Despite their many benefits, public markets, particularly in the context of developing countries, can be endangered by many forces – and often by a combination of forces. Real estate pressures can devastate a market, for example, when cities allow prime sites to be redeveloped by the highest bidder, or when investments in supermarkets or large retail centers take precedence. Markets can lose their local authenticity when forces like tourism work to undermine or displace local producers, farmers, and patrons by producing an imitation of the original site. In war-torn countries or those under siege, markets are often targets for destruction. Less extreme threats include the unsafe or unclean conditions that can result from a market’s neglected infrastructure or lack of security. Because endangered markets often do not have the management capacity or resources to improve or re-invest, they become easy targets for removal or demolition.
The good news is that with focused local action that is sensitive to an area’s existing cultural fabric, struggling markets can once again become vital centers of commerce and community. Below are two very different examples of this process, both of which will be highlighted at the Barcelona conference.
Public Pressure Reverses Government Plan to Dismantle Traditional Markets in Hanoi
Street markets are central to the cultural and economic history of Vietnam. Whether from a floating market or a roadside cart, a huge street market or a small neighborhood’s morning market, the population of Hanoi buys an estimated 80% of their goods from traditional local markets. More than simply places to buy food, these markets have long brought great social and cultural value to the communities they serve. Where most households buy their food fresh every day, markets contribute both to daily physical activity and the maintenance of a traditionally healthy Vietnamese diet. Many customers maintain life-long relationships with particular vendors, relying on their in-depth knowledge of food – these are the kinds of habitual and meaningful interactions that large supermarkets typically preclude.
In recent efforts to “modernize” Hanoi, however, the government focused on the problems of the city’s traditional street markets—deeming them unhygienic and criticizing them for failing to meet food safety standards. Government began to push instead for more Western-style supermarkets in the city, which often necessitated the demolition or relocation of traditional markets. Some of Hanoi’s oldest and most vibrant markets such as Cua Nam, Hang Da, O Cho Dua, and Mo—located in the city’s most energetic and culturally rich areas—were swept away in this effort. Real estate developers were eager to capitalize on the vibrancy of these areas by transforming them into office buildings, supermarkets, and other commercial retail centers.
What the government missed was the fact that it was because of, not in spite of, traditional markets that these areas were able to generate and maintain value. Indeed, the markets themselves were resilient and quickly resurfaced—reemerging like weeds on the streets and alleys just outside the grand supermarkets that replaced them.
Criticism about food safety was largely misdirected, too. Since the majority Vietnam’s food comes from small-scale farms, both supermarkets and street markets generally source their products from the same local producers. Food safety issues, then, would need to be addressed at the level of production—at the farms themselves—not where the food is sold. Building a supermarket does nothing to remedy these problems.
In addition to being physically separate from the daily routines of locals, supermarkets are also inconvenient since the majority of local travel in Hanoi takes place on foot or motorbike. Customers prefer to purchase goods locally, often while remaining astride or still running their motorbikes.
Public policy and development initiatives that fail to take into account the nuanced complexity of local culture—its values, habits, and institutions—are often destined for failure. Given the vital cultural, social, and economic role that street markets have played throughout the history of Vietnam, there was intense public pressure to stop this process. As part of this community pushback, international NGOs like Healthbridge began working with local partners to advocate for the health benefits of the markets, citing evidence that replacing street markets with large commercial centers and supermarkets could have long-term implications such as declines in physical health and the erosion of long-standing cultural connections.
In response to this pressure, city officials in Hanoi cancelled policies to dismantle more of the city’s markets. The government has also withdrawn plans to replace several markets with new commercial centers.
Making Markets Safe for Women in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
We know that public markets can spark urban revitalization, foster community diversity, and improve public health. However, in order to be successful in achieving these goals, marketplaces need to be accessible and safe for women, children, and people of all ages and backgrounds.
Despite the fact that women make up about 80% of market vendors in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, sexual assault and violence against women has, until recently, been a major problem. A 2011 UN survey reported that 55% of female vendors in Port Moresby markets had experienced some form of violence in the markets and surrounding areas.
To address these urgent issues and improve market security, UN Women and the National Committee for the District Capital (NCDC) designed the Safe Cities Project in 2011. At Gerehu Market, for example, the site of the project’s first trial, there were multiple physical factors contributing to the unsafe conditions of the market. Its low-hanging roof blocked out light and limited outside visibility, while the layout of the concrete benches and tables used to display goods also made stalls particularly vulnerable to theft. An illegal fence surrounding the public bathroom inhibited visibility and made the facilities a hotbed for criminal activity and violence.
At Gerehu, Safe Cities implemented quick and effective improvements such as, removing unsafe fences, placing steel mesh dividers between the male and female toilets, and adding functional wash basins that gave the market access to clean water. They opened the shed roof to let in more natural light and altered the benches to make it easier for vendors to monitor their products. Such relatively minor infrastructural improvements, which were implemented in direct response to vendors’ needs, have had a huge impact on the overall safety and success of Gerehu Market.
Another important innovation for the Gerehu Market has been the introduction of mobile phones with which vendors can pay their stall and management fees. Adopting this technology has helped reduce the risk of extortion, theft, and violence against vendors in vulnerable markets. Enabling vendors to effectively trace market revenue, this technology also increases savings opportunities, and earnings can be reinvested back into market maintenance. These kinds of innovations can be applied in markets throughout the developing world to increase and restore the safety, efficiency, and productivity of public markets.
The challenges that recently posed serious threats to public markets in Vietnam and Papua New Guinea—food safety and hygiene, crime, violence, and gender discrimination—are not isolated, and many markets across the globe face similar challenges. These stories demonstrate, however, that through more local awareness and action, even the most endangered markets can once again become dynamic centers of community, creativity, and economic opportunity.