Seven Principles for Becoming a Market City

Kelly Verel
Oct 30, 2020
Nov 2, 2020

When we think about the benefits of public space, public markets stand out for the many different ways they touch our lives. They offer low barriers to entry for diverse new business owners, and connect urban customers to rural economies where products are grown, raised, and distributed. With the help of programs like SNAP and FMNP in the United States, they can increase access to healthy foods in places that lack it. And of course, markets are also one of the few public gathering places where people of different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds come together in our polarized and segregated cities.

Yet despite these benefits, public markets around the world face threats to their existence. In the Global North, corporate concentration in our food systems, rising urban real estate values, and a lack of management capacity among market operators endanger the future of many markets. In the Global South, similar factors often have even more dire consequences due to greater levels of poverty and the informality of business and living conditions. 

Market Square in Pittsburgh, PA. In 2020, Pittsburgh was one of three North American cities to kick off a Market City strategy in collaboration with Project for Public Spaces.

In both cases, public policy at the municipal, regional, or state and provincial level has done little to address these dangers or to unlock the full potential of market systems. In the United States, farmers markets have made some policy gains through efforts led by organizations like the Farmers Market Coalition, statewide coalitions of market operators, and programs of the United States Department of Agriculture, but these efforts understandably tend to focus more on supporting direct-to-consumer farming and ranching than addressing the economic and placemaking factors affecting markets themselves.

Thankfully, a handful of Market Cities around the world have demonstrated an alternative by developing urban policies and programs that enhance the financial health and community benefits of public market systems. 

Attendees to the 10th International Public Markets Conference gather at the thousand-year-old Borough Market in London, UK.

Through our International Public Markets Conference, Project for Public Spaces had the opportunity to experience Barcelona’s vision of markets as infrastructure, which ensures that every resident is within a ten-minute walk of a public market, as well as the initiative of Mayor Sadiq Khan of London, UK, to create the London Market Board and evaluate the social impact of the city’s 280 markets. More recently, we collaborated with partners in Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Toronto to survey their market systems to kickstart Market City strategies in those cities. 

While this work has revealed that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, it has also helped us identify the following seven principles that define a successful Market City strategy. These principles were developed as part of the Market Cities Initiative, a partnership between Project for Public Spaces, Slow Food International, and HealthBridge Foundation of Canada.

The Seven Principles of Market Cities

1. A Market City includes a wide variety of types of markets in a city as part of one market system. Markets include both food and non-food markets, and range from large central wholesale and retail markets to neighborhood markets and informal markets of street vendors.

2. A Market City organizes diverse partners and stakeholders who can collaborate and act together to achieve common policy objectives. Potential partners and stakeholders include market operators and managers; advocates for health, community development,  local food, agriculture, and job creation; philanthropic organizations; and city and regional government agencies.

3. A Market City measures the value of their markets and understands how they function. Market Cities understand where markets are located and if there are places in the city/region that do not have access to a market, especially vulnerable neighborhoods; the supply chains for public markets; the quality of all the markets’ physical facilities and public spaces; the economic, social and public health impact of the markets; and the needs and wants of vendors and customers. A Market City uses this information to “connect the dots” so markets can offer a broader benefit to the community—especially for low-income people.

4. A Market City has distribution networks that prioritize and support healthy, affordable, and safe food and other goods produced in the region. These networks provide the physical facilities necessary for storage, processing, and distribution as well as support the staff who operate these facilities.

5. A Market City regularly invests in its market facilities and the management skills of market operators. Potential investments include renovating existing markets to improve the physical infrastructure to incorporate sustainable design features, and building new markets, as needed, to improve demand or address operational limitations. Market Cities ensure that market managers have the skills and staff to operate the market efficiently, effectively, and resiliently.

6. A Market City helps diverse types of vendors start and grow their businesses. Types of assistance include helping vendors, especially from disadvantaged groups, start a new business, innovate or expand an existing one with new services and products, and making sure that vendors have the equipment, services and training they need to follow modern food safety practices.

7. A Market City recognizes that its markets are also public spaces that welcome different kinds of people and maintain important cultural heritage. They support this role by creating public spaces in and around markets that are safe, accessible, and attractive,  encouraging social mixing. Market Cities programming special cultural events and activities, especially those about healthy diets and safe food.

With help from Project for Public Spaces and ARUP, the Bloomfield Saturday Market in Pittsburgh, PA, successfully adapted its operations to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of Bloomfield Development Corporation.

As the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, public markets are capable of acting as essential economic, social, and public health infrastructure in our communities—but only if we support them through public policies, programs, and investments. 

While Market Cities require a focus on urban policy, municipalities aren’t alone in this effort. A Market City strategy can be implemented at the municipal, regional, or state and provincial level, and civic sector partners are often an important partner in defining goals, organizing stakeholders for action, and measuring impact. No matter where you are starting, though, these seven principles offer a vision of how we can better support our public market systems.

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