Food sampler: the struggle to eat on the street

Street food in Bangkok

Editor’s note: The City of Ottawa’s restrictive street food regulations have come under
scrutiny this week, with a popular online petition calling for their review garnering hundreds of signatures. But street vending is not just as consumer choice issue, it is a public space concern; exploring that, the Inclusive Cities blog recently posted this news roundup on how street vending is dealt with in cities around the world; it is cross-posted here with their permission.


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Global news headlines about street vending are showing a stark contrast in the way cities are addressing consumer demand for the goods and services street vendors provide. On one side, the city government of Accra, Ghana implemented a total ban on street vending at any location in the city not designated as a hawking zone, enforced through fines, arrests and imprisonment. Meanwhile, in Canada, one city (Montreal) is considering a reversal on its long-time ban on street vendors, and in another city (Vancouver), local university students teamed with the tech industry to develop an iPhone app that will generate more demand for street vendors by delivering directions, menus and information about street food carts to consumers.

The Canadian news reflects a recent street food craze that has gripped North American cities, linking hungry lunch-hour foodies hoping to avoid the same old sit-down restaurants with entrepreneurial chefs seeking to generate a loyal following for creative culinary experiments delivered by trucks and mobile food carts. This craze has elevated age-old arguments about street vendors’ use of public space, and about competition between street vendors and off-street establishments – competition viewed as unfair by the brick-and-mortar types, and perfectly fair to street vendors and economic libertarians – in public discourse. It has also demonstrated how much city-dwellers rely on, and enthusiastically support, convenient, open-air options for fulfilling their most basic need, to eat.

The Ghanaian news, by contrast, reflects the age-old problem of traffic congestion in poorly planned cities with few formal job opportunities. Accra’s mayor is not the first to announce that street vending will soon “be a thing of the past” in a city, and he will not be the last to discover that banning street trade doesn’t make it go away. The reality is that street vendors and off-street merchants both provide services that are valued by consumers and that are good for cities. As Yale Law Professor Muneer Ahmad reported after a mission in India, trying to prohibit street vending in places where it naturally occurs is a “recipe for failure” because there is an actual demand for the goods and services that vendors sell. That’s why India’s National Policy on Urban Street Vendors calls on cities to accommodate street vendors in natural market areas, and why Durban’s Warwick Junction is viewed as an international success story. The question is how to incorporate street vendors into the planning process, and how to make plans for street trade sustainable over time.