Making Space for A Cart/Kiosk Culture in Accra and Portland

Portland Food Carts: Photo by Author

In Portland you might enjoy a steaming bowl of curry, while in Accra a spicy box of jollof.  Both purchased for a low cost and in a convenient location.  What is known as a cart in Portland or New York, a kiosk in Accra or Moscow, might also be a booth, pavilion or a stand.  Each is a different form of micro-enterprise that plays an increasingly important role in our cities today. A kiosk is an efficient way for an individual to start a business with low costs and short time, while providing an immediate service to an urban area.  Congruently, the vibrancy of a neighborhood can be accentuated through the articulation of these small forms.  But in spite of their proven role in developing walkable, socially intense communities, kiosks are an afterthought to urban design, and are impaired by insecure tenure, and generally considered undesirable.

Food Kiosk in Tema, Ghana: Photo by Author

Portland’s ‘cart culture’ is primarily oriented to food services, and within this limited sector, operators offer creatively designed structures and a wide variety of cuisine types.  The carts are distinctively mobile, often in the form of a trailer or a truck, located on temporary sites.  Because of their impermanence, a website called ‘Portland Food Carts’ keeps track of their location and services, helping hungry people find the best taco cart or the closest place to buy barbeque.   Yet, the city does not commit to these structures, and only allows them in specially approved locations, typically vacant lots or adjacent to parking.

Portland Cart Culture Street Scene: Photo by Author

The City of Vancouver is stricter; rigorously controlling even the type of food served. (Can we please have something besides hotdogs?)

By contrast, Ghana’s ‘kiosk culture’ is pervasive and diverse.  Set up in public right of ways from shipping containers or wooden sheds, they are rarely mobile by function, yet transient in tenure and construction.  If electric connections are made they are hijacked from nearby wires.  However, the kiosks are essential to neighborhood life and where most daily needs are purchased – from bread and mangos to cell phone

Kiosk in Tema, Ghana: Photo by Author

credit.  Because there is little regulation and anyone can build a kiosk in a public space without enforcement, they consume all of the sidewalk area, forcing pedestrians to risk their safety walking along the edge of the road.   This has a compromising effect on public space and the social utility of the public realm in Ghanian communities.

So how do we find a balance between over and under regulation? Minimize homogeny and maximize creativity? Where do we make room for kiosks in our dense crowded cities, and in streets where bikes, pedestrians and cars are already competing for space?    How can we support kiosk owners in offering a wider range of services and goods, while establishing information networks to help clients find their specialty services?  How can their architecture be dynamic and productive, to process stormwater or produce energy, as one architect in West Africa is researching?  They may be a great solution for suburban areas, where small-scale retail may be infeasible due to parking requirements and excessive road widths are asking for additional program.

Portland Cart: Photo by Author

Undoubtably the answers to the questions will be case specific, and depend on the city and local culture.  Kiosks are an opportunity to increase richness in our urban fabric, promote experimentation and deliver goods/services in walkable locations while providing economic development.   Urban designers and planners should consider them in their plans, and look for ways to encourage innovation in kiosk design and placement.

Websites about Carts and Kiosks:

Portland Food Carts

Active Kiosk Design in Africa

Flickr Slideshow with more Kiosk images

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2 Responses to “Making Space for A Cart/Kiosk Culture in Accra and Portland”

  1. victoria.83 said:

    Jun 25, 10 at 10:28 am

    very interesting article! wondering what you were/are up to in accra? currently working in accra on a transportation project.

  2. Bridget P said:

    Jun 27, 10 at 11:46 am

    Great article Stace McGace! LA has a crazy Taco Truck culture that has turned into all kinds of cuisine. There are all these fancy painted trucks that have “Follow us on twitter and facebook!” So you can track them.
    Come visit LA please!!!!