Earlier this year, together with our partners Healthbridge and Slow Food International, we launched the Market Cities Initiative with two simple yet powerful goals. We seek to expand understanding of the impact that public markets bring to the communities they serve and to promote supportive policies and investments in market infrastructure and management capacity to achieve that impact. By building strong public market systems at the municipal, regional, and national level, we can make our communities healthier and more resilient, and spur local economic development.
Over the coming months, the Market Cities initiative will focus on kickstarting citywide market strategies in three North American cities: Pittsburgh, PA, and Seattle, WA, in the United States, and Toronto, ON, in Canada. With support from the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Foundation, Project for Public Spaces is providing each city with pro bono technical assistance and a small planning grant. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our original plans, we intend to move forward by working remotely with local stakeholders to develop comprehensive inventories and maps of market networks, and to host a series of online forums to engage market operators with their local city officials. Together, we will consider if and how the seven principles of Market Cities apply to each city, and set the stage for future action.
Last month, we launched the Market Cities Survey to collect top-level information about markets systems in different contexts around the world, and to understand the challenges they face. We have already had a strong, immediate response with completed surveys from over 60 cities in 20 countries, and the survey will remain open over the coming months as we continue our outreach.
As we know firsthand at Project for Public Spaces, public markets offer many benefits to public health, social life, and local economies. Yet as this survey revealed, markets today face many challenges that prevent them from reaching their full potential, such as a lack of management capacity, lack of investment, and increased competition from supermarkets. Meanwhile, most local governments support markets only passively, through ownership of the market property or through permitting use of public property for markets, rather than through policymaking or governance. Most respondents also reported that market management entities in their region only sometimes or rarely communicate with each other.
Now, amid a global pandemic, our work has taken on new urgency. The world knows that this virus began at a wet market in Wuhan, China, due to the dangerous and poorly regulated live animal trade that thrives in China. Now markets all over the globe suddenly face an uncertain future, as fears heighten, misinformation spreads, and the underlying fragility of our market ecosystems is revealed.
In the United States, some markets have already closed and others are uncertain if they can open for the summer season, while still others have developed innovative changes to design and operations to avoid contact and proximity between vendors and customers. A dozen or so states have declared farmers markets as essential services, but leadership from most states and the federal government remains unclear. Markets are the backbone of our local food systems and drive regional economies, which are all that much more important in moments of global disruptions. At a more human level, they also offer places that sustain our souls as well as our bodies in difficult times. As our work in these three cities progresses, we will also be observing their response to COVID-19, and how local policies, investments, and governance help or hinder their efforts.
After conducting a series of interviews with market leaders who responded to the survey, we selected three cities to further ‘test the waters” locally. While the three pilot cities have many challenges in common, each one presents a unique context and unique opportunities to take their public markets to the next level.
Pittsburgh, often called a “city of neighborhoods,” has 48 markets in the city and inner ring suburbs. The City of Pittsburgh operates five neighborhood markets, while the rest are independently run. Many are small markets of fewer than 15 vendors, which local business organizations have developed to attract people to their neighborhood commercial districts. However, operators are finding that there aren’t enough farmers to keep pace with the number of markets. In addition, Pittsburgh markets are looking to bridge jurisdictional divides, build broader capacity within their network, and develop partnerships with City agencies and nonprofit food and agricultural organizations.
Seattle is home to the iconic Pike Place Market, one of the largest public markets in the US, as well as a network of 16 neighborhood farmers markets operated by four different entities. Rapid development, changing demographics, income inequality, shifts in public funding, and the competitive landscape of local food in an Amazon’s hometown present both opportunities and challenges for farmers markets, and point to the need for greater municipal policy support.
Toronto has more than 100 public markets, built from the ground up by strong community champions and key anchor organizations. They embrace a diverse range of models, audiences, and mandates that respond to local residents’ needs. However, the majority operate independently and have limited opportunities to collaborate and advocate for municipal support. More importantly, public markets are not embedded in any City plans, policies, or programs.
While advancing the program in North America, last month we officially launched the Market Cities Initiative as a global effort. At the 10th World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, we hosted a networking event with our partners at Healthbridge and Slow Food International. Sponsored by UN Habitat and attended by more than 13,000 delegates from 168 countries, this week-long conference featured hundreds of events, exhibitors, and sessions, and provided an ideal opportunity to explore the positive role that markets can play in building strong communities, especially in the Global South, where they are often neglected, if not displaced for new development. We look forward to building future partnerships and collaborations around the world, expanding Healthbridge’s pioneering Market Cities work in Vietnam, Uganda, and Tanzania.
As we isolate in our homes this week, let’s act to keep the markets operating—safely—where we live, and ponder a better future for markets with new understanding about all the positive things they bring to our lives. In the meantime, we will keep you updated on how these three exemplary Market Cities are responding to today’s unprecedented challenges.