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Measuring McCities: Quantifying "Chainness" of Foodscapes in the United States

Authors: Xiaofan Liang, Georgia Institute of Technology, Clio Andris*, Georgia Institute of Technology
Topics: Spatial Analysis & Modeling, Food Systems, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: Chain restaurants, independent restaurants, placemaking, spatial analysis, United States
Session Type: Poster
Day: 4/8/2020
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 4:35 PM
Room: Virtual Track 3
Presentation File: Download



Geographers and planners have a stake in preserving local restaurants, retail, and hotels in order to cultivate a distinctive, authentic landscape. Over time, chain venues (i.e. franchises) have replaced independently-owned venues, producing a more globalized, replicable landscape curated by distant corporations. Yet, little assessment has been conducted on the (types of) places where independently-owned venues still dominate the foodscape and uphold a local value system.

We investigated the spatial distribution of nearly 800,000 independent vs. chain restaurants for the Contiguous United States. We defined what constitutes a chain using multiple methods and evaluated the distribution of chains in U.S. cities and towns. We then ran a random forest regression and plotted the changes of "chainness" against quantile breakdown of important sociodemographic factors to identify factors that correlate with high or low-chainness at the census tract level. We also tested the impacts of nearby water bodies, coastlines, and highway ramps on chainness.

We found that high percentage of Trump voters, high African American population, medium density and car-dependent small towns, Midwestern and the Southeastern U.S., college campuses, and highways are associated with high chainness. Independent restaurants are associated with coastal cities, pedestrian walkability, high population density, Asian, Hispanic and majority-White neighborhoods, tourist areas, and areas with urban professionals, retirement communities and nearness to water bodies. This applied research opens pathways to study the value systems of geographies that trust corporate services over individual offerings. It also emphasizes landscapes at risk of globalizing towards placelessness through chain retail, hotels and other services.

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