The breathtaking central hall of Cleveland’s West Side Market/ Photo: PBS NewsHour via Flickr

Picture yourself at the supermarket, awash in fluorescent light. You’re trying to stock up for the next couple of weeks, since it’s a busy time of year. You grab some granola bars (and maybe even a box of pop tarts), some frozen dinners, a box of macaroni with one of those little packets of powdered cheese stuff. And oh, they’re running one of those promotions where you can get ten cans of soup for, like, a dollar each. Perfect! Dinner for the next two weeks. On the way to the register, you swing by the produce aisle to grab a bunch of bananas. Like many people these days, you’re trying to eat healthy, and breakfast is the most important meal of the day!

Now imagine that your neighborhood had a public market–the kind of place that’s easy to pop by on the way home from work to grab fresh food every couple of days. Before you reach the open-air shed, you’re surrounded by produce of every shape and color; you can smell oranges and basil from half a block away. As you follow your appetite through the maze of bins and barrels, you bump into your neighbors, and make plans to head downtown to the central market over the weekend to take a cooking class and pick up some less common ingredients. You may even make a day of it and check out the new weekly craft fair that takes place the next block over.

A boy and his mother examine produce at a farmers market in East New York / Photo: PPS

The contrast is stark. In most places today, at least in many Western countries, shopping is a chore; our food system has stopped being about food, and has become entirely about convenience. Food spoils, meaning that we used to have to shop at markets every few days; freezers and preservatives have freed us from those constraints, but in the process food has become disconnected from the natural cycle of daily life–and, thus, the communities of people that we shared our markets with. “There’s a lot of talk about food deserts today, but what many neighborhoods really have are place deserts,” says PPS’s Steve Davies. “As a result, we’re seeing a movement back to this idea of the Market City, with markets acting as catalysts for creating centers in neighborhoods that have lost their sense of place.”

Market Cities (and Market Towns) are places with strong networks for the distribution of healthy, locally-produced food. They have large central markets that act as hubs for the region and function as great multi-use destinations, with many activities clustering nearby; moving out into the neighborhoods, these cities contain many smaller (but still substantial) neighborhood markets that sell all the necessities for daily cooking needs; in between, you’ll find small corner grocers, weekly farmers markets, produce carts, and other small-scale distribution points. Market Cities are, in essence, places where food is one of the fundamental building blocks of urban life–not just fuel that you use to get through the day.

Today, Barcelona is often held up as one of the truest examples of a Market City system in action. “They have an incredibly thriving network of around 45 permanent public markets,” notes PPS’s Kelly Verel, “because when they planned out the city in the late 19th century, they considered markets the same way that you consider all utilities–like, where does the water go, the power, the garbage, etc.”

A map showing the locations of public markets around Barcelona, and the areas they serve.

Barcelona’s markets, many of which now incorporate modern grocery stores, prove that contemporary urban food systems do not necessarily need to use the big box supermarket as their base unit, and that markets are more than just nice extras or luxuries. In fact, with people growing increasingly suspicious of modern agricultural practices, the idea that the paradigm could flip is looking less and less far-fetched. “Markets are viable,” argues PPS’s David O’Neil. “They’ve always been viable, but their viability is especially apt today because the global economy has skewered our sense of being able to support ourselves. Markets are very reassuring places, because they give you a sense of responsibility for your own health. People are experimenting, and reinventing what it means to have a good life.”

According to O’Neil, there is Market City ‘DNA’ still hidden around most cities. Our cities grew up around markets and, while many of the old buildings have been dismantled, inexpensive and lightweight farmers markets have been making a comeback. By 1946, there were just 499 markets left in the US; that number rose to 2,863 by 2000, and then shot up to 7,175 by 2011. Many of the great public markets we know today started out as nothing more than roadside exchanges, so there is reason to believe that some of these new markets could very well put down more permanent roots if they become reintegrated into the life of their surrounding neighborhoods.

Up in Nova Scotia, where Davies and O’Neil have been working with the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, Operations Manager Ewen Wallace notes the importance of his market (which does have its own permanent building) in the local community. “Throughout my involvement in this project and spending so much time face-to-face with the community at large” he says, “the thing that’s really hit home is that the people of Halifax really do consider this their market.”

Shoppers peruse the booths at the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market / Photo: Nicole Bratt via Flickr

And while the market is truly a stalwart (they’ve never missed a Saturday in 262 years!), the role that it plays in the regional economy contributes greatly to the sense of community ownership, since most residents of Atlantic Canada are just a generation away from a farmer or fisherman. “At the end of World War II,” Wallace explains, “we had around 35,000 independent farms in Nova Scotia. Now we have around 3,800. This market is intended to serve as a hub from which money in the urban core is being channeled back into rural areas around the province. This is all tied to food security.”

In Portland, Oregon, Director Trudy Toliver’s Portland Farmers Market benefits greatly from  a strong local food culture. “In Portland, for the most part, we really care a lot about food,” Toliver says. “It’s just important to us; the population has strong values about eating healthy food. We also don’t have many commodity farmers in Oregon–we grow food here. In a way, we’ve hit on the perfect storm.”

When food and agriculture play an important role in local culture, a market becomes an easier sell. But with many cities disconnected from the greater food systems that serve them, ancillary uses become important for longevity. This bodes well for places; as Davies explains: “Great markets are created through the clustering of activity. They require the intentional aggregation of local food production, but also of other services and functions. The food is the central reason for why people gather, and that gathering creates a hub for community life.”

Since markets are centered on the sale of nutrient-rich, natural foods, one smart way to add value to these locations is to focus on creating “healthy food hubs,” which cluster health-related activities around markets to encourage visitors not just to eat more fruits and vegetables, but to take a more proactive approach to their own well-being. Some markets include things like health clinics, fitness classes, nutrition information, or classes that teach healthy living principles. Healthy food hubs are especially useful in low-income areas where the need is more acute because of the high cost of regular preventative medical care.

Markets can also serve to amplify cherished aspects of local culture. Says Verel, “The idea of a marketplace is pretty open to what the talents and interests are in a given region. Food will always be the core, but how you build off of that depends on local needs. What if one of Detroit’s markets was for classic cars? Every Saturday you could set up the food stands in a parking lot, and line classic cars for sale up along the edges. If you’re open to it, a market can be anything.”

Relaxing with a view of the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene / Photo: Eli Duke via Flickr

For a success story of a market not only building off of, but strengthening local identity, Verel taps the Brooklyn Flea, which has served as a major driver behind Brooklyn’s well-documented boom in artisanal food and craft goods. “The Flea gave all of these people who had ideas for a product a market, when they couldn’t have gotten it into a store because they were too small. There are so many permanent businesses here that started out of the Flea, and together they give Brooklyn this interesting character.”

This hits on one of the major strengths of the Market City in today’s economy, especially in down-at-heel cities where the things that they used to be famous for making are no longer made. Along with industry, many cities have lost their sense of identity. Markets offer a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper way to start rebuilding some of that identity and economic activity (as some of our recent work in Detroit has shown). Food is something that every city and town has the resources to produce locally–if a place as densely-built as New York can become an urban agriculture leader, any city can.

In Halifax, Wallace can rattle off a long list of activities that the Seaport Farmers Market has added to its programming, from a library book-drop to serve far-flung farmers, to student art exhibits, to community org booths. These efforts are all aimed at turning the market into a “modern agora,” in his words. Most exciting are the partnerships with businesses in the surrounding area that highlight the market’s vendors, hinting at the potential for markets to serve as economic anchors.

“In the community,” he explains, ” our landlord has put together a committee to get neighbors involved to promote the area as a district. In August of 2011, the market partnered with the Westin Hotel across the street, and they built the concept for their restaurant around the idea of a 100-mile diet–now they’ve got it down to a 50-mile diet. They are sourcing as many ingredients from the market as possible. They’re listing all of the producers from around Nova Scotia on their menus.”

Seattle’s Pike Place Market is the hub of a model market district / Photo: PPS

In a Market City, the most vibrant places are these types of market districts: places where market activity spills out into the surrounding streets and businesses. Using the Power of 10 framework, we can identify market districts as neighborhoods with at least ten market-related activities all within close proximity to each other. Zooming out, a great Market City or Market Town needs at least ten market districts, where local activity spreads out from the neighborhood marketplace.