Licensing, popular practices and public spaces: An inquiry via the geographies of street food vending

Koch, R.

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Koch, R. (2015). Licensing, popular practices and public spaces: An inquiry via the geographies of street food vending. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39(6), 1231–1250.

Public Life , Public Order Safety , Saftey , Street Vendor Licensing

The socio-legal technology of licensing is one of the primary tools governments use to manage spaces and practices deemed risky or threatening to public order. Licensing requirements thus play a crucial role in shaping routine experiences in public space as well as the trajectories of emerging forms of public life. Yet licensing laws have largely been ignored in critical urban scholarship: too often concerned with the interpretation and critique of popular practices and public spaces, the mundane operations of urban governance are often left to practitioners and policy researchers. This article demonstrates how paying closer attention to licensure can provide valuable and unexpected insights into matters of social equality, urban amenity and economic opportunity. It does so through a comparative inquiry into practices of street food vending in New York City, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. Drawing on ethnographic study and interviews, the article demonstrates how licensing can be involved in the production of quite peculiar and unjust geographies of practice, but also how shifts in popular culture can force a reconsideration of taken-for- granted laws. In conclusion, it is argued that a focus on licensing offers a productive pathway for new forms of critical urban research and provides a potential point of leverage in efforts to configure better and more democratic forms of urban public life.

Main finding
The author finds that the licensing of street vendors enabled governments to create conditions for constant accountability, gave leverage to law enforcement in shaping conduct, and induced self-surveillance among fellow vendors to protect themselves and their customers. Licensing helps facilitate coordination among government departments and allows governments to curtail problematic activities on a situational basis which can depoliticize certain conflicts which historically have further restricted vendors. Licensing was not wholly undesirable in terms of social control; the author sited the concept of caring surveillance or self-monitoring of actions to protect the public with municipalities intervening on troublesome practitioners. However, the effects of licensing often exceed their own rational and became stifling leading to illegal or undesirable acts to get by and survive such as: illegally renting a vehicle permit or renting out your vehicle permit to a licensee and paying them little.

Description of method used in the article
Comparative inquiry between three cities was conducted via 20 weeks of participant observation (shadowing vendors, ride-alongs with health inspectors, attending admin. hearings for licensing infractions, volunteering at Street Vendor Project) and 29 informal interviews.

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