Why We Need Market Cities

Oct 8, 2021
Oct 8, 2021

Editor’s Note: Project for Public Spaces, HealthBridge Foundation of Canada, and Slow Food International just launched a new resource for public market practitioners featuring research, guides, events. Check it out and subscribe to our new newsletter The Biweekly Bazaar at marketcities.org.

We now take it for granted that most cities of a certain size have an arts and culture strategy to support their local community of artists and arts organizations. But forty years ago, this practice barely existed.

Imagine for a moment: What if forty years from now, we could take it for granted that every city had a public market strategy to support their ecosystem of public market managers, vendors, food producers, and distributors? What if the potential of public markets was harnessed to help sustain residents’ access to food, decent jobs, and social infrastructure in the face of inevitable future climate change impacts? What if every city produced regular research about the public markets in their jurisdictions, their impacts on local economic and social outcomes, and shared it with the public?

El Salvador. Credit: Steve dosRemedios

That’s the vision behind the Market Cities Program, a partnership between Project for Public Spaces, HealthBridge Foundation of Canada, and Slow Food International. We believe the best way to overcome the many challenges facing public markets is to focus on how a collection of public markets can better function as a system. This requires public market leaders to collaborate with city and state policymakers, public health institutions, small business advocates, and others to establish policies and programs that maximize the financial health and community benefits of public market systems. The Program is working towards this vision by connecting and supporting local public market leaders through research, training, and a network of peers.

The Threats and Opportunities Facing Public Markets

The benefits of successful public markets are numerous. They connect urban and rural economies, increase access to affordable and healthy food, and offer low-risk business opportunities for vendors and farmers. Public markets are the original civic centers and they continue to be key public gathering places that highlight local culture and welcome people from all walks of life. As the Covid-19 pandemic proved, public markets are capable of acting as essential economic, social, and public health infrastructure in our communities—but only if they are supported through public policies, programs, and investments.

Accra, Ghana. Credit: Konrad Lembcke

Despite their positive impact, public markets in both the Global North and the Global South are endangered by threats, including uninformed development efforts; a lack of management capacity; and economic development practices that neglect women, and national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. In both global regions, public policy at all levels of government has done little to address these dangers or to unlock the full potential of public market systems.

In the United States, for example, the United States Department of Agriculture’s public market grant programs favor projects focused on increasing sales for direct-to-consumer farmers and ranchers, with less weight put on strengthening the economic, social, and public health facets of the public markets where those farmers and ranchers sell their goods. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the Hanoi municipal government decided in 2009 to convert over 400 historic wet markets—predominantly run by women vendors—into modern shopping centers. This plan was only reconsidered after a successful “Save the Markets” campaign, organized by the Market Cities Program partners.

Des Moines, IA, USA. Credit: Phil Roeder


These examples illustrate the precarity of public markets across different contexts, their untapped potential, and what we risk losing if they are neglected. With increasing worldwide awareness of the value of fresh, affordable, and nutritious food, the weaknesses in the global supply chain, and the need for decent work and business opportunities for all, it is critical that we take long-term actions to improve public market infrastructure, management, and operations. Public markets need to be recognized as the vital, resilient public spaces they are.

Our History & Work

Project for Public Spaces developed the concept for the Market Cities Program in 2014 and our partnership with HealthBridge Foundation of Canada and Slow Food International was formalized in early 2019. Evolving out of Project for Public Spaces’ Public Markets Program, which dates back to 1987, the Program builds on over 30 years of international work, including projects with individual clients in more than 70 communities to develop new public markets and revitalize historic public markets.

Moving forward, the Market Cities Program will achieve its mission through three interconnected strategies:

  1. Model Projects: Provide technical assistance to public market leaders to develop a context-specific Market Cities strategy that helps public market systems achieve their full potential.
  2. Trainings and Events: Lead trainings to support public market managers, academic researchers, local government officials, and civil society groups in strengthening their market systems and developing their own Market Cities strategies.
  3. A Community of Peers: Foster a community of peers through a resource library, a biweekly newsletter, and when it is safe to do so, by continuing the popular International Public Markets Conference.

Years of experience working with individual public market clients have shown us that different types of public markets have more in common than not. Through the three strategies above, we hope to create space for public market leaders to exchange ideas and expertise, and advance their field. Model projects in different cities will allow us to continue working with public market leaders on the ground to develop citywide strategies, while testing different approaches and gaining invaluable knowledge that can be shared back with our audience through our trainings and events. And because the world’s public market leaders have so much to learn from each other, we plan to develop more opportunities for our community to share knowledge and build relationships both online and in person.

Explore the site to learn more about what we’ve been up to so far, and subscribe to our new newsletter—the Biweekly Bazaar—to stay up-to-date on new activities and opportunities from the Market Cities Program.

Join Us at marketcities.org!

Having collaborated for nearly a decade, the three organizational partners are excited to officially unite their expertise and experience in both the Global North and Global South to increase the impact of regional public market systems on the health, sustainability, and equity of their communities. We’re excited for you to take part in this effort to truly make public markets a transformative force in the future.

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