By Steve Davies
Public markets are making an unprecedented comeback across North America. You see signs of this almost everywhere. Perhaps a new farmers market has opened somewhere in your neighborhood over the past few years, or maybe a nearby street is now bustling with small vendors selling their wares. Even more remarkable, this revival of interest in public markets flies in the face of widely accepted notions that we are moving inexorably towards a landscape dominated by big box stores and fast food chains.
Markets often provide more lasting economic gains and healthier community impacts than what results from “big projects.”
The enduring popularity for public markets should come as no surprise when you consider that markets are “the original human gathering place,” to borrow a phrase from my PPS colleague David O’Neil. Ever since humans first congregated in cities, markets have exerted a magnetic power over us–and they are on the upswing today because people are naturally drawn to the agreeable mix of both social and commercial activity that any good market offers.
This is precisely the reason PPS launched our public markets program nearly twenty years ago: We saw markets as a vital means to make public spaces into lively and beloved gathering spots. We also saw a great opportunity to apply our strategies about public space management, which can help markets succeed both as public places and as economic enterprises.
Since then we have helped hundreds of cities and towns improve existing markets and launch new ones, from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Novi Sad, Serbia. These cities have discovered that markets can be an essential component of redeveloping their centers. By using them as a way to generate more activity in nearby parks, streets, and buildings, public markets broaden the potential for public spaces beyond their own settings. In addition to helping launch large downtown market projects, we have helped hundreds of people open markets in their neighborhoods through our popular “How to Create Successful Markets” training course, held twice a year in New York City.
And this is really just the beginning. With research that PPS has conducted with the generous support of the Ford Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we are pointing the way to new avenues for markets to explore. This research has opened many eyes to the wide array of benefits that markets bring to both urban and rural settings: fostering the growth of new entrepreneurs and vital small businesses; offering good nutrition and food security to low-income neighborhoods; preserving rural land for farms; and, of course, creating lively public spaces.
Our research is now being applied in nine cities where creative organizations are pursuing ambitious goals for their markets thanks to special PPS grants, which are supported by the Ford Foundation. These projects are helping to shape the next generation of markets, which can emerge as a viable alternative to conventional economic development projects like convention centers or big-box retail. And it turns out that markets often provide more lasting economic gains and healthier community impacts than what results from those “big projects.” The key lessons these organizations have discovered will be explored in-depth at the Sixth International Public Markets Conference, to be held in Washington D.C. and Baltimore October 28th to 31st.
Here you will find insight into what can be learned from the glorious past of public markets as well as practical information about their promising future.
Our next round of grants, also sponsored by Kellogg and Ford, focus on helping farmers markets better attain broader social goals, such as improving health, creating vital community focal points, and expanding opportunities for small businesses operated by women, immigrants, and people of color.