Originally published in:

The Market Express: A Newsletter of the Alberta Farmers Market Association,
(Spring 2004 – Issue 16)

For the past year or two, it seems I have been eating and breathing the Edmonton City Market. The process of revitalization that the City Market is going through has made me hungry for the smallest crumbs of information about farmers markets across the province, country, and continent. I have eagerly gobbled up information about the many different markets featured in the past several issues of The Market Express.

Some markets have sparked my interest because they are also undergoing drastic changes – such as the new ABC Market in Calgary or the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market (which, like the Edmonton City Market, has had to move out of a municipal building).

In general though, I crave the most ordinary details: How do the other markets work? What are their procedures and policies? How do they recruit or select vendors? Who runs them and how? Do they have a board? Who’s on the board? What are their bylaws? Do they have a building and how did they get it? And, most important of all, do they break even?

These burning questions recently led me to shell out way too much money to attend a workshop in New York City titled How to Create Successful Markets organized by Project for Public Spaces – a remarkable non-profit organization that is dedicated to creating and sustaining public places that build communities.

Markets are just one of their interests – they also focus on streets, squares, waterfronts, and parks.

Their work is not limited to farmers’ markets either; they look at markets of all types including wholesale, retail and flea markets. According to their definition, public markets have public goals, operate in public spaces and serve locally owned and operated businesses.

For PPS, public markets are crucial institutions with a number of benefits. They activate public spaces, thus creating dynamic communities and stimulating economic opportunity both inside and outside the market. Markets instill community spirit and cultural exchange. They revitalize neighborhoods, bring together diverse people, and promote public health. According to PPS, they can even shape growth and minimize sprawl.

These benefits seem so huge, so idealistic; yet I found PPS balances these lofty ideas with an entirely nuts and bolts approach.

Workshop leaders Stephen Davies and David O’Neil have worked on numerous markets of all types-from the least permanent open air market to the more permanent covered markets (sheds), market halls, and market districts (such as Kensington Market in Toronto or Granville Island in Vancouver). They were amused to hear how pleased the vendors of the City Market are to be devolving – rather than moving up the chain, the City Market is moving down the chain from a permanent building to the impermanent open air.

Ironic as it may seem, by moving outdoors the City Market has (without knowing) followed the highly pragmatic approach advocated by PPS. The City Market has moved out of an expensive building (that was impossible to maintain with a one-day-a-week market) to open a much lower risk market on the street.

The point that was emphasized by PPS again and again was that markets have to work financially. Markets are high risk and they will fail if they are set up only in response to need. As David O’Neil stated simply, “Everyone needs a market. Just because it’s needed doesn’t mean it’s going to work.” According to him, markets are not social experiments. They must be economically viable in order to fulfill the wide range of functions that they do.

We worked on two case studies during the course of the workshop: one for a night market in Chinatown and another for the relocation of the Greenmarket that used to be at the foot of the World Trade Center. It was amazing to be in a room full of market managers, city politicians, urban planners, and developers who were able to crunch out the numbers immediately. Within the space of an hour site plans and budgets were worked out for each of the proposed markets right down to the necessary rental rates for the stalls.

When we weren’t in the classroom, we were running around New York checking out a wide range of markets-from the upscale Chelsea Market in a converted Oreo Cookie factory to the very active Fulton Fish Market (at 5AM) where loud bargaining over whole swordfish was the order of the day. We saw the high-end Grand Central Station Market- designed for commuters on their way home- as well as the down-to-earth Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side in a concrete building not unlike the one the City Market is leaving.

At two markets we played the Market Place Game, an evaluation tool developed by PPS that included a quick evaluation of the market based on a number of criteria, suggestions for improvement, and an interview with someone who shops or sells there. We also had the pleasure of eating at the City Bakery, a restaurant whose menu is entirely based on products available at the Union Square Greenmarket.

Of all the markets, the Union Square Greenmarket was most like the open-air farmers’ markets that we have in Alberta. As Chris Tyrkalo described in the last issue of The Market Express, Greenmarkets are a highly successful set of farmers markets run the Council on the Environment of New York City.

They tend to be weekly markets set up in squares and on streets, with vendors selling from their vehicles or under canopies. They differ from Alberta Farmers’ Markets in that they are producer-only with very strict regulations and farm inspections. The success of the Greenmarkets (there are now over 30) speaks to the demand for high-quality, fresh produce.

I left New York feeling amazed and tired. The city is unbelievable. Such high density and diversity of population opens up endless opportunities for farmers markets that we cannot hope to experience in Alberta. Nonetheless, the trip was inspiring and educational. Many of the problems and trends that markets face are parallel, whether it’s Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, the French Market in New Orleans or the City Market in Edmonton.

There is also much that we can learn from organizations such as Project for Public Spaces. They have a wealth of resources, including an excellent website, numerous publications about markets (including a very useful book, “Public Markets and Community Revitalization”), and an effective market evaluation tool called the Market Place Game. If you would like to check them out (or join!), visit their website at www.pps.org.

- Patty Milligan – President, Downtown Edmonton Farmers Market Association