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.”



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