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Brewing Character: Vancouver's Indie cafés, Mapped

Where they cluster, and where they're absent, says much about our city's culture and community.

By Jackie Wong 18 May 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Jackie Wong is a Vancouver-based journalist.

We all want to go where everybody knows our name, but where? Here in Vancouver, the recent spate of sunny weather and attendant outdoor bacchanalia helps us forget a darker reality. Most months of the year, we spend our days ducking between drippy awnings before rushing indoors to wait out the rain and let our well-documented loneliness set in.

Emerging from our fortresses of solitude, we don't migrate to European-style public squares -- but not for lack of trying.

We turn, instead, to the coffee shop, the place at the ephemeral yet crucial intersection between work and home, or what social theorists refer to as the dynamic, conversation-friendly "third place."

With these ideas percolating and Americano in hand, Andrew Yan embarked on a quantitative study of Vancouver's independent tea and coffee shops using business license data from the City of Vancouver's Open Data Catalogue.

View Larger Map

See this story's sidebar for more on how this map was created.

Yan is a senior researcher and urban planner with Vancouver's Bing Thom Architects. He published his maps of independent coffee shops on the heels of a similar effort to map Vancouver's major coffee chains. To make the "independent" cut on this current map set, the indie shop had to have fewer than five outlets in the city.

Yan's maps show how independent coffee shops change the community texture of a neighbourhood -- for better and for worse.

"Some readers in the Twitterverse have observed how these spaces bring together and connect nascent communities," Yan says. "Others have suggested that certain types of independents and chains are heralds of gentrification and displacement. These tensions highlight the ongoing concerns about and direction of the urban, economic, social, and cultural development of the city of Vancouver."

Rethinking coffee zones

Independent coffee shops tend to appear in clusters on Yan's maps. That's a result of land-use zoning that places retail and commercial activity on busy streets. So it's no coincidence that high incidences of coffee shop clustering are, as Yan says, "often located in neighbourhoods with some of the strongest urban identities in the city."

Yan's local area map compares the number of indie shops to chains in Vancouver's neighbourhoods. Coffee shop density, it seems, has a lot to do with neighbourhood character.

The mapping project paves the way for an interesting urban planning experiment that could involve allowing independent neighbourhood cafés to operate in residential neighbourhoods rather than on major transport corridors.

View Larger Map

Thinking of Benny Foods Italian Market in Strathcona or Arbutus Coffee in Kitsilano, "such a phenomenon is not without precedence," Yan notes. "Neighbourhoods like Kitsilano and Strathcona already have prototypical examples of this type of land use."

A boost in neighbourhood coffee shops could be the antidote to the SAD (both the disorder and the disposition) characterizing the worst of Vancouver's rainy season.

"In a city where connection and loneliness is a growing concern," Yan says, "This might be one commercial and community opportunity to get to know one's neighbours."

But Yan says don't take all the Macbook Pros on display in local coffee shops as proof of Vancouver's robust liveability.

"It remains an unwritten chapter," he notes, "whether these ideas and industries emerging from Vancouver coffee and tea houses can scale to the numbers of employment with accompanying wages that are needed to support a sustainable, livable, and just city."  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy

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