Coffee: an important urban planning technique

Coffee culture is taking over the world. Long established in countries like Italy and Turkey, it has really taken root in Australia. I think this country has some of the best coffee in the world, and people here certainly take it seriously, and have many options in most cities with new cafes springing up all over. I recently spent a week just checking in on Facebook to any coffee shops I went to. Didn’t make any particular effort to go to more, but ended up checking in at 15 places in the week, with only two double ups!

So why is somewhere to drink coffee so popular? Is it just a new addiction we are all developing as a result of coffee barons peddling their addictive product? Bit more to it than that I think! Here’s my take on it.

1. It’s how we do business

Coffe shops are the “third place” for many in the service sector. Manufacturing workers have to be in the factory to work. As our economies swing increasingly to a focus on providing services (like urban planning, for instance), there is less need to be “in the office” to do business. How often does one hear “let’s meet for a coffee and discuss it”. I hear that a lot. Matter of fact I say it a lot too! Anyway, I read somewhere that in Australia up to half these meetings now happen in cafes. I’d believe it.

Of course, this trend is helped by the now widespread availabiity of smart mobile devices, that free us up from being in front of a computer. Even so, the trend is not new. As this article notes, Lloyds of London started in a coffee house, and doing business with coffee is now widespread in the UK.

2. It legitimises people watching

I recall hearing one of the team from Gehl Architects saying that when they do their data gathering, one of the questions they ask people is about their favourite activities. We don’t often think of it as an activity, but apparently their list includes “people watching” and most people rate it in their top three.

If you sit around all day in many cities just staring at people going by, you might be thought odd, suspicious, or just plan freaky. But if you sit in a cafe drinking coffee and doing the same thing, we all think that is normal behaviour. The French cottoned on to this early and make no pretence about it – all those Parisian cafés line up their outside seating facing the street, not each other!

3. It satisfies our desire to herd

As I noted in this earlier post, we are all the same animal, a mammal species known as humans, and we have certain innate or inbuilt properties to respond to the same things in a similar way regardless of local cultural differences. We all like to people watch, and as animals we mostly have a herding instinct – most of us like to hang out in crowds, watch other people, and generally be part of a happening place.

Most readers would have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A planning friend of mine, Irene Duckett, recently while touring Europe posted this version of it, which I kinda like:


Certainly, the wifi need is strong while travelling overseas! But it is the social needs that come from family and friends that is the key here. So the cafe becomes another place for family life and getting together with friends. Our lifestyles are more geared to going out and enjoying each other’s company, either for work or pleasure, and coffee places help fulfill this basic need.

the planning dividend

Apart from coffee being a major interest of mine, the main reason I am reviewing coffee culture is to draw this together and note how well it fits with other planning objectives I support. Cafés are a classic stalwart of mixed use. They also facilitate active streets, walkability, and social interaction, and are a Main Street use that enlivens the public realm. They support economic activity, both for the owners of these businesses and employment for those that work in them; and also support other industries like tourism.

In my book, that’s a tick in every box. So more power to you coffee culture, I say, on your march to world domination!

Greg Vann
October 2013


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