Your town center needs a public market


San Benedetto Market, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy (Google it, then click Images). This 8,000 sq metre market is the largest of four municipal markets in a city of just 150,000 – less than a London borough.









Traditional markets for fresh foods – fruit and veg, meat, fish, cheese, baked goods, local specialties, plus a few places to eat or get take-way – have many stalls, many vendors, all in one place. They can be beautiful and welcoming public places, a value to the community; channels by which small local producers can get their products to market; and provide opportunity for a number of small traders. In some places they thrive, but there are fewer and fewer, many of them faded and many being pushed out by development. Is it an obsolete model, or are we just doing something wrong?

Public markets are not an obsolete model; in fact, they are one of the best ways we have of bringing life back to our town centers. They are killed off by two things. One is that it is in the financial interest of town councils, property developers and large retailers to kill them off, even when they provide great benefits to both consumers and producers. The other is that good market management doesn’t happen automatically – it’s something the market vendors and the local government need to work together to maintain.

A good public market creates value by bringing many consumers and many producers into one place. It does, in one actual physical place, something like what the World Wide Web does in cyberspace, providing an open venue in which people can meet, talk, and trade. And, as with the Web, there are profits to be made from locking that place down: the business models of Amazon, and of the social media sites which are basically the commercial appropriation of our messages to friends and family, and so on; a supermarket is just a physical marketplace controlled by one corporate vendor, removing competition and reducing variety. In a shopping mall, or in one of the privately owned “farmer’s” markets which abound in London, the lock-down comes from a company that lets spaces for profit. Such vendors are able to offer local governments – often in desperate need of cash – a small slice of that profit: the great public benefit of the marketplace is sacrificed for a little public revenue.

But too often, it is easy for developers and local governments to kill markets, because they are often poorly run.

The management of a public market is not simple: many vendors depend on it, but all have their own businesses to run. And, the interests of a single vendor often conflict with the interests of the market as a whole: if I am, say, the one butcher in a thriving market of greengrocers, and a stall becomes vacant, in my view it should go to another greengrocer because we already have plenty of butchers (me). The grocers are likely to think there are plenty of them, already – nobody really likes to have more competitors. Perhaps the butcher-greengrocer disagreement will be settled by letting the stall go to somebody selling cheap luggage or instead. You may be able to picture markets – once, thriving fresh food markets – which have gradually degenerated in this way. Similar issues arise with the maintenance of quality standards. Technically, these are what economists call collective action problems, or free-rider problems; the long and the short is that if a community wants a good public market, it needs to ensure that good management is maintained – just like parks or schools or any other public service.

In many places, we see evidence of a community’s thirst for public markets from the persistence of street markets. Consider that many of these persist despite the logistical costs of requiring vendors to set up and break down their stalls and move all their goods daily, and to operate without plumbing or refrigeration. Cities around the world long ago solved this problem by creating indoor markets with stalls, electricity and plumbing, but we’ve allowed most of them to disappear.

We see town centers dying, and think they’re being killed off by Amazon and other Web vendors. That’s part of the story, but they were already wounded, often mortally, by supermarkets, the privatizers of the public marketplace. Regular food purchases create foot traffic, and bring customers for other businesses. Put a substantial indoor public market with a good selection of fresh food and other daily necessities, near a train or tube station, near good bus and bike routes: it then provides an anchor for the town center.

Here are some good information sources:

Municipal Institute of Barcelona Markets Website (English version) of the governing board for Barcelona’s municipal markets. Shows a bit how it’s done.

Urbact Markets: markets are the heart, soul and motor of cities. This is the report (2015) of the Urbact Markets European project to promote urban markets, in which several cities and regions took part: Attica (Greece), Dublin (Ireland), Westminster (United Kingdom), Turin (Italy), Suceava (Romania), Toulouse (France), Wrocław (Poland), Pécs (Hungary) and Barcelona.

Understanding London’s Markets. Mayor of London (2017)

Saving our city centres, one local market at a time. Julian Dobson, The Guardian (2015) This is an excerpt from his book How to Save Our Town Centres.

Gonzalez, S., and G. Dawson. 2015. “Traditional Markets under Threat: Why It?S Happening and What Traders and Customers Can Do.”




Finsbury Park consultation

A bit last minute here, but here’s what I’m saying to the Finsbury Park consultation:

Q3. Lock park up at night? Neither agree nor disagree. As the consultation notes, we need a settlement on cycle routes to know what the options are here. Why is it being consulted on now? See also, CCTV, and lighting.

Q4. Removal of benches near the Finsbury Park Gate entrance? Disagree. Whole area from that entrance to Finsbury Park Station entrance needs redesign to (a) encourage better (& non-threatening) uses, and (b) provide for planned cycle routes. It’s a substantial area with some real possibilities; various stakeholders need to be consulted & different design/use alternatives solicited.

Q5. Move small playground from American Gardens area to an unspecified “new location near the centre of the park”. Strongly disagree. Reason for proposed move is that adults often use the playground for workouts, and this is seen as a spillover from the outdoor gym area across the park road. My comment in the box provided:

There is already a playground near the centre of the park; moving the American Gardens playgound is in any case an expensive option.
I walk or cycle past this site almost every day. My impression is that the adults using the playground for exercise do so because the playground equipment & relatively level surface offer some workout options the outdoor gym does not. Best option would be to study what these are & improve the outdoor gym so that it accomodates these users.

Q6. CCTV Neither agree nor disagree. We need a settlement on cycle routes to know what the options are here.

Q7. Implementation of lighting. Neither agree nor disagree. Here, it’s just that the devil is in the detail. That detail is not clear in the consultation – two different lighted routes are mentioned, with different implications. In any case, we need a settlement on cycle routes to know what the options are here.

Q8. Public space protection order. Neither agree nor disagree. I just don’t know enough about what this involves.

Q9a. Traffic management. Option 1: stop public car parking.

Q9b: comment on the above:

Option 2 is to reduce the amount of parking, keeping the scrum between the lake and the basketball courts: don’t see why. Option 3 is bizarre – it would allow electric vehicles only, and install charging points for them. Since charging takes some time, this seems to imply either that the park would be used for overnight car storage, or that it would officially become an electric park & ride stop (plug your car in, and hop on the tube or train to get to work): not a good use of park space.

Finsbury Park is a heavily used green space. It is in a densely populated area which is becoming more dense as tower blocks rise. It is remarkably well connected by public transport. It is surrounded by traffic-clogged streets, to which traffic it currently adds in its own small way. There is no excuse for sacrificing green space in the park for car parking, and for making its roads less safe than they should be for kids on foot & on bikes. Less tarmac, more trees.

Q10. Electric vehicle charging points: Strongly disagree. See comment on Q9, above.

Q11. Other priorities. Drawing from the vast number of things not mentioned in the consultation, I said:

Fewer big events, charge organisers more! Water bottle refill stations. Wider bridge Oxford Rd

Finsbury Park-Highbury Fields cycle route consultation

Attention conservation notice: this post is of strictly local interest

Islington borough council is consulting on planned improvements to the cycle route from Finsbury Park to Highbury Fields. This is part of important routes from points beyond Finsbury Park to the City and the West End – I use it regularly. The consultation is open until 15th July 2019 – write your own response here. What follows is cut and pasted from my response.

Q: What do you like about these proposals?

A: Segregated cycle path, much of it parking-protected, along Drayton Park Rd; new roundabout at Benwell Rd.

Q: What do you not like about these proposals?

A: As an adult and a regular cyclist, the route mostly looks good. I think it would be an improvement for all concerned – particularly for air quality, for pedestrians, and for children cycling – if the project went beyond that to make this a low-traffic neighbourhood. There is no conflict between that and what you do propose, however, so some version of the current plan should go ahead.

To be all aged/abilities, segregated cycle track little good if not continuous. What happens on southbound section from Aubert Park to Martineau Rd? Must that perpendicular parking be retained?

On drawing of new roundabout, not clear what’s happening with the N-bound cycle track when crossing Benwell.

Blackstock Rd crossing inadquate for cyclists. Just wait til it’s clear? For maximum pedestrian/cyclist benefit at that crossing, (1) filter motor traffic on Ambler Rd both directions, (2) give way on Blackstock to crossing [cycle] traffic + zebras, allow Finsbury Park Rd traffic out at Brownswood.

Much of the cycle traffic on Drayton Park Rd will still come down St Thomas’s from Finsbury Park, not down Ambler. To reduce congestion on Rock St & rat running thru neighbourhood, suggest filtering both St Thomas’s Rd & Prah Rd at Rock St, giving some visual definition to the shared-space pavement between St Thomas’s & Seven Sisters Rd, and enforcing parking restrictions both on that pavement and on the cycle access to it.


Clawing bigger bits of green back from the asphalt

Parklets, plus.

Lots of people are doing parklets these days – re-purposing a single on-street parking spot as a garden or seating area, usually right in front of their own home or business. But what about places where roads or parking spaces are whittling away larger existing green spaces? You can, unfortunately, find examples of this almost anywhere – here are a few from the London borough of Haringey.



This bit of Oulton Road (above) cuts diagonally across what would otherwise be a green square, within a densely populated residential area and just behind Seven Sisters Primary School, London N15. A completely unnecessary piece of tarmac, there’d be space here for more trees, a basketball court … lots of options for better use.


This little patch of trees is Graham Green (above), a short way from the Turnpike Lane underground and bus station (N22). It’s got parking on all three sides, with parking permits extended to nearby businesses as well as residents. Replacing the parking with planting could extend the green area by a couple of metres on each side – a lot for this small green. Nearby parking structures have surplus space – business parking could move there.

Going now to the other side of the tracks: on Crouch Hill (N8), we find Crescent Road. The road is filtered – bollards preventing through motor traffic to or from the A103. The great walking/running/cycling route of Parkland Walk sits on one side; on the other are one end of Coleridge Primary School and of the strip of greenery between the school and the A103. Joining up green areas can be important for biodiversity – surely this is a bit of tarmac and spaces that could be sacrificed for trees.


A short way off, at the other end of Crescent Road, we find Avenue Road Common. As the name suggests (and see map), it’s more road than common: a tiny bit of grass and trees, paved footpath and then parking all around.


The UK government’s CO2 target calls for far more trees than the country is actually planting; too many street trees, squeezed between footpath and roadway and close to houses, are smallish ornamentals which are anyway not allowed to grow big (and thus not allowed to provide shade or impound carbon) because insurance companies fret about foundations. It is time to join with those who would make London the first “national park city“, by seizing on places like those shown here to push back the asphalt, and let the trees advance.

Why I’m intemperate about freedom of movement

It pains me to see the leadership of the UK Labour Party doubling down on its opposition to continued freedom of movement between the UK and the other 27 countries of the EU. A few impressions:

Westminster politicians don’t understand this issue, because they are typically more inward-looking, less international, than their constituents. British political careers famously begin at university and of course continue within the UK, with the MP being somebody who has devoted years to getting the support first of party members and then of voters, almost all of them UK citizens. The upper levels of the civil service are likewise extremely British. Contrast that with work in most sectors of business, education, or the health service, where an international cast of both co-workers and customers/clients/students/patients is the norm, and where careers often include opportunities for work abroad. My guess is that, relative to other Britons of the same age and education, most Westminster politicians, whatever the party, don’t have a clue of the extent to which freedom of movement within Europe has become a part of the lives – and the identity – of many of their constituents.

The university where I teach, a mile and a half from the Palace of Westminster, might as well be on a different planet.

Continue reading

Even soft Brexit gives the oil oligarchs what they want

Putin – whose name I use here as shorthand for the entire oligarchy of not just Russia but all major fossil fuel exporters – wants to prevent the emergence of international institutions which would be able to bring climate change under control. That is because the control of climate change would require destroying the oil and gas business, and with it his wealth and power.

To this end, two of the central objectives of the oil oligarchs have been the installation of a US government which is hostile to international cooperation in general and cooperation on climate in particular; and the fragmentation of the European Union. Trump, and Brexit; more broadly, a science-denying Republican party, and resurgent nationalism in every European country and region.

Even soft Brexit will be enough for Putin

I will explain below why these two political objectives, in the US and in the EU, are necessary – and, unfortunately, probably sufficient – for Putin’s ends. But first let me just say that, for Putin’s purposes, any Brexit will do, Hard, No Deal … or the softest of soft, as long as Britain withdraws from the political institutions of the EU. Continue reading