COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

2009 Public Markets Conference Sets New Agenda for Communities and Local Economies

Apr 30, 2009
Jan 5, 2018
‍The clock tower sits proudly atop the Ferry Building, home to conference co-hosts CUESA/Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and the Ferry Building Marketplace.

"This is really an extraordinary time for markets," said PPS Senior Associate David O’Neil at the opening session of the 7th International Public Markets Conference, held on April 24-26, 2009 in San Francisco, CA. His excitement could be felt throughout the ballroom, where 230 participants from 38 states and 10 countries had gathered for three days of workshops, market tours and impossibly fresh Bay Area food. Reflecting the theme of the conference, O'Neil noted that "We have really come a long way, where we're talking about markets as catalysts for food systems that will affect regional planning and regional health." Conference attendees were asked to expand upon this connection, brainstorming in small groups about the roles and responsibilities of public markets in reconnecting communities and local economies – given our challenging economic climate today. Their top ten answers, expanded upon in the following articles, provide a fascinating glimpse into the power of markets to revitalize communities, promote economic development, and perhaps most importantly, create an infectious sense of goodwill.

1. Catalyze neighborhood and downtown revitalization.

Markets serve as an anchor attraction for a downtown or neighborhood, drawing foot traffic which – with the right location – spills into adjacent retail areas and can spark neighborhood revitalization.

A great example can be found in Barcelona, which has 46 markets (most of them indoor market halls) in the city itself and over 150 if you consider the surrounding province. In the 19th Century, the expanding city developed a plan that laid out an infrastructure of water, utilities, streets, parks – and markets to provide food – as key public investments. As Jordi Tolra put it in the opening session, “markets have always been a public responsibility.” Today, few people in Barcelona live less than a 10 minute walk from a market hall with abundant food products. The city is spending millions of dollars renovating its public markets, helping to reinvigorate neighborhoods they have served for over a century. Barcelona provides a powerful example of how government and citizen input can leverage the transformative role of markets.

‍Map of the 46 markets in Barcelona

2. Build community and create a sense of local ownership and pride.

Markets can help build community because they are, indeed, about all things local. They are also invaluable tools to improve low-income communities. In the workshop session “High Hopes for Low-Income, Neighborhood Markets,” Karen Washington of La Familia Verde, Daniel Ross of Nuestras Raices, and Jason Harvey of Oakland Food Connection spoke of their individual efforts to create community-based markets in high-risk neighborhoods. All three programs developed from the community’s needs and are operated by community members. Their relationship to the community makes their markets’ value priceless because of the sense of pride they have instilled in the neighborhood. For more info, please see our blog post on this session.

‍The scenic Portland Farmers Market

3. Educate members of the community, especially schools and local businesses, about the myriad benefits of markets.

Markets are wonderful places to educate people and make learning fun. In Portland, OR, the Portland Farmers Market uses online tools and in-person events to bring people together and connect them to both one another and their local markets. Cooking classes, children’s events, live music from local artists and holiday celebrations highlight assets of the Portland area. Interactive market maps online allow people to track their favorite farmers, and online profiles introduce shoppers to local vendors in advance. These efforts have been so successful that when Education and Events Manager Anna Curtin tried to start a market page on the widely-popular social networking site Facebook, she found that an individual shopper had already done so.

4/5. Promote economic development; Support local products and the local exchange of goods.

As supermarkets have come to dominate our national and international food distribution system, we have the ability in most cities to eat pretty much what we want to when we want to. However, we have lost the local connections – and economic development potential – that growing and selling locally produced food can bring to a region.

During the Opening Plenary, David Smith, Director of Markets for the City of London, tackled this issue from a marketing prospective, noting that a renewed focus must be placed on creating demand for local produce. He described how the city is actively seeking to increase the amount of regional farm produce from within 100 miles of London that is sold in city limits. The city’s wholesale markets are the key link in this system as they provide the product that vendors then sell at some 200 street markets throughout London. “This has the potential to have a major impact on the agriculture on the whole South of England,” he said.

He placed particular emphasis on developi1ng the supply chain, especially for the poorer sections of society. The major challenge, he said, is the “need to stimulate the demand for local produce – not just supply it. The wholesaler has to be able to sell it.”

‍Historic Borough Market in London

6. Build and enhance social capital: Markets as places which draw people together.

In the workshop session about “Markets as Community Anchors,” moderator (and sailor) Oran Hesterman of the Fair Food Network talked about what an “anchor” really does: it doesn’t keep the boat in one location, but it does allow the boat to drift in a controlled manner. Markets that are community anchors are like this as well: they provide a way to bring people together, anchoring a community around food and place, but they are always “shifting” and evolving, just as a community shifts and evolves.

One of presentations at this session provided a perfect example. A group of African immigrants from Winnipeg, Canada, started a market in an underused park in downtown to provide an anchor for the traditions and culture they have brought with them to their new home. “A few years ago, nobody went to Central Park—it was all police,” explained Othello Wesse from the Central Market for Global Families. “We started imagining the possibility of people coming together from different backgrounds--and that’s how the market started.”

Now, the market gathers vendors from Africa, Asia and the Americas to sell food, music and handicrafts. People from throughout the city attend the market on a regular basis, attracted not only by its diverse offerings but also by its warm sense of community. Said Wesse, “The market is there to bring hope and family together.”

‍Community members gather for a live performance at Central Market (photo credit: Othello Wesse)

7. Provide accessible food to all members of the community through EBT, food stamps and other programs

Too many neighborhoods lack access to fresh, healthy food, and community leaders, health providers and politicians are turning to farmers markets to help solve this problem. However, simply putting a once- or twice-a-week farmers market into a food insecure neighborhood is often not enough because for many low-income shoppers, the price of local food is a huge barrier. For these markets to begin to meet the needs of their communities they need to go beyond bringing healthy produce, meat and dairy into the neighborhood. They also need to implement such programs as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) for both WIC and Senior Citizens and EBT for SNAP (food stamps) customers.

In the “Markets, Food Access & SNAP” session the importance of these supplemental nutrition programs was highlighted by several panelists, including Errol Bragg of the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service branch, Claudia Corchado of Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program - Merced County and Darlene Wolnick of Market Umbrella which operates the Crescent City Farmers Markets in New Orleans, LA.

8. Inspire a feel-good ambiance

One of the greatest things about a market is its ability to generate happiness and goodwill at the heart of a community. It is often difficult, however, to find space for a market that is both centrally located and accessible to a diverse range of community members. At the conference, Karen Beach, Urban Development Specialist at the General Services Administration, spoke about the Urban Development/Good Neighbor Program that helps to address this problem by providing space for farmers markets and other community initiatives at more than 2,000 federal buildings nationwide. GSA is also looking to partner with markets located near their facilities, encouraging federal employees to become regular shoppers.

“Our push towards public markets is the idea of returning these buildings to the public and to enliven the places around them,” she said. She added that GSA has “incredible spaces, for the most part offered rent free.”

PPS and GSA have a long-standing collaboration that works towards bridging the gap between civic centers and the communities they serve. If you are interested in a setting up a market or cultural event at a GSA facility in your community, contact Karen Beach at or by calling 202.501.0019.

‍Farmers market enlivens the Federal Plaza in Chicago (photo credit: M. Spencer Green/AP Photo)

9.Create opportunities for small businesses

Markets are, by their nature, business incubators. With the right management, market managers can help new vendors start businesses in markets and help them learn and appreciate how being a market vendor is different than running other retail businesses. David O’ Neil, PPS Senior Associate, spoke at the session “Growing Great Vendors” about the importance of vendor education.

“Markets lower the rungs of economic opportunity to a level where almost anyone with a good idea can get started at an outdoor market,” he said. “It’s very important to preserve markets as places for small businesses to get a foothold so cities and towns do not just become places for the well-to-do. A vendor can rent 100 square feet (or less!) at a market, which opens up economic opportunities to an entire class of people who are priced out of renting a store.”

PPS is currently working on a handbook that provides vendors in minority markets with a framework for a successful market stall. It includes tips on how to conduct initial research, manage inventory, grow business and build a customer base. It also has sample forms including a rental agreement and budget sheets. The handbook will be available on the PPS web site this summer.

10. Support, educate and sustain farmers

‍Map of the San Francisco Food Shed

In San Francisco, a recent study has designated a Food Shed for the Bay Area, defined as food sources within 100 miles of the Golden Gate Bridge. It has helped to launch a new understanding of the links between an urban and rural economy.

While the Bay Area produces more than enough fresh, local produce to feed its residents, the study found that the real challenge lies in both tracking the provenance of food and ensuring it reaches vulnerable communities. To improve the synchronicity of urban and rural economies, Sibella Kraus, one of the study’s authors, emphasized the importance of studying agricultural places in more depth. “Just as markets are placemakers for cities,” she said, “we’re trying to establish what agricultural places are. We need to understand the multi-functional values of agriculture more deeply.”

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