Restaurants Really Can Determine the Fate of Cities and Neighborhoods

A new survey shows how much food influences the vibrance of urban centers. 

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Jacques PALUT/shutterstock.com

The way to an urbanite’s heart is through his stomach, apparently.

A new study released today by planning and design firm Sasaki Associates found that food is a major driver of the American urban experience: Eighty-two percent of urbanites appreciate their city’s culinary offerings, and a new restaurant is the top reason nearly half of those surveyed would venture out to explore different parts of their city. The majority of city residents also consider food and restaurants to be the most outstanding aspect of cities they love to visit.

Sasaki commissioned independent research firm Equation Research to survey 1,000 people living in six cities: Austin, Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. The study, analyzed in the report “The State of the City Experience,” was conducted in May of this year.

Going out to eat has been a huge driver of America’s urban renaissance, judging by the poll results. Like any café owner in Paris, today’s U.S. restaurateurs know full well the vaunted place of food in the spectrum of city life. The line-out-the-door bistro is the meeting place, the water cooler, the modern-day bazaar—maybe even the new congregational convening. Have you been to (fill in the blank)? It’s central to the urban conversation.

Restaurants are the leading force behind reclaimed waterfronts and regenerating neighborhoods, and are a key component of mixed-use development and urban retail. When a part of the city puts itself on the map, it’s often because of a wave of trendy eateries have opened there. I've almost completed the circuit of new restaurants that have sprouted in Washington Square in Brookline, the Boston area’s hottest foodie hub. My latest destination was Fairsted Kitchen, which, appealing to my inner urban-planner nerd, draws its theme from Frederick Law Olmsted and his presence in the area. (The name refers to Olmsted’s offices, which are on a nearby National Park Service site.)

There are, of course, a few prerequisites if one is going to hire a sitter and try to schedule life around trying out a new spot: The urban bounty must be locally owned—if by a pair of previously aimless skateboarding buddies, so much the better. No chains. The preferred menu is organic and locally sourced. It’s amazing how farm-to-table has gone from novelty to a given in such short order.

The Sasaki survey results reflect a similar appreciation of the local, in ingredients and entrepreneurship. Forty-six percent of those surveyed said they want their cities to invest in more community-focused events and attractions such as farmer’s markets, swap meets, and food trucks.

Admittedly, there’s something a bit cloying and entitled about talking about this at all as the world falls apart all around us, and those living in slums worldwide scrape by. But it does make sense. We’ve all got to eat, many of us are trying to eat healthier, and the contemporary professional is pressed for time. The clear advantage of living in the city is to have staggering variety right outside the doorstep. The local bistro is where we unwind, or do business, or discover a new way of life, like going vegan.

What are the other essential ingredients of urban love? Study respondents seem to favor traditional architecture, with more than half saying they would like to see their city renovate historical buildings, compared with 22 percent who would like more unusual architecture. Nearly half ranked their city’s waterfronts as their favorite open space. They want less traffic congestion, better management of parking spaces, and better public transportation.

Sasaki principal Victor Vizgaitis detects a penchant of what designers call programming, which happens as a matter of community and civic life. While those surveyed were unimpressed with modern architecture, for example, “we believe it is because today’s contemporary buildings tend to prioritize quantity and speed over quality and mission," he says. "As planners and designers, our job is to understand what people want and balance these desires with the big picture—economic realities, cultural needs, environmental concerns, and design opportunities—ultimately helping to shape a more satisfying and sustainable urban experience.”

I welcome the focus-group feedback as part of the ongoing project of understanding what it means to live in the 21st-century American city, and look forward to more polls that tells us even more. But right now, the kale salad at Tory Row in Harvard Square is calling to me. The place is right in Harvard Square and they serve it outside with a handcrafted IPA. Everybody's talking about it.

(Top image: Jacques PALUT / Shutterstock.com)

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