When the Street Eats the Vendor

TEXT Brendan Cormier
PHOTO Andrea Winkler

Last year, amidst the dust and din of jackhammers outside Toronto’s Union Station, news broke that six street food vendors would lose their spots as part of the station’s renovation process–with no plans of bringing them back when the project was complete. Around the same time, eight vendors were removed from the Bloor-Yorkville area as a part of its ambitious Bloor Street revitalization project. And in 2007, just after the debut of Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal, the Royal Ontario Museum put forth a request to have three hot dog vendors and one ice cream truck removed from outside its doors so as not to hamper the image of the new addition. The message would seem clear: for Toronto city builders, the ideal city doesn’t include street food.

But if we look elsewhere, we get a different impression. On an unseasonably cold October evening in 2011, a shabby parking lot in the Distillery District was transformed into a lively space by an ensemble of food trucks and a throng of food lovers. The night was Nuit Blanche, the city’s dusk-to-dawn art event, with most of the spectacle happening on the other side of town, but still thousands of people flocked here in the cold to try out new culinary treats. In fact, food events like these have become immensely popular in the last few years. With the growth of farmers’ markets, community gardens, and pop-up food festivals, people are increasingly embracing food as a way to engage in the city’s public spaces and vice versa–using public spaces to engage in food.

The contradiction here is astounding: while the public is constantly inventing new ways to use city spaces for food activities, hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested into architecture and streetscape projects that ultimately result in the removal of street food. 

This raises an interesting question. As designers of these projects, to what degree are we complicit? Architects and urbanists today are normally staunch supporters of public space. In fact, a cornerstone of our architectural and urban design education is rooted in supporting and protecting the vitality of public space. As a result, we’re normally the first in line at that hot dog stand–at least metaphorically. However, to a large extent, this enthusiasm for street food has failed to appear in our designs. And when a client fails to provide space for vendors, we tend to blame the client and not the architect.

True enough, in an era where architecture is increasingly positioned as a commodity, one that becomes more valuable the more iconic it looks, supporting street food can be a tricky prospect. From the client’s perspective, the messy aesthetics of the street–intensified by vendors with their signs and accoutrements–is often interpreted as a direct threat to their investment, sullying the clean rendered image that they were originally promised. The ROM wanted vendors to be moved so that the building would photograph well; after all, hot dog vendors weren’t included in Libeskind’s original drawings. So as purveyors of these renderings and promises, we have to be careful as to what message we’re transmitting.

Considering food vending and food-related activity in public space design is then a necessary first step. The more we propose food amenities in our streetscape plans, suggest it in our renderings, and raise the topic at meetings, the more our clients will listen. If we really care about vibrant city life, it’s time we put food on the urban design agenda. CA 

Brendan Cormier is an urban designer, writer and currently the managing editor for Volume magazine.