COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Market Cities: Barcelona Offers a Hopeful Glimpse of the Future

Mar 19, 2014
Jul 14, 2020
‍“Barcelona residents rank their public markets as the second most valuable public service after libraries” / Photo: PPS

Ever since freezers and preservatives freed us from the need to shop at food markets on a daily basis, the focus has shifted almost entirely to convenience, resulting in the proliferation of supermarkets and box stores both inside and near cities. In the process, food has been disconnected from the natural cycle of daily life. “There’s a lot of talk about food deserts today, but what many neighborhoods really have are place deserts,” says PPS’s Steve Davies. “As a result, we’re seeing a movement back to the idea of the Market City, with markets acting as catalysts for creating centers in neighborhoods that have lost their sense of place.”

Market Cities are places with strong networks for the distribution of healthy, locally-produced food and other goods produced in local and territorial regions near cities. They have large central markets that act as hubs for the region and function as great multi-use destinations, with many activities clustering nearby; moving out into the neighborhoods, these cities contain many smaller, but still substantial neighborhood markets that sell all the necessities for daily needs; in between, you’ll find small corner grocers, weekly farmers markets, flea and artisan markets, produce carts, and other small-scale distribution points. Urban market systems in the 21st century can be vital centers of exchange connecting rural and urban environments and places that anchor local culture and social life for all residents.

To build these strong networks, Market Cities have invested in their existing market activity, no matter how small, because it provides multiple economic, social, health and environmental benefits that are essential for creating vibrant, extraordinary places for people to live, work and play. These investments take the form of greater organizational capacity as well as improved physical infrastructure, which leads to a strong, positive impact on the entire community, including those that are often underserved and overlooked.

Barcelona is perhaps the best example of a modern Market City. “They have an incredibly thriving network of around 43 permanent public markets serving 73 neighborhoods,” notes PPS’s Kelly Verel, “because when they planned out the city in the late 19th century, they considered markets the same way that you consider all utilities–like, where does the water go, the power, the garbage, etc.”

Barcelona markets expert Jordi Tolrà i Mabilon is not impressed with the megastores that have become a ubiquitous part of modern urban life. “I don’t like to call them ‘supermarkets’ because real markets are actually what’s super,” he joked, when he and former Barcelona Vice Mayor Raimond Blasi met in 2013 with public and farmers market leaders in New York. For the event, hosted at PPS headquarters, the duo 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.

‍“No matter where you are in Barcelona, you are never more than 10 minutes from a market” / Photo: Mercats de Barcelona

Markets are at the heart of rural and urban linkages. Public markets are a substantial economic driver in Barcelona and the surrounding region of Catalonia—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. As global food prices rose due to market volatility, the link to regional producers helped to buffer food prices in local markets. “We have 80 small to large-scale local producers who come to us each morning. They bring what they have produced, whether it’s five or six products, and they have an opportunity to sell next to those who have 38 products. It's good they have the opportunity to compete,” said Josep Tejedo, managing director of Barcelona’s modern wholesale market, Mercabarna, at PPS’s 9th International Public Markets Conference in 2015. Not only is the impressive, 220-acre wholesale market that supplies produce to over 10 million consumers and a majority of the vendors at Barcelona’s 43 public markets a testament to Barcelona’s commitment to food security and promoting healthy habits worldwide, but it exemplifies a commitment to supporting local farmers who may struggle to survive economically otherwise.

People use the markets daily and are using them even more in these tough economic times. 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. From 2011 to 2015 Barcelona invested €133 million in market renovations and 25 of the city’s 43 markets have undergone major restoration. Barcelona bet on its future by revitalizing its public markets; and in turn, the booming markets have helped to revitalize Barcelona and Catalonia.

‍Seafood vendor in Barcelona | Photo by PPS

It is the markets’ role as cultural and social centers that generate much of the public support that leads to that type of investment. “We never say we are going to the market, we say we are going to the square”, said Jaume Barnada, deputy chief architect of the Barcelona City Council, while presenting at the 9th International Public Markets Conference. He explained that going to a public market in Barcelona means that you are going to a public space where there is going to be communication and exchange. This social production aspect of markets is an essential contribution to economic resilience for both urban and rural communities. 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. Barnada said, “The market is the symbol of centrality. It is as important as a school. It’s a public edifice that guarantees public activity.”

The city’s impressive system of public markets offers us an important case study for how markets can function as private-public community partnerships, 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.”

‍Els Encants Flea Market in Barcelona | Photo by PPS

Check out more Great Public Markets including Barcelona's La Boqueria at our new Great Public Spaces site. 

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