Uncommon Markets: Leveraging the Power of Marketplaces in Post-Covid Revival
Urban food By Stephen Davies and Richard McCarthy 8 months ago
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the outlook for public markets and public spaces looked bleak. Avoiding human contact, however, was quickly replaced by calls for social cohesion in the town square. While the pandemic has negatively affected markets, especially indoor markets and ones that attract tourists, we’re excited that conversation has shifted completely.

So many markets in Europe have boomed during Covid. For instance, in Paris, sales at street markets increased by 40%. Or in Italy, according to farmers market operator, Campagna Amica, they steadily increased by 30%. More generally, life itself has become more like a public market. The activation of public spaces has been remarkable with entire shopping streets essentially becoming markets as businesses extend onto sidewalks as they have in many city centers around the world.

Other outcomes have revealed the silver lining of the pandemic and point to why markets are deserving of additional investment and policy support, post-Covid.   First, consider the “return of the local” — cooking at home, buying food locally, staying in your neighborhood more.  When the tourism that has overwhelmed so many European markets suddenly disappears, it opens up markets to local shoppers. Second, smaller neighborhood markets have fared better than the larger municipal flagships. Third, the pandemic-inducted isolation has amplified the role of retail therapy for many. Shopping for food has served as a shared healing experience (whereas the supermarket sortie involves the quick mission to get in and get out with as little human contact as is possible).  This reinforces the importance of markets as instruments that cultivate community.

Market Cities: Investing in markets as local community places

Public policy at the municipal, regional, or state and provincial level has done little to unlock the full potential of public market systems. In the United States, farmers markets have made some policy gains through efforts led by organizations like the Farmers Market Coalition, statewide coalitions of market operators, and programs of the United States Department of Agriculture. However,  policy successes tend to focus on increasing sales for farmers and often fail to recognize the importance of the broader economic and placemaking factors that make markets work in the first place.  

Now that most towns feel like markets themselves (with retail spilling over onto pedestrian and even automotive spaces), we hope that the tool of the managed assembly of vendors in public spaces (i.e., public markets) will move mainstream and municipal.  And, thankfully, a handful of cities around the world have demonstrated an alternative by developing urban policies and programs that enhance the financial health and community benefits of public market systems.

Through Project for Public Spaces’ International Public Markets Conference, we had the opportunity to experience Barcelona’s vision of markets as infrastructure, which ensures that every resident is within a ten-minute walk of a public market, as well as the initiative of Mayor Sadiq Khan of London, UK, to create the London Market Board and evaluate the social impact of the city’s 280 markets. More recently, Project for Public Spaces collaborated with partners in Pittsburgh (PA), Seattle (WA), and Toronto (Canada) to support market leaders to elevate their challenges and provide a framework to operationalize markets as essential services (as opposed to public perceptions of markets as jolly special events).

These cities have served as inspiration for the Market Cities Initiative, a partnership between Project for Public Spaces, Slow Food International, and HealthBridge Foundation of Canada.   We believe that cities should not just recognize the value of markets to build thriving cities and public spaces but should adapt the following seven principles we’ve recognized as valuable to make markets a transformative force in the future.  Moreover, we’d like to see how networks of European Market Cities can work together to learn from each other and bring a new definition to the “common markets.”

The Seven Principles of Market Cities

1. A Market City includes a wide variety of types of markets in a city as part of one market system. Markets include both food and non-food markets, and range from large central wholesale and retail markets to neighborhood markets and informal markets of street vendors.

2. A Market City organizes diverse partners and stakeholders who can collaborate and act together to achieve common policy objectives. Potential partners and stakeholders include market operators and managers; advocates for health, community development, local food, agriculture, and job creation; philanthropic organizations; and city and regional government agencies.

3. A Market City measures the value of their markets and understands how they function. Market Cities understand where markets are located and if there are places in the city/region that do not have access to a market, especially vulnerable neighborhoods; the supply chains for public markets; the quality of all the markets’ physical facilities and public spaces; the economic, social and public health impact of the markets; and the needs and wants of vendors and customers. A Market City uses this information to “connect the dots” so markets can offer a broader benefit to the community—especially for low-income people.

4. A Market City has distribution networks that prioritize and support healthy, affordable, and safe food and other goods produced in the region. These networks provide the physical facilities necessary for storage, processing, and distribution as well as support the staff who operate these facilities.

5. A Market City regularly invests in its market facilities and the management skills of market operators. Potential investments include renovating existing markets to improve the physical infrastructure to incorporate sustainable design features, and building new markets, as needed, to improve demand or address operational limitations. Market Cities ensure that market managers have the skills and staff to operate the market efficiently, effectively, and resiliently.

6. A Market City helps diverse types of vendors start and grow their businesses. Types of assistance include helping vendors, especially from disadvantaged groups, start a new business, innovate or expand an existing one with new services and products, and making sure that vendors have the equipment, services and training they need to follow modern food safety practices.

7. A Market City recognizes that its markets are also public spaces that welcome different kinds of people and maintain important cultural heritage. They support this role by creating public spaces in and around markets that are safe, accessible, and attractive, encouraging social mixing. Market Cities programming special cultural events and activities, especially those about healthy diets and safe food.

Moving Forward

With help from Project for Public Spaces and ARUP, the Bloomfield Saturday Market in Pittsburgh, PA, successfully adapted its operations to the coronavirus pandemic. 

As the Covid 19 pandemic has demonstrated, public markets are capable of acting as essential economic, social, and public health infrastructure in our communities—but only if we support them through public policies, programs, and investments.  Here’s  a few suggestions about some next steps we can take:

  • Bring together market networks with placemaker networks.  Too often they are operating separately in cities and there’s more power in collaboration.
  • Do more systemic analysis of all the markets in a city, using mapping techniques that can help understand the broader context of markets.
  • Develop new post-covid policies that maintain the positive progress we’ve seen with public spaces and markets during the pandemic, and take them to the next level.

 Let’s get started!


Sections of this article were previously published at www.pps.org