Lifestyle Geography Of Food Environments

Boston as a Case Study

By Qingyue Li


Food is an essential aspect of our daily life and is also a way to express ourselves. What food we choose to eat, where we eat, who we eat with, and even how long each meal takes, etc., reflect our time, social interaction, emotion, ethics, and our lifestyle. All food-related choices continue to influence the way we represent our social values and how we want to be seen and connect with others in the city life.

This thesis focuses on looking at the food environment in the urban context, intending to understand how the food environment in a city cultivates people's buying and eating food habits. By studying the objective physical distribution of food amenities and subjective food opinions through questionnaires, this project draws different connection between individuals’ lifestyle and food environments. You can see how people like you access to food in Boston.

Major Challenges

Understanding Urban data & overlaying different dimension data & role of Urban visualization

Concept Map

My strategy about connecting food environment data and cities

First Impression of Food Environments in Boston

Through daily observation in Boston, I document the scenes of how people interact with food-related environments, like restaurants, supermarkets and eating in public spaces, from typical weekday to weekends. Observation is also how this project began.

To understand the fundamental question of the thesis, how public space looks like through the lens of food, I start with mapping at the pedestrian scale in Boston. I use the environmental audit as a research method to document and categorize the typical food-related scenes in different locations. For example, in Back Bay, noon is peak hour for workers to take a lunch break. Allston, at 7 pm on weekends, is popular for places to try Korean food.

Please click on location icons to explore more :)

Data On a Human Scale:
Research and Analysis Strategies

When I was thinking the fundamental question of this project, how to see lifestyle through the lens of the food environment. I realized that determining how people’s daily behavior is associated with food environment was the key to answer the question. In data levels, reading our daily food-related behaviors can mainly be separated into two parts, including “purchase” and “dine in”. Purchase refers to the accessibility to places where one can buy food to prepare or directly eat. Dine in refers to the accessibility to find places to have a meal.

Exploring Food Amenities In Relation To Public Transportation

A new primary question then began with: There is a relationship between what people do and what they want, and is that the same thing with food? I categorize food amenities into two types based on people’s needs: places to eat in public spaces and places to buy unprepared foods. Places to eat in public spaces includes three subcategories, food as social, food with entertainment and places to buy unprepared foods.

Places to Eat in Public Spcaces

Food mainly for social

  • For example: Restaurant

  • Cafe

  • Bar

Food with entertainment

  • Movie-theater

  • Shopping mall

Bring your own

  • Park

Places to Buy Unprepared Foods

  • Grocery stores

  • Convenience-store

  • Pharmacy

  • Liquor Store

Boston is one of the city in United States has a a relatively well-developed public transportation system, especially for subway. Thus, I used the MBTA as an example to study the relationship between public transportation and the food environment. The following maps shows MBTA subway stations in relation to the amounts of food amenities nearby.

The buffer zone - here referring to surrounding an MBTA station - is based on an adult with the average walking speed for a five-minute walk, about ¼ of a mile or about 400 meters. The reason for choosing 5 min as a dimension is because The Five-Minute Walk is a standard general use measure as the average distance that a pedestrian is willing to walk before opting to drive in urban planning.

Mapping of Subway Station and Places Suitable for Food as Social

Which public spaces are suitable for outdoor dining?

Based on Open Space Dataset from Analyze Boston, Boston currently has 1,012 open spaces, which mainly include six types
1. Cemeteries & Burying Grounds
2. Community Gardens
3. Malls, Squares & Plazas
4. Parks, Playgrounds & Athletic Fields
5. Urban Wilds & Natural Areas
6.Parkways, Reservations & Beaches.

I filter out the places potentially suitable for outdoor eating, including 1. Malls, Squares & Plazas 2. Parks, Playgrounds & Athletic Fields. 3. Urban Wilds & Natural Areas
In Boston, 69.6 % of outdoor spaces are suitable for outdoor dining according to this metrics.
N percent of them are within 0.25 miles walking distance of the MBTA.

Since the large-scale map shows the broader picture, but it is hard to explore the deeper layers of information, I here zoom into the small communities. I choose 6 most popular neighborhoods, according a survey I conducted for this project.
The number under each subway station in the following drawing represents the amount of food amenities within walking distance.

Boston has 145 stations. N stations are located within the 6 most popular neighborhoods.
Brighton has 6 subway stations within its boundary. I draw a buffer zone based on each center of the station location in order to see how many food amenities people can access near each subway station. In Brighton, Warren Street is the most accessible station to food amenities, while Boston College is the least accessible station to food amenities.

Back Bay has five subway stations within its boundary. All the stations in Baybay are highly accessible to surrounding food amnesties. Back Bay is a food hub in Boston perhaps because of its average high income and it being a popular destination for tourists and shoppers.

Fenway has ten subway stations within its boundary. Symphony station’s surrounding area attracts large student groups to eat since it is located in between Northeastern University and Berklee University. It also attracts people who come for music performances to eat nearby the Symphony Hall. These two factors likely cause this station to have higher food amenities accessibility compared to the other stations.

Central Boston VS Outer Boston: Quantity

I categorize neighborhoods into central neighborhoods and outer neighborhoods based on their geolocation in Boston. Central neighborhoods refer to those neighborhoods located in the heart of the city, including Back Bay, Fenway-Kenmore, Beacon Hill, South Boston, South End, North End, Charlestown, Chinatown-Leather District, Downtown, West End and Bay Village. Outer neighborhoods refer to those neighborhoods located surrounding the center of the city, including Mission Hill, Allston, Brighton, East Boston, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, West Roxbury, Hyde Park, Roslindale, Mattapan and Mid-Dorchester.

This diagram explores the relationship between food-related amenities accessibility and central/outer neighborhoods condition.
Central Boston consists of 15.3% of the total area of Boston but has N% of overall food amenities. The average density of food amenities in central Boston is M per square feet. Outer Boston consists of 84.7% of the total area of Boston, has A% of overall food amenities. The average density of food amenities in outer Boston is F per square feet.

From the diagram, we can also observe in central Boston; people have more access to restaurants, café, bar these types of food places particularly suitable for social through foods.
In outer Boston, people more access to places to buy unprepared foods as well as places good for combine food and entertainment, like movie theaters and shopping malls.

Working Neighborhoods vs. Living Neighborhoods: Food Amenities Distribution

I surveyed 208 participants to understand how people eat in Boston. As part of the survey, I asked people which neighborhood they work and which neighborhood they live.

Working Neighborhoods and Living Neighborhoods
Of the 208 participants who live in the Greater Boston area, most Boston residents are in Back Bay, Mission Hill, and Brighton. However, people still spend most of their daytime hours for work or school in Back Bay, Downtown and Fenway-Kenmore.

In a typical workday or everyday scenario, due to the limited time during the work break, where people go to eat and buy food is highly related to where they work or spend the most time during their day. Thus, it is useful to see how many food amenities people can access from the top 3 working neighborhoods and residential neighborhoods. I found this part of insights when combined the survey result with Google Places API data.

Insights from Combined the Survey Result with Google Places API Data
In the diagram above, the different food categories on the x-axis are classified based on the subcategories under the two types main categories of food amenities based on people's needs I defined before: places to eat in public spaces and places to buy unprepared foods.
The data I represented on the Y-axis is, first, use Google API query finds the total amount of the number of each food amenities category and then combines the three working and living neighbors defined in the questionnaire as geographic boundaries to filter the values. Then I use this bar chart to visualization with the final data obtained.

As can be seen from the diagram below, working neighborhoods tended to have more food options compare to living neighborhoods. When zooming into the neighborhood level, the downtown area has the most food amenities compared to the rest of the neighborhoods.
Downtown area can be ranked No.1 for 1. coffee neighbors 2. rich casual dining option neighbors 3. Convenient with convenience store neighborhood. Back Bay area can be ranked number one for fancy dining neighborhood.

Food Amenties Density Maps by Categories

Building Personas Through Quantitative Data

The study use three research methods

Gathering Data From Online Surveys

I posted questions in Boston oriented Facebook groups and Amazon Mechanical Turk and got 208 responses from participants living in Greater Boston.

When asked, "What are the top 3 food amenities choices for you?" I found that participants replied that:
1. Whether you are single, in a relationship or married, supermarkets along with fast food restaurants and casual sit-down restaurants are always the top three favorite food amenities choices.
2. Married people tend to go more frequently to dine dining restaurants, versus people single and in a relationship, with people in a relationship going less often, and single people going least often.
3. Married people also tend to go more frequently to Bars, versus people single and in a relationship, with people in a relationship going less often, and single people going least often.
4. The market for meal kit is not as large as all the advertising for it we receive from social media.
5. Married people tend to eat more healthy, and less frequently go to fast food restaurants.

People who are single from the survey said...

When they choose a Casual Dining Experience, the top four most important factors are
"Taste 86 percent of the responses, Price 68%, Atmosphere 42% and Health 24%."

When they choose a Formal Dining Experience, the top four most important factors are
"Taste 78%, Atmosphere 69%, Price 40% and Social 31%."

The top three locations/platforms that they get most of their food from are
Supermarket 88% Casual Sit Down Restaurant 64% Fast food restaurant 61%

Where Single People Get Their Food From the most?

People also In a relationship from the survey said...

When you choosing a Casual dining experience,the top four most important factors are
"Taste 86%, Price 68%, Atmosphere 42% and Health 24%"!

When you choosing a Formal dining experience,the top four most important factors are
"Taste 78%, Atmosphere 69%, Price 40% and Social 31%"!

The top three locations/platforms seem like you get most of your food from are
Casual Sit Down Restaurant 82% Supermarket 81% Fast food restaurant 47%