UrbanPlannerholic

Nothing more dangerous than a well informed metropolis.

Sidebar by Theme Static

How Coffee Revitalizes the City

Coffee Bru, Amsterdam.

Coffee culture expresses new ways of working and living and helps shaping our cities.

Coffee helps us. It helps us get out of bed, it raises our productivity and promotes creativity, it’s the driving force of conversations and the fuel for writers and bloggers. This piece is also written in a coffee bar, my personal favorite. It’s called Coffee Bru and was recently named the best coffee venue in The Netherlands and Belgium in a newly published coffee guide. Coffee Bru is located outside of Amsterdam’s centre in a neighbourhood in transition. In a typical week, I spend about three days working in this place. Sitting here consuming coffee just helps me through the day and through my work, or at least gives me the illusion that my productivity benefits from the consumption experience.


Energy impulse for the city
But coffee is not just providing myself and other people with energy. It also ‘helps’ the city. Since coffee culture has grown so rapidly over the past years, coffee has become a catalyst for urban development as well. And this is not just a revival of ‘coffee houses’, that first emerged in Europe in the early 1600s. It is more of a phenomenon in which several developments in society and the economy meet, while having a strong connection to spatial dynamics.

Coffee places: physical articulations of our economies and societies
This mechanism has to do with the processes of postindustrialisation and several economic and societal developments that are associated with it. One of them is that in more flexible economies, the boundaries between social and professional life are fading. Business meetings are sometimes hard to distinguish from just hanging out or catching up, especially for smaller and more flexible businesses (eg. freelancers).
The fusion of professional and personal lives are related to the fact that businesses and individual professionals are becoming more and more footloose (at least within their city) and that this makes so called third places (places other than the house or the office, such as coffee bars and libraries) easier to use for work purposes.
Next to this, we are more and more concerned with aesthetic reflexivity and the sign value of things, rather than use value. Coffee (consumption) is a product/service that is increasingly subject to this. We are willing to pay more for fancy-named, exotically flavored or artisanally brewed coffee, because they like the product, but also because we like to relate ourselves to the product or the experience (yes, you too). Several years ago, the hip thing to consume was coffee with flavours and creams, preferrably in huge take away cups. Over the past years, the hip has shifted towards more artisan coffees, strict brewing rituals and freshly baked cookies and cakes in small-scale and cozy cofee bars with vintage and ingenious interiors.

A variety of coffee brewing methods
A variety of brewing methods is the new wave. ©Mabel Suen

The spatial division of coffee venues
In the meantime, the Starbucks-esque coffee venues have become more mainstream, generating large visitor flows and revenues. They are typically situated in the city centres or on the main streets of gentrified neighbourhoods.

The new type of coffee bars are generally situated in other places. One the one hand, because they cannot afford the high-end locations as they are often startups run by young people, but on the other hand because their crowds are also in other places. The main audience of the new coffee venues generally consists of people from twenty to fourty, with a dash of hip (or hipster). Looking around in these places, you see many students and young professionals/freelancers working, reading and socializing. (What’s also remarkable, is the amount of young mothers with babies hanging out there.)

Artisan Roast coffee bar, Edinburgh
Artisan Roast, Edinburgh.

Whatever the exact composition of the audience may be, it seems that much of the visitors also like living in neighbourhoods in transition and/or cannot afford to live in ‘better’ neighbourhoods. As is the case for the venues. The (slightly) off-centre location provides a suitable space for lower rents, and somewhat edgy character with which they like to identify themselves. 

And that is what many young urban dwellers like: the ‘undiscovered’, slightly hidden and rough character of the venues combined with innovative products and services. An initial result is often a flocking of young people, partly because there is a high demand for good meeting places, which has to do with the above mentioned shifts in society and economic structures.

Local buzz and gentrification
Popular meeting places, in turn, create a certain vibrance for their environment. This can help the neighbourhood develop, increase liveability (whatever that may be exactly) and attract more people and businesses to the area: a next phase of gentrification. It is evident that there is a correlation between commercial and residential gentrification. Commercial gentrification attracts more activity, making an area more attractive for more affluent residents. Residential gentrification on the other hand, generates a demand for more upscale commercial activities.

There is a lot to say about gentrification. A mild version of it is generally perceived as something good, but just as there is a momentum for these avant-garde venues to set up shop in not-so-hip areas, there is a certain tipping point in the gentrification process. This often entails (a.o.) rising rents, a declining share of social housing (at least in the Netherlands), at some point disappearing facilities and amenities for the less well-off, and in the more profound cases chain stores entering, standardization and a looking-alike of neighbourhoods.

We’re all gentrifiers
But let’s not go on and on about gentrification, that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. What is striking to me is that coffee bars are physical expressions of changes in taste and the ways we live and work. The popularity of these venues, in turn, can work as a catalyst for certain areas, because it creates a certain local energy, attracting more activity to these neighbourhoods. This is just an observation. And while I happily fuse my work with the enjoyable activity of consuming coffee and being part of the coffee culture, I’m aware of the fact that this makes me small cog in processes of gentrification as well. But that’s something we can hardly escape, since our ‘cities of production’ have already changed into ‘cities of consumption’.