Historically our towns and cities grew up around markets, which served as our original civic centers. While many of the old buildings have been dismantled, inexpensive and lightweight alternatives have been multiplying. By 1946, there were just 499 markets left in the US; that number rose to 2,863 by 2000, and then shot up to 8,144 by 2013. 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. “Markets are very reassuring places, because they give you a sense of responsibility for your own health,” says PPS’s David O’Neil. “People are experimenting, and reinventing what it means to have a good life.”
Vibrant Markets Strengthen Local Identity
In Nova Scotia, where O’Neil and PPS’s Steve Davies worked with with the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, former Operations Manager Ewen Wallace notes the importance of his market in the local community: “Throughout my involvement in this project and spending so much time face-to-face with the community at large, the thing that’s hit home is that the people of Halifax really do consider this their market.”
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.”
Clustering of Activity Turns Markets into Community Hubs
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. PPS’s Kelly Verel says, “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.”
Markets Catalyze Neighborhood Development
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.”