Atlanta’s Food Truck Fervor

By Emma French and Mackenzie Wood

Georgia Tech students enjoy food truck fare on Tech Green, from  GT’s Instagram

The food truck fad that has been sweeping the nation has arrived in Atlanta in full force. The number of food trucks operating in metro Atlanta grew seventeenfold over the past five years, from six trucks in 2010 to over one hundred and ten in 2015. Now, every day of the week, residents and visitors can purchase an array of interesting mobile cuisine for lunch or dinner at a food truck vending location or special event somewhere in city of Atlanta or in a surrounding suburb. On Monday nights between six and nine o’clock families gather in a gravel parking lot in the center of Decatur, an intown suburb just east of Atlanta, to enjoy an al fresco dinner at the Loaded Burger truck or the Genki Noodles and Sushi truck. In Midtown, one of Atlanta’s three business districts, office workers enjoy a novel assortment of Thursday lunch options from more than fifteen food trucks, including the Yumbii Korean taco truck and the Wow! arepas food truck. Groups of hipsters, teens and young families descend on the all-season Atlanta Food Truck Park on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights to enjoy a live band and sample lobster-mac from the Mac the Cheese truck, pulled pork sliders from the Sweet Auburn BBQ truck, or a collard greens quesadilla from the Blaxican truck.

How has this new industry gained prominence in Metro Atlanta? How have local regulations supported or inhibited the jurisdictional spread of food trucks? Last summer student researchers at CUI set out to answer these questions and paint a clearer picture of the food truck scene in and around Atlanta. A convenience sample of 111 food trucks was taken from the Atlanta Street Food Coalition’s current members list. Information about the type of food sold, the base location, and the vending location(s) for these trucks was gathered from individual food truck websites and social media pagesall but one of the food trucks from the sample have a functioning website, 89% of the food trucks (99 trucks) have a Facebook account, and 88% (98 trucks) have a Twitter account. Twenty-seven distinct vending locations were identified in and around Atlanta where food truck events were hosted regularly during the spring and summer of 2015 (see map below). Six of the vending spaces are located in the City of Atlanta and the remaining 21 are in surrounding suburbs. Some sites are in public city squares or parks, but many are located on private property, whether in a church parking lot or an abandoned lot. Seven of the vending site are managed by local governments including the City of Atlanta, the City of Suwanee, the City of Brookhaven, the City of Sugar Hill, and Alpharetta. Eleven sites are managed by third party intermediariesprivate organizations that specialize in food truck and related vending, e.g., the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, Red Bird Events, and Biz Serve). Farmers markets were considered third party intermediaries in this case, since they’re mission is the increase food access Four vending sites are managed by private entities that are not included in our definition of third party intermediaries, such churches and universities). The five remaining sites are managed by a combination of public and private institutions.

Map created with Scribble Maps.

Through an analysis of legislative records, newspaper articles, and academic literature, a historical account of city vending policies was assembled and used to trace the development of Atlanta’s food truck industry. This case study found that the success of local food trucks in Metro Atlanta is not due to proactive governmental policies but rather to persistent citizen participation and third-party intermediary intervention in the policy-making and industry-building process. Atlanta’s early food truck advocates and owners faced seemingly insurmountable barriers in the form of antiquated vending laws and restrictive space provisions. Their tactical, creative, and community-oriented solutions to these challenges led to the creation of what quickly became a robust industry.

Source: Wow! Food Truck

The Atlanta food truck case study highlights the challenges of starting and sustaining a food truck business. The intermediary actors in the Atlanta market served as important partners for the food truck owners, helping them traverse the permitting process, raising awareness about food trucks to ensure a sustainable customer base, and continuing to facilitate the creation of sufficient vending spaces to meet the supply and demand for food trucks. This case study also exemplifies the problems that restrictive policies can cause by demarcating public and private space in ways that privilege entrenched interests and restrict entrepreneurship and innovation. The tangled web of permitting and space regulations across municipalities in metro Atlanta has resulted in the conversion of spaces that were once binary (public or private) into hybrid public spaces. Although this transformation has been beneficial for the operation of food trucks in Atlanta, it further blurs the differentiation between public and private space.

This blog post has been adapted from a chapter titled “Atlanta’s Food Truck Fervor: Policy Impediments and Entrepreneurial Efforts to Expand Mobile Cuisine,” which will be published in the forthcoming book From Loncheras to Lobsta Love: Food Trucks, Cultural Identity and Social Justice edited by Julian Agyeman.



Cultivating Innovation in the Context of Urban Food Systems

By Emma French

Like many cities around the world, Atlanta has recently experienced a surge of interest and investment in urban agriculture (UA). Two examples of how this trend is being institutionalized in the Atlanta context are the the passage of a zoning amendment in 2014 making urban gardens an official land use, and the City’s hiring of an Urban Agriculture Director last year. According to Atlanta’s Director of Sustainability, Stephanie Stuckey-Benfield, the city “aims to bring local, healthy food within a half-mile of 75 percent of all residents by 2020.”

Urban agriculture can be defined simply as the cultivating of plants, animals, or other food products within a town or city. While a number of studies have found the potential to grow significant amounts of food in cities, most experts agree that UA will never replace traditional rural agriculture, but rather will be “a complementary strategy to reduce urban poverty and food insecurity, and enhance urban environmental management.”

Growing food in urban areas is far from new. Food shortages during the Great Depression and both World Wars led to urban and peri-urban farming to help curb food insecurity, provide jobs, and boost morale. By 1943, there were 18 million federally-sponsored Victory Gardens around the country, 12 million of which were located in cities.

From Modern Farmer
From Modern Farmer

Another historical example of urban farming is “guerrilla gardening,” where community members turn derelict public or private land into productive, aesthetically pleasing gardens. A prominent example of this is Green Grounds, founded by Ron Finley, which turns urban gardens and parkways in South L.A. into edible landscapes and urban farms.

More recently, urban agriculture has been the focus of research on sustainability and resilience. Urban farms and gardens are now serving as the site of experimentation, not only for technology, but also for policy, planning, and management. As climate change makes the future increasingly uncertain and potentially unstable, the need to understand how our food production, consumption, and waste systems interact with other vital systems such as water, energy, and transportation is becoming urgently apparent. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently solicited proposals for their Innovation at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water (FEW) Program, which aims to “catalyze well-integrated interdisciplinary research efforts to transform scientific understanding of the FEW nexus in order to improve system function and management, address system stress, increase resilience, and ensure sustainability.” Total funding for this program is expected to be between $50 and $75 million a year.

Researchers at Georgia Tech are helping set the national agenda around this topic. In 2014, the NSF awarded an interdisciplinary team of Georgia Tech researchers, including CUI Director Jennifer Clark, a $2.5 million grant to “develop the theory that infrastructure systems, with their many interdependencies and complex adaptations, have many similarities to ecological systems.”

Last year, this team was awarded a supplemental grant to host two expert workshops on this nexus, with the new addition of food systems. The first workshop took place at Georgia Tech last December, convening a diverse group of stakeholders from the Atlanta area, including representatives from the City of Atlanta, Georgia Organics, Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, Atlanta BeltLine, Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), Georgia Department of Economic Development, and Southern Company, among others. The workshop sought to identify gaps and failings in our current food system, envision a sustainable system, and map out how to get from our current system to the ideal one and areas that need further research.

The second workshop was held earlier this month in Washington, DC and explored examples of innovation at the FEW nexus and the scalability of such efforts. The second workshop included many of the same faces, but also brought in entrepreneurs from around the country. Ryan Cox, founder of HATponics, presented his model for building portable hydro-aqua-terra farms and transporting them to places in need around the world. Last year HATponics claimed to have fed a million people, including a number of Georgians — and HATponics has over 40 farm installations in DeKalb County.

“Ryan Cox’s HATponics produces portable, high-density farms using aquaponics, which is the hybrid of hydroponics and aquaculture. Hydroponics is soilless agriculture, and aquaculture is the farming of fish.”

Rethinking Innovation

While technological innovations are necessary, it is clear that they are not enough on their own. In order for us to maximize the potential benefits of these technologies we need to be equally innovative with our policy-making and organizational management. If our vision is too narrow, e.g., to produce as much food as possible in the smallest possible space, we may very well miss the target of creating more equitable and sustainable food systems. As one expert at the NSF workshop in DC noted, our generation’s obsession with all that is “local” may be misdirected, if our goal is indeed to reduce the carbon footprint of our food consumption. The well-known statistic that food travels on average 1,500 miles before it reaches your plate, omits the fact that over 85% of emissions produced from the food cycle come from the production of the food itself, while a mere 4% is from to the final transportation stage. Taking into account the fact that a third of all fresh produce in the United States is is thrown away before it even reaches our plate, perhaps that vision shouldn’t be producing more food locally, but rather shifting the distribution of fresh food within urban areas, reducing waste through composting, and consuming less meat.

Nathan Burnell of Compost Wheels transfers some compost from ‘compost cubes,’ made out of former shipping pallets, at a site along the railroad tracks north of Line Street.”

Advances in production technology could lead to more equitable distribution and sustainable outcomes, but only if advocates make it a condition of implementation and expansion. Such efforts will require innovative policies and planning. Proponents of sustainable urban food systems would do well to explore the potential for policies like the one passed early this year in France, requiring supermarkets that are 400 square meters or larger to donate all unsold food to food banks or charities. Collaboration with social enterprises like Compost Wheelsa company that collects compostable food waste from over 500 residents on bike and then distributes it to urban farms and parks around the city—could greatly reduce the amount of food ending up in landfills around Atlanta. By connecting these seemingly disparate parts of our food system, we can reduce some of the inefficiencies in our current food production system, while simultaneously addressing uneven access to fresh food, creating jobs, and revitalizing communities.

Innovation Through Urban Paradiplomacy: Atlanta’s Smart City Workshop Welcomes Barcelona

By Chris Thayer

Los Angeles, A Prominent Sister-Cities-Network Member

The concept of “paradiplomacy” (from ‘parallel diplomacy,’ referring to sub-national states engaging in international relations) has grown increasingly prominent over the past 50 years due largely to the natural outgrowth of national decentralization in conjunction with a globalized economy whose major players are megacities. Cities have proven to often resemble each other more than their home regions and to face similar challenges unique to their urban status. Thus, it is  unsurprising that cities have reached out to the international community of their fellows for support, investment, and insight — an activity which falls under the banner of paradiplomacy. In fact, “the global urban government network UCLG estimates that 70 percent of cities worldwide participate in some kind of transnational urban partnership” or related endeavor, marking this as a valuable trend to study.

The intimate, direct connection of physically remote cities is hardly a new concept. This conceptualization of “sister” or “twin” cities emerged in the mid-40’s, originally as an effort to support cooperation and friendship between disparate societies as a response to the Second World War, though proto-sister-city relationships have been documented since at least the 9th century CE. This relationship type was initially conceived of as primarily a cultural exchange and opportunity to foster goodwill and understanding, though in recent years the term has started to blend with paradiplomacy as city-city relationships intensify.

Likewise, the place of cities as economic actors on the global scale is well-known. Cities (particularly the City-State-like modern megacities) are economic engines in their own right, interacting with and driving the global economy, and their activities extend from merely serving as markets for goods and services well into courting international investment and negotiating city-specific trade benefits.

However, paradiplomacy evolves these interactions from single-silo cultural or economic exchanges to true diplomatic government relationships, encompassing culture, economy, knowledge-sharing, and much more. Several prominent concern areas with an established history of being addressed by paradiplomatic organizations and approaches include issues such as migration management and climate change.

One major issue paradiplomacy has been used to handle is migration management. This management may take on a variety of forms, including: co-development and migration preparatory assistance, charitable aid in home-cities to prevent forced migration (the ‘right to stay’), and even the direct municipal provision of social services and limited in-city citizen rights to migrants when the national government has not or will not take on such functions. Certainly, some of these approaches are executed by non-governmental actors, such as migrant organizations, but nonetheless city governments must interact with these likewise city-level foreign NGOs to provide for and integrate the migrants and manage the shift in population successfully — another expression of paradiplomacy.

It is unsurprising that cities (and therefore urban paradiplomacy) have also risen to the forefront of climate change mitigation efforts. Cities, especially in their more sprawling form, have historically disproportionately impacted the environment and in turn are uniquely vulnerable to some of climate change’s earliest effects, therefore becoming a target area for sustainability efforts. Many regional and municipal administrators are sensitive to the seriousness of cities’ role in climate change and are striving to take significant action to curb this problem, both to deal with shorter-term threats such as a major oil spill that national governments may be slow to move against, and in longer-term strategies for greater sustainability. Out of this desire and the need to share best-practices for achieving change, paradiplomatic organizations such as C40 Cities, which focuses on limiting greenhouse gasses, have developed to spread tactics and ideas that work in one city to many others globally.

Barcelona, Widely Regarded As The Current Global “Smartest City”

No longer is transnational development limited to haphazard outgrowths of international investment-cum-charity. Global cities are now engaged in exchanging ideas on how best to foster growth, not just monetary aid, and can engage in peer-to-peer learning activities and efforts to increase the city’s global prestige. The broad-ranging UCLG (Global Network of Cities, Local, and Regional Governments) prioritizes the sharing of best-practices for policy creation and implementation. Similarly, Metropolis (World Association Of The Major Metropolises), the largest organization for connecting major cities in the world, particularly emphasizes the sharing of knowledge, such as policies and innovation strategies, among world cities independent of their national governments. It is just such a passion for innovation within the larger spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit that brought a delegation of innovation scholars from Barcelona to participate in Atlanta’s IPaT Smart City Strategy Workshop and work with the City of Atlanta’s new Office of Innovation Delivery and Performance. This office was initially created in 2011 to focus on implementing strategies for concrete city improvements, and has evolved to focus on fiscal resilience. The Office’s leaders were an important part of the two-day workshop for Smart City Strategy definition, ensuring Atlanta’s continuing growth with an eye to the $50 million funding opportunity through the USDOT Smart City Challenge announced recently. Barcelona is well-known for its redevelopment and re-urbanization efforts and has already been acknowledged as a leading Smart City, and the visiting party from Creafutur provided crucial experience to the exciting discussion of options to further brighten Atlanta’s future — paradiplomacy at its finest.

A Year of Building, Defining, and Executing: CUI’s New Brochure!

By the CUI Team

gtcui brochure post pic
GTCUI’s Wide Range of Exciting Research Pursuits

Georgia Tech’s Center for Urban Innovation is leading, facilitating, and advancing research to help shape smart, resilient cities. After more than a year of building, defining, and executing this work, we are excited to share highlights from 2015 in our recently published 2015 brochure titled “Advancing the Urban Innovation Conversation.” Below is a taste of the kind of cutting-edge research projects and collaborations you’ll read about in the brochure.

CUI is Leading
CUI is leading Georgia Tech’s participation in the MetroLab Network, a multi-city consortium of city-university design-develop-deploy research partnerships. Georgia Tech is partnering with the City of Atlanta and Georgia State University as a founding member of the MetroLab Network, part of the Obama Administration’s “Smart Cities” initiative to help communities tackle local challenges and improve city services.

CUI is Facilitating
In May 2015, CUI hosted our inaugural research reception to showcase Georgia Tech’s collaborative work on urban innovation and sustainability. The event brought together nearly 150 faculty, staff, students, and alumni with research partners, stakeholders, and civic leaders for an informal conversation about innovative research on cities—in Atlanta and beyond.

CUI is Advancing
CUI is the local host for the Regional Studies Association’s North America Conference in Atlanta in June 2016, “Cities and Regions: Managing Growth and Change.” The conference provides a platform for international researchers to address the effects of these policy, organizational, and institutional innovations and their impact on work, identity, governance, production networks, infrastructure investments, technology diffusion, and ultimately place.

Join the Conversation
We invite you to join the urban innovation conversation and learn how CUI is helping better prepare our cities – and our world –  to face the challenges of today and tomorrow. If your research relates to urban innovation and you want to share it consider submitting a blog post to CUI at* Posts are typically between 500 and 1,000 words on past, current or forthcoming research. You can also join the conversation by following us on Twitter @GTCUI.

*External blogpost submissions will be reviewed by the CUI research team and selected based on relevance. We do not guarantee that all submissions will be posted.

The Case for the Innovation District as a Sustainable Economic Development Tool in the Knowledge Economy

By Sarah Carnes

The Tech Square Innovation District
The Tech Square Innovation District

Here in Atlanta we’ve seen the innovation district materialize on the Georgia Institute of Technology’s campus. Education and research are coupled with office and retail to construct a “premier high-tech business neighborhood.” Cities like Barcelona, Boston, and Chattanooga have joined Atlanta in hosting the phenomenon of the innovation district, which has emerged in recent years as an attractive economic development and urban regeneration tool to spur job and wealth creation, innovation, and quality-place making within modern urban centers. As we dissect the structure of these districts in an attempt to define a replicable and adaptable implementation model, we discern that they vary widely based on leadership, cluster-type, and firm-support programs.

Lessons from Chattanooga

Left with a deteriorating city center following the rise of suburbanization and expansion of the interstate-system, Chattanoogans welcomed the twenty-first century with a number of downtown redevelopment projects in an effort to reaffirm the city center as a place that is “authentic and evolving, lively and attractive, diverse and engaging, dignified and celebratory.” The most notable effort included the creation of an innovation district as an attempt for the city to leverage its strengths and resources to emerge as a hub of innovation in the knowledge economy. While the traditional innovation district model positions eds-and-meds as the anchoring institutions, Chattanooga’s foothold is its ultrahigh-speed fiber optic Internet services managed by the city’s public utility company. Internet speeds in Chattanooga are approximately 50 times faster than average speeds in other areas of the United States, making the city especially attractive for high-tech firms.

Local officials realigned the core mission of the Enterprise Center – a non-profit founded in the early 2000s to entice economic growth to Chattanooga – to serve as a catalyst and convening entity to amass “buy-in, investment, and cooperation from other sectors” and to lead “community efforts related to the innovation economy.” A centrally located innovation center also supports the city’s innovation district from both spatial and organization perspectives, and especially caters to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

We learn from Chattanooga that traditional innovation district models can vary in urban environments that differ by size, location, and resources. Thus, as we seek to create a leadership model for the burgeoning innovation district, we must be mindful that the list – and extent of involvement – of public, private, and civic institutions will likely be a function of a city’s unique composition. Chattanooga’s unique contribution to the innovation district space is its government-affiliated non-profit that exists with the sole purpose to support the innovation economy via the city’s innovation district.

Lessons from Boston

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Kendall Square is frequently touted as the most exemplary urban innovation district model in the United States, notable because of the high academic concentration in Boston. The innovation district’s current portfolio is comprised of nearly three million square feet and is home to over 150 high-tech and life science companies, while additional expansion plans are in the works, including an additional one million square feet of office and housing space.

MIT’s planning process prioritized the involvement of the larger public and favored the modern city-led public participation process. Specifically, engagement involved collaboration with the city and community “to develop a viable proposal that responds to the interests and concerns of various constituencies, including the residential community, MIT faculty and students, Kendall Square employees, and visitors to the area.” Efforts have emphasized the creation of affordable housing and additional public spaces for recreation.

MIT is intentional and deliberate in its use of place-making strategies to strengthen Kendall Square’s contributions to the innovation economy as well as its sense of place. In short, the university leverages its own talent and resources to fulfill the visionary role of the planner and innovator. The Institute’s definition of community also expands its property boundaries, which enables it to provide benefits to a larger public. Thus, we learn that Kendall Square not only functions as an innovation district. It also serves as a living laboratory for urban-planning strategies that serve public-policy and built-environment purposes. As other entities create new innovation districts or expand existing ones, a similar approach to that of MIT should be taken.

Lessons from Barcelona

22@ Barcelona is a prime example of a predominantly government-led innovation district model. The project emerged as an urban renewal initiative in Poblenou, a blighted industrial neighborhood, over 15 years ago, and now stands as a massive hub for knowledge and innovation. Since the innovation district’s establishment, it has become home to more than 7,000 companies and nearly 100,000 employees. The revitalization effort was also an attempt to aggregate international and local firms in a more concentrated geographic environment with hopes of fostering increased collaboration.

Collaboration amongst the city-government, education institutions, and the private sector have contributed to the success of the district. Physical infrastructure improvements began when the city pledged nearly $227 million in an attempt to create a more vibrant business community. Each year, representatives from each of the district’s firms are invited to a design charrette to respond to new challenges and determine where future resources would best be allocated. Current district housing plans call for the restoration of over 4,600 traditional houses in surrounding areas as well as the construction of 4,000 subsidized housing units, a quarter of which are required to be rental. The district also attracts small and medium firms by offering public financial assistance through the city’s Barcelona Activa program.

The most important takeaway from Barcelona is the particular validation of innovation districts as a sustainable urban economic regeneration tool. Through strategic programming and a robust planning model that emphasizes the physical, social, and economic, the City of Barcelona has created one of the most successful innovation districts in the world. Similarly, other districts must have an entity comparable to that of the platforms in Barcelona that specifically oversee business-assistance programs. This type of program will make districts more competitive and also facilitate the success of start-up firms.

Innovation districts are a sustainable economic development and urban regeneration tool for cities in the knowledge economy that differ on countless levels – from city size and anchor institution to the degree of government support. Moving forward, additional case-studies should be compiled to reveal more common themes for these districts, but it can already be shown through examples such as Atlanta, Chattanooga, Boston, and Barcelona that the innovation district is a powerful tool for urban flourishing.