Microeconomy on Main Street

When building a sustainable city, food carts can be as valuable as infrastructure.

Moxie Rx in Portland, Oregon.

Ah, Portland. When I first heard you added an aerial tram to your long list of public transit options I thought, “Well now you’re just showing off.” With more LEED buildings going up than just about anyone, with the new South Waterfront district on pace to be the greenest neighborhood in the country, and with all that aforementioned transit, you guys know how to plan big. But what really makes you such a wonder is that you also know how to plan small.

A great example: the food cart. On a trip through town last week, I visited my friends Nancye and William, owners of Moxie Rx, a food cart located on the burgeoning commercial strip of Mississippi Avenue in North Portland. The two of them retrofitted an old trailer into a tiny café where Nancye somehow manages to produce a diverse menu of baked goods and breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and fresh juices using local ingredients, all in a space the size of a Pez dispenser. Portland has about 170 of these food carts and, like Moxie Rx, many go well beyond the hot dog or gyro stands found in most major metropolises. There are several blogs dedicated to their specialized fare.

“Portland is really good at fostering the microeconomy,” Nancye told me. The food carts, she explained, can be a stepping stone for some chefs, a way to prove themselves and get on the foodie radar in a manageable way.

The carts can also serve as exceptional community builders. Moxie Rx transformed a small urban lot that might otherwise sit empty. It’s an ingenious infill solution. In addition to food service, they host the occasional film night or arts event. There is a small stage next to a garden for live music. And while Nancye specializes in breakfast food, she doesn’t bother with drip coffee or lattes. Instead, she directs customers next door to a small coffee shop serving locally roasted Stumptown beans (they, in turn, let you take their glass mugs to her picnic tables). “Those guys take coffee very seriously, so there’s no need for me to compete with that,” she explained.

Urban planning students from Portland State University are now working with the city’s planning department on a survey to assess the financial and social impact of food carts on the local economy.

The city has also been rezoning certain residential streets for commercial uses in response to shifting demographics. The result is new restaurants and businesses popping up in houses to service emerging communities. Moxie Rx is looking to expand into a second location: a bungalow. “The city is growing fast and neighborhoods are evolving,” Nancye said about the rezoning. “It’s important that every neighborhood have its own little space that people can walk to.”

So while the city takes big steps—like installing a $57 million tram and insisting new buildings earn at least LEED Gold—they also recognize that a truly sustainable community is one where small businesses can thrive alongside the big guys and each citizen can walk to their own little main street.


Above: The cart.

Below: Nancye bakes based on what’s fresh in the local market: Nectarine cream muffins, raspberry scones and fresh fruit cup.


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