When you think of the important places in the social life of your community, what comes to mind? Parks, squares, street corners, libraries, schools—these are common answers in many cities. They are the public spaces where we relax, where we meet friends, bump into neighbors; in short, the places that we all share. But there is another kind of commonly shared space that often goes unappreciated as a community hub in today’s convenience-oriented cities: the public markets where we buy our food.
While markets were historically important threads of a city’s social fabric (indeed, for centuries they were housed right inside of many city halls), sanitation concerns and a cultural obsession with convenience led to their demise in many western cities starting in the 1950s. The “super” markets that replaced these vital public spaces were some of the first of what we now know as big box stores. Today, many millions of people around the world rely on these fluorescently beige, air conditioned megastores, where the goal is to get in, get your shopping done, and get out as quickly as possible. But in some cities, even in the developed world, traditional public markets still reign supreme!
“I don’t like to call them ‘supermarkets,’” joked Barcelona’s Jordi Tolrà i Mabilon of the big box stores now so popular with shoppers, “because real markets are actually what’s super.” Jordi was in town recently with Barcelona Vice Mayor Raimond Blasi for a discussion with New York City's public and farmers market leaders. The event, hosted at PPS HQ, was intended as a meeting of the minds between the two cities to strengthen international cooperation and learn from Barcelona’s rich, growing market culture. The two came armed with some amazing statistics that should give hope to all of the market-lovers trying to turn today’s sterile food culture on its ear. For instance, did you know that of all the fruit, vegetables, and fish bought in Barcelona, the majority is bought at markets? Eight thousand vendors work at over 40 public markets throughout the city, supporting 65 million visitors a year and a €1 billion turnover.
As one might imagine based on stats like these, public markets are a substantial economic driver in Barcelona—and one that makes plenty of room for small businesses and fine-grained economic development. Despite a devastating financial crisis in Spain, Barcelona is prioritizing funding to keep markets alive and modern. People use the markets daily and are using them even more in these tough economic times.
It is the markets’ role as cultural and social centers that generates much of the public support that leads to that type of investment. Barcelona residents rank their public markets as the second most valuable public service after libraries. No matter where you are in Barcelona, you are never more than 10 minutes from a market.
What this means is that fresh food is accessible for all communities, and indeed, Barcelona’s markets are used more by disadvantaged groups than by wealthy populations. That's no accident; Barcelona is widely regarded as one of the few cities in recent history to actually have grown stronger because it served as a host city for the Olympics (an event that has caused financial trouble for many) back in 1992. The city treated its pre-Games spending as an investment in the city's overall improvement, and modernizing the system of public markets was identified as a key way to make Barcelona more livable and pleasurable for all of its residents. Barcelona bet on its future by revitalizing its public markets; and in turn, the booming markets have helped to revitalize Barcelona.
The city’s impressive system of public markets offers us an important case study for how markets can function, even in a contemporary, globalized metropolis. Re-imagined as more complete places, these markets make it easier for residents to connect with their neighbors, especially when markets are located near other public services such as health care centers, libraries, and schools (which our esteemed guests make sure happens as often as possible). Traditional public markets, as we have often written, are about so much more than food. They are, like the cities that they support, about people. They are some of our most vital public spaces.
Just some food for thought, for the next time you’re standing alone in that brightly-lit line at the local “supermarket.”