunteer-run advocacy coalition C.O.O.K. Alliance, the legislation stands to empower those who’ve been historically underrepresented in conversations about food and labor policy. Says the alliance, “food is a fundamental lever of economic empowerment, and the modern food industry has taken that away from many through its strict barriers to entry.” It adds,
- “Cooking should be a tool for solidarity — better connecting us with our neighbors, bridging socio-economic divides, and building power in local economies.” (cookalliance.org)
Here at Off the Grid, we need look no further than our guests who tell us time and again that while they’re drawn to our markets for the food, it’s the sense of community that keeps them coming back.
Said one anonymous market attendee, “It’s a good change of pace to be able to get food from around the Bay, often with unique options that most people haven’t tried. It also uplifts a lot of vendors who want to get out there but can’t because opening a commercial kitchen is a nightmare. But really, it gives communities a reason to come together and actually interact.”
The takeaway for cities?
Increased diversity in food offerings (and by extension, business ownership) leads to greater understanding across cultural and socio-economic divisions, and a means for people to feel connected to a place and a purpose — and, ultimately, to one another.
Over the course of this series, we hope you’ve been left with an understanding of the powerful impacts that mobile food can deliver to cities — from street vitality and neighborhood safety, expanded dining options and economic benefits, to community solidarity and shared understanding.
And if you’re in the neighborhood, we hope you’ll share a meal with us at one of our mobile food experiences and, just maybe, walk away with something more than a belly full of carne asada, adobo chicken or dumplings.
But, hey – we think that’s pretty satisfying, too.