Street Vendors Belong On the Post-Covid Urban Scene
John Rennie Short, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County is of the view that COVID-19 has forced us to rethink city living. We should take the opportunity to reimagine a livelier, more interesting and more equitable post-pandemic city.
Cities around the world are emerging from pandemic shutdowns and gradually allowing activities to resume. National leaders are keen to promote economic recovery, with appropriate public health precautions.
Recently, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced economic growth plans that included creating 9 million new jobs and reducing urban unemployment to less than 5.5%. One surprise was his emphasis on street vending. After decades of trying to clear city streets of vendors, the Chinese state is now embracing them as a new source of employment and economic growth.
More than 2 billion people worldwide – over half the planet’s employed population – work in the informal economy, mainly in developing countries. Street vendors often face official harassment. In my view, encouraging street vending as part of COVID-19 recovery makes sense for many reasons.
Street vendors and the informal urban economy
Street vending still thrives in many cities around the world. Many development programs in low-income countries from the 1950s through the early 2000s sought to eradicate street vending. Local governments often took aggressive actions to remove street vendors from public spaces.
Recently, however, many nations have embraced street commerce as a way to reduce poverty and boost marginal groups, especially poor women from ethnic and racial minorities. As one example, since 2003 it has been illegal to remove street vendors from public spaces in Colombia without offering them compensation or guaranteed participation in income-support programs.
Nor did street vending disappear entirely from cities in wealthy countries. It survived in traditional flea markets and farmer’s markets. These lively urban spaces are now augmented by the motorized version of vendor’s street food: food trucks. Building on food trucks’ success, more cities now are seeking to promote street vending.
Street vending during a pandemic
Street vending offers many pluses for cities restarting after COVID-19 shutdowns. First, it can blunt some of the economic pain of the pandemic. Second, it can be configured to encourage social distancing more easily than the internal spaces of crowded shopping malls. Third, many cities are already being reconfigured and reimagined through steps such as widening sidewalks and creating traffic-free streets. These actions create more opportunities for street commerce.
Grants, training programs and low-interest loans, designed to help more street vendors get established, would steer support to citizens who are less wealthy. Encouraging this kind of entrepreneurship, with its low entry cost, is a small but significantly more equitable way to stimulate the economy.
Street vending offers still more benefits. It enlivens urban public spaces and increases public safety by making streets vibrant and welcoming. Promoting street vending can generate employment, keep people safe and create the vitality and comity that is the hallmark of liveable humane cities.
Source: The Conversation