COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Happy Shopper

Aug 31, 2007
Dec 14, 2017

By Jay Walljasper

It's always a tad discouraging to see so many kids running around town with "Born to Shop" t-shirts and tote bags. This declaration seems to shrink the innate range of human potential to little more than buying stuff.

‍Born to shop: Markets are places where we instinctually go to meet other people... and gaze longingly at the perfect pie.

But when I think about how much pleasure I feel strolling around a public market, I realize the kids are right. We are indeed born to shop--though not just as consumerism but as part of a broader instinct to participate in public life.

Evolutionary biologists and others who regularly probe the human psyche suggest we are hard-wired to seek out marketplaces and other spots where folks regularly gather. That's how males and females have historically hooked up (and how most still do, even in the age of, sizing up one another with an eye toward eventually mating. Public spaces, you might say, make the world go 'round.

I never thought about how deeply embedded shopping is in our DNA until I visited Athens last summer. The Acropolis--the spiritual center of the ancient city-state--is something we hear about all our lives, and it is an amazing sight atop a rock jutting out of the old city. But I was more enthralled by ruins of the Agora--the commercial heart of ancient Athens.

Strolling among fallen slabs of stone, I could sense the energy that once pulsed through this meeting place and market. I imagined that if I lived in ancient Greece, I would trek up to the Acropolis every so often to commune with Athena and other deities. But I would find an excuse to hit the Agora almost every day--not only to shop, but to fulfill my deep-seated needs to rub shoulders with fellow citizens.

Markets take us back to our roots in the Agora, Middle Eastern souks, or the village green.

In exactly the same way, I look forward to visiting my neighborhood farmers market in search of vegetables or heading to downtown Minneapolis to buy shoes. Its satisfying to cross these items off my to-do list, of course, but the shopping trips wouldn't mean much without chatting with my neighbors at the Kingfield market, or savoring the streetlife downtown and stopping in at my favorite pub.

When shopping is separated from the broader fun of hanging out in friendly, lively places, it becomes a hollow experience. It's like a dinner party with plenty of food, but no conversation.

That's why I mostly avoid malls, which may have a wider selection of goods and lower prices than neighborhood or downtown shops, but downgrade people's desire for being out in public into an isolated act of shopping. Most malls minimize public space where folks can comfortably gather because they don't want to distract us from the business of making purchases. It's emblematic of the single-use zoning approach to life, where we live in one place, work in another, shop somewhere else and play in an entirely different spot, with none of them really offering us that joyful, biologically-fulfilling sense of being where the action is.

That's why so many people are drawn today to public markets, where conversation and conviviality are as important as sales receipts. Markets take us back to our roots in the Agora, Middle Eastern souks, or the village green. Next time I'm downtown or at the farmers market, I will be hunting for a T-shirt that reads, "Born to Hang Out."

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space