COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Exploring the Potential of Market Cities: Lessons from London

Steve Davies
Aug 28, 2019
Jan 14, 2020

What mayor wouldn’t want a single policy that could stimulate the local economy, revitalize neighborhoods, provide job opportunities for new immigrants, create socially inclusive public spaces, and enhance the health of their constituents?

Mayor Sadiq Khan opens the 10th International Public Markets Conference at Southwark Cathedral in London, UK. Photo courtesy of the Greater London Authority.

Certainly not Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, co-host of Project for Public Spaces’ recent 10th International Public Markets Conference. Mayor Khan announced in his opening address at Southwark Cathedral — a thousand-year-old landmark next to the thousand-year-old Borough Market — another round of funding for the Good Growth Fund to support London’s market. "One of my goals is to lead the way in showing how city leaders can help ensure markets not only continue to thrive, but remain a vital part of local life," said the Mayor.

Indeed, under the Mayor’s leadership, 15 markets have already benefited from £12.4 million ($15 million USD) in funding. London has also established an integrated markets policy that includes comprehensive research on the state of markets in the city; a Market Board to guide the future of over 300 separately-operated markets across the city; and the Tomorrow’s Markets initiative, which helps ensure that London will have an ample supply of new market traders in the future through training, mentorship, and business support services.

London's comprehensive approach to supporting its public market vendors, managers, and partners shows a glimpse of the future of Market Cities. Photo by Project for Public Spaces.

As Project for Public Spaces CEO Phil Myrick remarked at the conference’s opening, we now take it for granted that most cities of a certain size have an arts and culture strategy to support their local community of artists and arts organizations. But 40 years ago, this practice barely existed. Imagine for a moment:

What if, in the not-too-distant future, we could take it for granted that every city had a public market strategy to support their ecosystem of market managers, vendors, food producers, and myriad other partners?

Cities like London, and like Barcelona where Project for Public Spaces held its 9th International Public Markets Conference in 2015, give us a glimpse of this future. As exemplary “Market Cities,” they model four key principles that enable their market systems to develop and prosper:

  1. Market Cities undertake holistic assessments of their market system and recognize the value of markets of different types. They connect the dots, so that markets can become anchors for entire city districts, promoting job opportunities, entrepreneurship, active public spaces, and community health—especially for those that are underserved.
  2. Market Cities plan strong distribution networks that prioritize healthy, locally- and regionally-produced food and other goods. They utilize their market system as a vital connection between rural and urban economies.
  3. Market Cities nurture inclusive collaboration, partnerships, and collective action between market operators, vendors, government officials, grassroots community groups, and nonprofit partners to advocate for the many benefits that markets bring to cities.  
  4. Market Cities invest in their markets to help them realize their full potential. They develop supportive government policies that enable markets to thrive; they build greater organizational capacity and make room for innovation; and they improve physical infrastructure to help markets grow and sustain themselves.

But what this year’s conference also illuminated is that there is no one-size-fits-all for creating a great Market City. In London itself, wholesale markets play a pivotal strategic role as the hubs where many of the street market vendors source their product. In Barcelona, the city has set up a quasi-public corporation to manage and upgrade the city’s 43 public markets. In Hong Kong, The Link, the largest real estate investment trust in Asia, has renovated over half of the 60 markets it inherited when it took over management of shopping centers once owned by the Hong Kong Housing Authority. In Toronto, Market Cities is a grassroots effort, with a coalition of markets, particularly farmers markets, working together to advocate for broader policy change.  

In terms of market types, some communities have large central market halls that act as hubs for the region and function as great multi-use destinations. Others have multiple, substantial neighborhood markets, both indoors or outdoors, that sell all the day-to-day necessities. Some cities have a combination of farmers markets, produce carts, flea markets, artisan markets, and other small-scale distribution points. In short, there are as many different kinds of Market Cities as there are markets themselves.

Attendees to the 10th International Public Markets Conference got to explore the full range of London's market system, from scrappy street markets to the thousand-year-old Borough Market. Photo courtesy of the Greater London Authority.

What also became clear in London is that while a small but growing number of city leaders are recognizing the value of markets to their cities and their regions, overall public market systems are more often neglected, disinvested, and unappreciated. Pressure on markets continues to rise due to external trends like modernization of food systems with supermarkets, misguided urban planning policies, and the preferences of private investors for redeveloping rather than upgrading market sites. Internal forces within the markets themselves play a role in making them vulnerable to failure, too, from lack of resources for capital reinvestment to lack of management capacity to keep competitive or to develop proactive community programming.

While this is the case even in North America—though the worst of the damage was done almost a century ago—it is arguably more prevalent in the Global South. There, as I discovered firsthand during my work in Hanoi last fall and presented in London with my colleague Kieu Ha of Healthbridge, disinvestment is institutionalized. When the city of Hanoi decided to convert valuable real estate into shopping centers and promote supermarkets and other “modern,” job-losing food enterprises, the city’s wet markets became endangered. Luckily, this policy was met with substantial public opposition, and today, thanks largely to the work of Healthbridge, a new supportive market policy is being written for the entire country of Vietnam. Many other market systems are not so lucky.

Cameron Dale and Marina Queirolo lead an unconference about Market Cities. Photo by Project for Public Spaces.

Taking Action for Market Cities

So given the diversity of models and persistent challenges, how can we work together to advance the adoption of a Market Cities approach? In London, we asked Marina Queirolo and Cameron Dale from Evergreen in Toronto, Canada, to facilitate an open-ended “unconference” discussion session in London with market leaders. Over 30 participants from around the world participated, and together they identified four actions that market leaders can take to help transform their community into a Market City:

  1. Influence the development of better policies for public markets. Market leaders need to work together to build political support for policy changes, like assuring that good locations for markets will not be given up for a “higher and better use.”
  2. Create a network to increase impact. Market leaders can strengthen their voice by building a network across various types of markets to increase awareness, education, and possibilities in their city or region.
  3. Make the case for community benefits. As community anchors, markets have the potential to make cities more lively, to elevate residents’ quality of life, to support the local economy, and to increase access to healthy, culturally-appropriate food—all in one location. Market leaders should make the case for their work by fulfilling this potential, and by working together to capture their collective impact.
  4. Innovate. Make the connection between market history and traditions and the future of markets. The most successful markets are always evolving, as are our local economies and food systems. Market leaders should carve out space for new ideas in both vending and management, and create mechanisms to share these ideas with others in their region.

We hope that the 10th International Markets Conference marked the beginning of a global conversation about the future of markets. There are many challenges to face, not the least of which is convincing local governments to prioritize markets. How can markets compete and collaborate? How can a Market City be inclusive of many different kinds of markets and the many different people who patronize them? How can this global concept be adapted to different cities in widely divergent places? Within a city, how does this city-wide concept maintain local identity of markets? What governance structures give everyone a voice and also help market networks get things done?

Market leaders mix and mingle during a party at the 10th International Public Markets Conference. Photo by Project for Public Spaces.

As Project for Public Spaces continues to develop its Market Cities Initiative, we plan to work with market leaders around the world to answer these questions and to better protect and support our regional market systems. Working together, we believe we can connect market managers, local entrepreneurs, and the communities they serve into a powerful force for economic development, community wellbeing, and social change. Stay tuned!

Steve Davies
Steve Davies
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