For good, affordable food in 15-minute cities, we need public markets

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San Benedetto Market, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy (Google it, or just visit). 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.

There’s a lot said now about 15minute cities, 20minute neighborhoods, active travel, walkable towns: re-making the places we live so that our daily needs are within easy reach by foot or by bike. Renewing cities in this way has considerable benefits for environmental sustainability, health, and social life. One fly in the ointment is this: switching from a car-dominated city to a 15-minute one could turn into a recipe for high food prices, poor quality and reduced variety. The best tool we have to prevent this is the public market – public facilities with multiple private stalls – for fresh food. To get such markets, well run and on sufficient scale, will require sustained efforts by municipal authorities.

Like many, I have written about how such markets can help revive town centers. Public markets are also a good example of what Eric Klinenberg (2018) calls “social infrastructure” – the routine meeting places in which valuable social bonds are established and renewed. What I’m saying here is that we need them for an additional reason: to maintain competition in the retail provision of daily necessities generally, and fresh food in particular.

When you think about sustainability or about community, planning for competitive markets may not be on your list of requisites. City planners tend not to think much about it either: the shopping districts in my borough in of London are ranked by planners in terms of whether they have a large supermarket, not whether they offer a choice of them; similarly, material on 15-minute cities and 20-minute neighborhoods tends to speak in terms of “availability” of retail services – small shops and, in some versions, supermarkets – within the relevant radius.

For most of us, the facility supplying food and other daily household necessities is a large supermarket. A single large supermarket serves a substantial population, and for that reason most households cannot have several supermarkets within a 15-minute active travel ambit. When large supermarkets are in competition with one another, it is because many of their customers drive to buy their groceries, and can choose which supermarket to drive to. That means that I, as a walk-in customer to my local supermarket, am in fact depending on others who drive there, however much I resent their fumes. If the same supermarket were serving only those of us who arrived on foot, we would be a captive market and would pay for that in higher prices, reduced quality, reduced selection, or some combination of those: that is simply how monopolies behave.

That is why the venerable institution of the public market offers a simple way to get the benefits of competition in food retailing within a sustainable fifteen-minute neighborhood. With a large number of stalls for small traders, a facility on the same scale as a supermarket can provide internal competition in the supply of fresh foods – vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, baked goods, dairy, and prepared food to take away. That is not of course everything you find in a supermarket; many of the branded, packaged products you find there are better handled by conventional retailers, either shops or on-line. But fresh foods – perishables – are things many households buy one or more times each week; unlike branded, non-perishable goods, with fresh foods you depend for quality on the particular retailer you buy from, which makes it more important to have a choice of retailers. It would be a serious flaw in a fifteen-minute city not to have good competitive supply of these things within that 15-minute radius.

You might ask why a public market, with its relatively small stalls, is important for this purpose; would not small, separate shops do the job as well? Yes, small shops could, up to a point. I wrote a paper (Guy, 2013) showing that competition from car-oriented supermarkets can actually raise prices (and reduce product variety) in small shops that depend on walking trade; if the policies promoting the 15-minute city do enough to discourage driving, then in many cases small shops could step into the gap and improve their offer as they compete for the enlarged local trade. In many cases, however, there will not be enough small shops within that 15-minute radius to create the competitive market we need; moreover, a neighborhood could equally well up dominated by a single (walkable) supermarket. By providing space for small-scale (smaller than most small shops) vendors, a public market can ensure that competitive supply of fresh foods continues, even in the a car-free 15-minute neighbourhood.

Public markets have been with us for time immemorial. Many cities still have them. Everywhere, though, they have been undermined, and in many places they have been destroyed, by the car-subsidized supermarket model and by failure of cities to understand the market’s vital role. We should embrace such markets, not simply as a nice feature for a city or town to have, but as a practical necessity for making a transition to active travel.

References cited above:

Guy, F. (2013) ‘Small, Local and Cheap? Walkable and Car-Oriented Retail in Competition’, Spatial Economic Analysis, 8, 425–442.

Klinenberg, E. (2018) Palaces for People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society, New York.

Some useful sources on public food markets:

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.” http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/102291/.

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