Bringing New Life to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lost Designs

When Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959, he left behind over 600 unrealized designs and a fiercely devoted fanbase that has only grown with time. One of those fans, Spanish architect David Romero has been using advanced techniques of 3-D representation over the last few years to transform those visions into images so detailed they almost look like contemporary photographs.

It can be challenging for someone to fully grasp Wright’s unbuilt works from his drawings since they were often presented from very high points of view. Romero, however, presents them from the same perspective an individual would have from a nearby street. In order to achieve such detail, the architect considers not only Wright’s drawings but also any relevant photography, historical context, and built references for each rendering.

Romero referenced photographs of the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan to understand how Wright’s spiral Gordon Strong Automobile Objective southeast of Frederick, Maryland, might have been realized. He says that Wright chose to draw the building, a tourist attraction designed in 1924 to sit atop Maryland’s Sugarloaf Mountain, seen from very high points in order to emphasize its helical ramp. But that meant ignoring the actual perspective one would have from visiting the building. Romero discovered new nuances through the computer renderings, he tells CityLab. “Thanks to the new points of view, the tower becomes a visually very powerful element that competes in prominence with the helical ramp.”

Designed in 1925, Wright’s Gordon Strong Automobile Objective would have been in Maryland. (David Romero)

Since the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective was also meant to serve as a planetarium, Romero knew he wanted to capture the building at night; he gathered photos of dark skies filled with stars and “cars trailed by an electric glow.” Romero also incorporated plans, sections, and elevations, along with Wright’s actual drawings, using programs like AutoCAD and Autodesk 3ds Max. And since the structure was planned for the 1920s, Romero include era-appropriate cars.

A rendering of Wright’s Trinity Chapel designed in 1958 but never built for the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. (David Romero)

Wright designed 1,114 architectural works, a wide range of imaginative projects. Of them, 532 were built, including Fallingwater (1964), Unity Temple in Oak Park (1908), and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (1922), which was demolished in 1968. There’s also the unbuilt Butterfly Wing Bridge (proposed in 1953), a double arched bridge with a garden in the middle connecting San Francisco and Oakland, which Romero has rendered.

Romero also rendered Wright’s Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo—his first office building— which was built in 1903 and demolished in 1950. “So few living people can remember how it was beyond the black and white photographs,” says Romero. He says he felt like the explorer David Livingstone discovering Victoria Falls for the first time when upon seeing the completed Larkin renderings on his computer. People have even written to Romero, thanking him for the work. “Larkin is an important work of art within our history and many people, like me, feel an emotional connection with that work,” notes Romero.

A rendering of the Larkin Building. (David Romero)
Larkin building interior rendering. (David Romero)

Several of these renderings, including the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, the Butterfly Wing Bridge, and Roy Wetmore Car Repair and Showroom, were featured in the Fall 2018 edition of the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly. Jeff Goodman, VP of Communication & Partnerships at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation tells CityLab that he has held up the cover of the magazine, with Romero’s rendering of the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective, asking tour groups if they had ever visited the project. “They’re looking at it like there’s a photo of a building, wondering if they’ve been there and of course, the answer is it’s impossible,” Goodman says. “They’re actually looking at a photograph of something that never existed.”

The rendering of Gordon Strong Automobile Objective during daytime, which was on the cover of the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly, shown to tour groups. (David Romero)

Some of Wright’s drawings were only built long after his death, including the Massaro House (2007) on the private Petre Island and the Fontana Boathouse (2007) in Buffalo, leading to debates over their authenticity. In fact, one initiative to do just that, the Frank Lloyd Wright Revival Initiative, lacked the support of major Frank Lloyd Wright organizations, including the foundation, the trust, and the conservancy, as of 2017. Romero says he was able to avoid heated debates about reimagining Wright’s work in the digital sphere because they’re simply, as he puts it, “an honest way to analyze Wright’s works with new tools that allow us to contemplate them in a new light.”

Wright’s Roy Wetmore Car Repair and Showroom would be in Detroit, Michigan. (David Romero)

According to Goodman, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation plans to work with Romero on one issue of their magazine per year and envisions an exhibition in the future. There might even be books or prints, depending on demand. Romero welcomed the partnership, and enjoys having access to the foundation’s archive, which contains many of the original drawings.

“I would love to model all of Wright’s work, but it is immense,” says Romero. “I do not know if during all my life I will have time.”

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Carefully, Japan Reconsiders the Trash Can

For two decades, it was the lament of inexperienced visitors to Japan: Where are all the trash cans? It’s a cruel trick, in a way: In a country with innumerable vending machines, there’s often nowhere to put one’s wrappers or empty bottles.

Public waste bins and garbage cans were largely removed from Japanese cities following the 1995 sarin gas attacks, forcing residents to adopt some of the world’s more disciplined waste disposal techniques.

In recent years, however, the long-absent trash cans have started to make a cautious return to public spaces such as parks and train stations. Security sensitivities still remain, however: When President Donald Trump arrives in Tokyo this weekend for trade talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, many of those refuse bins will be locked up and sealed shut—a testament to the enduring impact that terrorist incident had on the psyche of the country.

The Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult led a series of coordinated chemical weapon attacks on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, which left 12 people dead. More than 1,000 were injured by exposure to the toxic agent. The domestic terror attack remains deeply resonant among the Japanese public, in part because of the potent symbolism in targeting the Tokyo subway—a system that carries millions of passengers each day and serves as an emblem of the nation’s economic power and modernity. To attack trains in Japan is to attack more than just run-of-the-mill civic infrastructure.

In the immediate aftermath, waste receptacles were sealed and then removed entirely from train stations and many other public spaces throughout Japan. Such actions are not uncommon after terrorist incidents. As CityLab reported previously, trash bins were also removed in London and Paris following bombings in the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, garbage cans temporarily disappeared from New York City’s PATH train system after the World Trade Center terror attack in 2001 and from the streets of Boston after the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013.

But in Japan, the cans mostly stayed gone. And despite fears that such a move would lead to an uptick in litter, such was not the case in Tokyo and elsewhere. Instead, Japanese residents dutifully return home from an afternoon outing with a purse or bag full of wrappers, bottles, or other trash accumulated while out on the town, to be sorted in accordance with Japan’s byzantine waste-disposal rules.

If you walk your dog in a Japanese city, it gets even more complex, as a recent Washington Post piece noted:

Dog owners have to take dog waste home and flush it down the toilet: A paper bag inside a plastic bag makes that an easier prospect. But embark on a road trip and you have a problem. For that, you need a poop bag attached to a magnet, so you can stick it on the outside of your car on the way home.

Per capita, residents of Japan produce half the amount of domestic waste of those in the U.S., and recycling rates far outstrip that of the U.K. and America. There are practical reasons for this, such as a shortage of space for landfills in the densely settled island nation. But the aversion to littering is also cultural: In a case study of Japanese littering, academics Ivy Bee Luan Ong and Benjamin K. Sovacool found that several factors contribute to the general tidiness of Japanese urban life, including strong community expectations and daily reinforcement among schoolchildren, who participate in a daily 15-minute period for cleaning one’s school.

To encourage low-waste lifestyles, Japanese authorities have employed several strategies. When trash cans were axed in public restrooms, for example, so were paper towels, to head off a potential litter problem. In their place, the use of small personal hand towels was promoted, and that remains the default practice, although air dryers have become increasingly popular in major cities in recent years. Cigarette smokers, prodded by passive-aggressive anti-litter campaigns, carry small personal ashtrays, eschewing the global practice of simply flicking their butts onto the street.

In mascot-mad Japan, there is also an anti-litter superhero yuru-chara, Mangetsu-man, patrolling the streets of Tokyo.

“Mangetsu-man” (Mr. Full Moon), a costumed mascot with a full moon for a head, cleans Tokyo’s Nihonbashi Bridge in 2014. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

But in recent years, garbage cans have slowly returned to public life in Japan. In 2006, rail operator JR East began re-introducing trash containers onboard its Narita Express airport line. Waste and recycling bins have also made long-awaited comebacks to train station platforms, public parks, and tourist attractions after testing via earlier pilot programs.

Several factors likely contribute to their return. Japan is experiencing a record-breaking tourism boom, especially in cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. The huge numbers of foreign visitors—a phenomenon dubbed kankō kōgai, or “tourism pollution,” in local media—has convinced authorities to re-introduce more public waste receptacles to accommodate those unfamiliar with Japanese garbage mores. And as rail officials concede, while Japan is overwhelmingly litter-free, planners cannot rely entirely on the public goodwill when it comes to disposing of trash, making waste receptacles a grudging necessity in some areas.

The legacy of the 1995 terror attacks remains evident in their design, however: Most feature clear bags inside transparent-walled receptacles, allowing for quick inspection of the contents within. Trash cans in Tokyo Metro stations are also positioned to be within eyesight of ticket gate staff. Less common are blast-proof pill-shaped waste receptacles that can be found along stylish Omotesando street in Tokyo.

When President Obama visited Japan in 2014, increased security meant no trash cans in the subway. (Allan Richarz)

Security is particularly tight around special events. In the days ahead of state visits from Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump in 2014 and 2017, respectively, bins across the capital city were locked, taped, or otherwise sealed shut. Apologetic notes from rail and public safety officials were also attached, explaining that the move was a security precaution. In the rare instances where bins were not closed off, such as at Akihabara Station during President Obama’s visit in 2014, security was posted next to the receptacles during operating hours to provide constant watch.

Similar countermeasures are likely for the June G20 summit in Osaka. In many respects, Japan has come full-circle with the gradual return of garbage bins to public spaces. But the country’s still-tenuous relationship with trash cans shows the lasting impact of terror attacks, even decades after the event. Worrying about litter is something that Japanese authorities and residents alike aren’t entirely ready to toss out.

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MapLab: How Game of Thrones Got Mappy

Welcome to the latest edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox )

Game of Thrones: How One of TV’s Most Epic Title Sequences Was Born” ()

Fan cartography  

“Why the south of Westeros is the north of Ireland” (Big Think)

“We made a moving tectonic map of the Game of Thrones landscape” (The Conversation)

Personal essay

”Here at the End of Things: On losing oneself in the geography of fantasy worlds, from Middle Earth to Westeros” (Longreads)

A map for no seasons

A CityLab classic is making the internet rounds this week, just in time for Memorial Day: a map of a 13,000-plus-mile U.S. road trip designed for 70-degree weather every day.

It’ll just take a year! (Courtesy of Brian Brettschneider)

The map was conceived by Brian Brettschneider, a meteorologist based in Alaska (who actually loves living in snowy climes), and was written up by former staffer John Metcalfe in 2015. If you’re the type of person who despises the cold and wilts in hot weather, you’ll appreciate it, Metcalfe wrote.

Where would you have to run to in the U.S. to avoid disagreeable temperatures … all year round? All over the dang place, it turns out … Brettschneider mapped the route that’s likely to keep a body exposed to daily high temperatures of 70 degrees, and it meanders for 13,000-plus miles from the southern tip of Texas up to Alaska and down again to San Diego.

Read more here. Happy road tripping!

Mappy links

Where superstar cities risk becoming supernovas: Richard Florida maps the toll of high housing costs. (CityLab) ♦ Faulty FCC data is leading to spotty internet service, so Texans are taking on broadband mapping themselves. (Texas Standard) ♦ I’ll find you in court: Google Maps data is becoming more common in litigation. (New York Law Journal) ♦ Speaking of which: Google Maps has an incognito mode now. (TechCrunch) ♦ Where the U.S. measles outbreak is hitting hardest. (Washington Post)

If you love MapLab, share it with a friend. They can sign up here. Happy unofficial start of summer!

Laura Bliss

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CityLab Daily: The Psychology of Fighting Over Parking Space

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

Curb your anger: For about a decade, Donald Shoup has collected reports of fatal violence that erupts over parking spaces, cataloging what he calls the war over curb parking. That may sound grim, but to Shoup, an urban economist and parking policy expert, this form of road rage reveals a lesson in economics. When people find a commodity that’s in high demand but considered to be free, they find ways to claim and defend it. When it comes to parking, people may try to hold their spot through lawn chairs, idling cars, or even bursts of violence that lead to death.

“You don’t get murders over Coke bottles or t-shirts,” Shoup said. To him, these fatal disputes demonstrate why cities need to pay closer attention to these contested spaces. Sociologists and criminologists have also theorized about why parking provokes violent outbursts, and understanding why these disputes happen could help explain how to fix it. CityLab’s Laura Bliss asks: How Can Cities Curb Parking Spot Rage?

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower Is Getting a Grander, Greener Park

The most famous space in the city is set to get a pedestrian-friendly redesign that will create the city’s largest garden by 2024.

Feargus O’Sullivan

‘Corporate Preemption’ Is Making It Harder for Cities to Protect Workers

Thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, more and more companies are using forced arbitration to undermine state and local labor laws.

Kriston Capps

Netflix’s ‘Street Food’ Reveals a Thriving and Threatened Culture

In cities globally, street vendors are an essential source of food and provide critical income to women but recent crackdowns are threatening this lifestyle.

Sarah Orleans Reed

The Unintended Consequences of Green ‘Nudges’

When participants in a study had the option of approving a behavioral “nudge” to clean energy use, their support for a carbon tax dropped.

Kate Yoder

What I Learned By Listening to My Neighbors Fight

In a dense city that’s filled with humans, neighbors become spectators to one another’s personal lives.

Maris Kreizman

Harvey Milk Day

Today is Harvey Milk Day in California, which commemorates the San Francisco supervisor who became the first openly gay man to hold elected office in the Golden State. Milk, elected in 1977 and assassinated the next year, would have been 89 today.

In an L.A. Times newsletter edition marking the occasion, the executive director of the GLBT Historical Society recalls a poignant story when Pete Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Buttigieg, recently visited the museum. Terry Beswick recalls sharing an audio recording of Milk’s will:

“In that moment, I was just thinking about giving him a brief look at Harvey Milk,” Beswick remembered. But when he stepped back to allow Buttigieg to listen to the recording, he recalls thinking, “Ah, what did I just do.”

“I could see the tears in his eyes and I was thinking, he’s got to be thinking about the risk that his husband is taking, even by running for president,” Beswick said, explaining that although San Francisco is “a bit of a queer cultural bubble,” that isn’t the case in the rest of the country.

Read the full story here.

What We’re Reading

Privatizing the public city: Oakland’s lopsided boom (Places Journal)

How Stockholm became the city of work-life balance (The Guardian)

Silicon Valley’s shame: Living in a van in Google’s backyard (Bloomberg)

USPS is testing self-driving mail trucks (NPR)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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What We Fight About When We Fight About Parking

The latest entry in Donald Shoup’s collection of fatal parking disputes is particularly grim. In late April, a 57-year old woman named Lourdes Estremera set up a grill on the street in North Philadelphia and got into a physical fight with a neighbor who wanted to park in the spot. Police arrived, and the woman died while being interviewed. The exact cause of death was unclear, according to local news reports. But the source of the inciting conflict was plain to Shoup, a distinguished professor at UCLA’s department of urban planning and a well-known parking policy expert. Estremera was a casualty in what Shoup calls the war over curb parking.

Perhaps that sounds insensitive. To him, it’s basic economics. A commodity in high demand, such as urban curb space, must be priced. “Free” street parking in congested areas invites parking-seekers to stake and defend their claims in other ways, such as putting out lawn chairs, idling the car for hours, or bursts of violence that can sometimes lead to death.

“You don’t get murders over Coke bottles or t-shirts,” Shoup said.

To Shoup, parking disputes that turn deadly demonstrate why cities must pay closer attention to these contested spaces, by setting up meters and enforcing restrictions. In decades of research, Shoup has examined other social costs of free and overabundant parking, including wasted space, time, and gasoline, and lost revenue that local governments could easily use. He hasn’t formally analyzed them, but he’s also been gathering news reports about violent curb conflicts for about a decade.

Consider this gruesome headline from New York City: “Brooklyn dad shot dead on Father’s Day was killed because of a months-old fight about a parking spot.” Or this lede: “A man and a woman from South Los Angeles have been arrested for stabbing a woman to death in front of her children over a parking space at a swap meet.”

A quick Google search of parking spot violence will turn up an alarming quantity of such incidents. Sociologists and criminologists theorize as to why violence can erupt from such seemingly inconsequential concerns. Jeffrey Butts, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, says that the dynamics of parking provocations are sometimes similar to those of gang violence: Individuals who think their territory is threatened feel that they have to respond with violence to protect it.

Curbside horror stories are often dispatched from poorer neighborhoods, but that may just reflect the nature of sensational crime reporting; the affluent are just as guilty of getting upset over a lost spot or a dinged door. (Case in point: celebrity parking assailant Alec Baldwin.) “Everyone is capable of violence,” Butts said. “This is not just about cities, or poor people, or congested neighborhoods. It’s a general human thing.”

Roberta Senechal de la Roche, a Washington and Lee University history professor who studies theories of violence, said that some parking altercations may be also understood as the attacker trying to save face confronted by a grievance. She cites University of Virginia sociologist Donald Black, who wrote in his book Moral Time that “[m]en of honor are known for their ‘touchiness,’ and might construe various incidents short of direct insults as challenges requiring a defense.” (Other genders could conceivably be included.)

One thing that seems to amplify the odds of violence: the presence of automobiles. Butts pointed to taxi drivers who dangerously speed up behind cyclists, or pissed-off motorists who run other cars off the road. A vehicle provides both social insulation and a powerful weapon to use against your tormentor. “Having that box around you protects you from the reprisal of others,” he said. “Anything to do with a car is more likely to provoke a violent response.”

Shoup is less interested in the psychology of road rage; to him, the parking spots themselves are the indirect culprits, and proper metering is the obvious solution. Butts, however, fears that that raising the price of parking could risk punishing lower-income curb users. To end parking violence once and for all, cities must address road violence, too. That means creating transportation networks that allow fewer people to own cars to begin with.

In the end, there’s probably only one clear response to Shoup’s morbid inventory. Said a nine-year-old boy after overhearing the gunshots that killed a man in a curbside dispute in Las Vegas last year: “I just think it’s so sad someone had to shoot someone over a parking spot.”

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Paris Will Create the City’s Largest Gardens Around the Eiffel Tower

One of the world’s most recognizable urban spaces is slated to get a dramatic makeover. On Tuesday, Paris City Hall announced that the London-based landscape architects Gustafson, Porter and Bowman had been selected from 43 applicants to lead a major redesign of the space around the Eiffel Tower. According to the plan, the currently car-filled bridge connecting the Eiffel Tower with the Métro subway system will be turned into a pedestrianized garden, stringing together a set of two new public squares and restored parkland that will create an unbroken spine of greenery a mile long across the city.

The plan would slash car traffic in the immediate vicinity of the Eiffel Tower, making the area altogether more inviting to walkers without notably altering the appearance of what could be the most famous urban ensemble in the world.

An overview of the Eiffel Tower master plan//GP+B

That Paris needs this overhaul around the Eiffel Tower is not necessarily common knowledge. The tower itself remains as beautiful as ever—indeed, it is one of those monuments that rarely disappoints people when they see it for the first time in real life. Its immediate surroundings, however, are a little careworn and hectic. Many visitors must access the tower via a loud, traffic-filled, and rather unprepossessing riverside, and limited space for pedestrians creates bottlenecks on the sidewalks. The Champs de Mars gardens from which the tower rises are unquestionably grand, but they also betray their origins as a military parade ground: The site can feel austere, dusty, and under-shaded in high summer.

A new amphitheatre of lawn will cover existing car lanes in the Place de Trocadéro//GP+B

The new plan, due to be entirely funded by ticket sales to the tower and due for completion in 2024, should help burnish the area’s beauty and make it friendlier to pedestrians. Currently, most visitors emerge from the Métro at Trocadéro into a busy carousel of traffic, with an (admittedly pretty) garden marooned behind surging car lanes. The redesign removes these car lanes and replaces them with a stepped amphitheater of lawn, creating a large garden for lounging with stunning views of the tower. From there, visitors will step through the brackets created by the Palais de Chaillot and down the steps to a completely new pedestrian square, Place de Varsovie, created by routing traffic on the right bank quay into a tunnel.

This area won’t just be calmer, it will also be cooler, thanks to an increase in its current number of fountains.

The Pont D’Iena will be pedestrianized and planted with avenues of trees//GP+B

Visitors will then step onto the Pont D’Iena, the main bridge access to the tower, where traffic will be replaced by a double avenue of trees. Cobbled sidewalks will allow access for emergency vehicles. Tunneling for traffic on the right bank will create another pedestrian square, called Place Branly, while a riverside garden promenade will continue up river to the elevated Bir Hakeim Métro station, the other main access point for the tower.

Under the tower itself, visitors will get more ticket offices and kiosks and even somewhere they can leave bulky baggage before visiting. To prevent cluttering the area and ruining sight lines, however, many of these new facilities will be sunk into the ground, with the surrounding lawns at the sides raised to low humps to cover them. Garden restoration and new tree plantings will thicken out the surrounding space’s greenery and provide much-needed shade.

New office space for the tower’s operatives will be concealed with landscaping.//GP+B

This is, broadly speaking, a softly-softly approach, at least visually. But the plan’s many modest steps add up to something highly significant. When all the new green spaces are created and threaded together, they will become what co-designer Kathryn Gustavson described in a press release as “Paris’s largest garden,” a unified mile-long green corridor across the city. The new garden bridge also offers Paris an opportunity to succeed where London failed (with good reason) in creating a new cross-river park, realizing the dream of trees throwing shade over the waterway.

But perhaps the most striking element of the tower makeover is how it fits into a bigger story: the ongoing campaign to reclaim Paris from private motor vehicles. That politically contentious process, which began decades ago but picked up real momentum after the city agreed to permanently pedestrianize a key stretch of the Seine riverfront in 2016, is now spreading out into the wider metropolis as Paris’s staggered ban on more polluting cars is being picked up by municipalities in the suburbs. Now, that car-removing transformation promises to extend to the borders of the city’s most iconic attraction. That the new plan appears to manage this in a way that won’t notably tinker with the appearance of the Eiffel Tower’s surroundings actually makes it more impressive.

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Netflix’s ‘Street Food’ Reveals a Thriving and Threatened Culture

Netflix’s hit new series “Street Food” is more than a glimpse at the world’s finest street-side chefs. While other shows, most notably, Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” have featured the down-home goodness of street cuisine, “Street Food” may be the first to acknowledge the threat street-food vendors face in increasingly exclusionary cities.

Take Bangkok: It’s no surprise that the city’s globally beloved roadside vendors are the first featured in “Street Food.” But since 2014, Thailand’s military government has waged an open battle on the city’s street vendors, forcing workers to abandon their businesses or work in the shadows.  

The government’s push to clear the sidewalks is not a long-term solution. It has left a trail of social and economic hardship and, with few alternatives, many vendors return to sell in the areas where they started anyway, dodging police fines and confiscations to make ends meet.

Even as Bangkok’s approach demonstrates that forced eviction is not a workable strategy, eviction of street vendors is a common tactic around the world. At Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), we analyzed news on vendors from six continents for 18 months and the results show an alarming portrait of widespread hostility toward these workers across Africa, Asia, and Latin America; in cities from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, Lima to Lusaka. These national and local governments enact policies that ban or criminalize these jobs that workers need and services consumers demand. That’s why Netflix’s “Street Food” is timely. It reminds us why cities around the world need to embrace, not ban, street vending. And, as we explain, two very different cities—Los Angeles in the United States, and Monrovia, Liberia—have proven there is a way to make city streets and squares work for all.

Who has a right to the city?

The question of vending in public spaces has become a global debate. It has brought with it an important question about who has a right to work in cities. Sixty-one percent of the world’s workers (90 percent of workers in developing countries) are informal, and a significant number work in cities. Many of these workers—street vendors, waste pickers, motorcycle taxi drivers and food delivery workers—make their living in public space. The United Nations’s 2016 Sustainable Development Agenda directs governments to respect and support their livelihoods.

But many city governments are failing to implement these frameworks. What we are witnessing instead is a growing hostility to informal workers in urban public space and to vendors, in particular, as cities governments cave to elite interests by clearing the streets.

Street food is not just for tourists

Vendors are in public spaces not only to earn a living but as a response to an on-the-ground need. As food writer Chawadee Nualkhair says in the show’s first episode: “The vendors are there because the people want them there.”  

People in cities depend on street food. Global research shows that vending keeps city residents, especially the poorest, nourished and fed. In Sub-Saharan Africa, informal outlets like these vendors are a major source of food for urban poor families because of their convenient locations, affordable products, and their willingness to provide credit for loyal customers short on cash.  

A street vendor in the Dakar, Senegal, medina chats with her customers. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

These contributions are by no means confined to the Global South. “Green cart” programs, like in New York and Chicago, leverage vending to serve fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts—neighborhoods that are underserved by the big grocery store chains.

Street vending fills urban unemployment gaps, especially for women

While street vendors provide quick eats near homes and offices, their work is also essential to keeping their families afloat. This is evident with the story of Michelin-starred chef Raan Jay Fai in “Street Foods’” episode on Bangkok. Jay Fai’s mother supported her children as a vendor, and Jay Fai herself started cooking on the street as a last resort after losing all of her possessions in a fire. Vending gave her the chance to get back on her feet, eventually opening a small restaurant which now has lines extending out the door.

In the episode on Vietnam, restaurateur Nikki Tran reminds us that “almost one million of Ho Chi Minh City’s 10 million people make a living by selling on the street.” Indeed, vendors comprise between 9 and 24 percent of urban employment in cities where the data is available.

It’s no coincidence, either, that many of the vendors featured on the show are women. Available data shows the importance of vending and informal trade for women workers, who rely on these livelihoods to care for families. And likewise, having convenient access to produce or prepared foods helps alleviate the unequal burden of domestic labor. This means that bans and evictions directly conflict with goals to tackle poverty and reduce gender inequalities.

Some of the hostility toward street vendors comes from a perception that vendors compete with brick-and-mortar businesses. Yet evidence (including from New York and Los Angeles) suggests that vendors and small businesses often have symbiotic relationships, since vendors attract pedestrians to the street for shopping. Vendors also directly support these formal businesses through their own spending. In L.A., the Economic Roundtable estimated that direct spending by street vendors and their households creates more than 4,000 full-time employees in retail stores, groceries, and supermarkets.

In Bangkok, the recent disappearance of street markets badly hurt local storefronts, as well as wholesalers from whom vendors had previously purchased their goods. Businesses in some neighborhoods reported declines of well over half, with many shops relocating and the neighborhoods turning dark, quiet, and more dangerous. In an episode of “Street Food,” Nualkhair says about the effects of these crackdowns, “This is rupturing an eco-system that’s been in place for decades.”

Street vendors, as we have seen, are not the source of urban problems: they are often part of the solution. And vending policies for 21st-century cities need to reimagine how to include these workers as vibrant social and economic forces, as we outline in our toolkit for public authorities.

Indeed, some prominent cities are leading the way, with policies that improve neighborhoods by incorporating vending.

A Los Angeles street vendor prepares for her customers. In 2018, the Los Angeles City Council voted to legalize and regulate street vending following a long campaign. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Recently, Los Angeles’s City Council voted to decriminalize, and subsequently, to fully legalize and regulate vending. Under a new permit system still being finalized, all street vendors will be eligible to purchase permits, requiring them to pay taxes and abide by agreed rules: for instance, related to health and hygiene, sidewalk placement, and prevention of pedestrian or traffic obstruction.

City council members were responding directly to demands from the community. Throughout their decade-long struggle for this policy in L.A., vendors emphasized the need for “active streets:” places where vendors make things safer, more prosperous, and healthier by bringing people and nutritious foods to the streets.

Thousands of miles away, officials in the city of Monrovia, Liberia, signed a groundbreaking Memorandum of Understanding with the country’s street trader union, on September 27, 2018. The agreement provides licenses and registration fees for vendors, creates collaborative systems for waste management and enforcement, and imposes penalties when either party (including the police) break the agreement. Most important, it requires monthly meetings for city agencies to meet with the union to work out any kinks in implementation.

L.A. and Monrovia are extremely different in many ways, but they have both made a common, affirmative decision to capitalize on the valuable services that vending provides: creating jobs, increasing access to affordable foods and goods, activating isolated city streets, and stimulating local economies.

By making vendors legitimate business owners, these cities increase the urban tax base and reduce the need for costly evictions and enforcement. These two cities on opposite sides of the globe have worked closely with representative organizations of vendors to formulate and innovate. Their success proves that with will and collaboration locations across the world can move street-vending policy into the 21st century.

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