15-minute cities need public marketplaces for fresh food

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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/.

Dominic Cummings’ trillion dollar tech fantasy

We all got a laugh a couple of weeks ago upon learning why Dominic Cummings, the Dick Cheney of Boris Johnson’s government, wants the UK government free to provide state aid to companies (it’s one of the principal reaons for wanting to violate the EU Exit Agreement Johnson had pushed through Parliament just last year). The reason, as Robert Peston quotes Cummings, is:

Countries that were late to industrialisation were owned/coerced by those early (to it). The same will happen to countries without trillion dollar tech companies over the next 20 years.

The most obvious response to Cummings is best put by the inimitable Marina Hyde, who asks us to imagine a friend of Cummings looking him in the eye and saying ““Mate, with the best will in the world, what on EARTH about the last six months makes you think you can build the next Apple?”

Others have allowed mere doubt about Cummings’ competence rather than denial of it, and then given him the benefit of that doubt; instead, they criticise his trillion-dollar tech company scheme on the grounds that the countries usually classed “late industrializers” – from Germany and the USA in the late 19th century to Korea in the late 20th – are often reckoned to have done pretty well for themselves, and to have avoided ownership and coercion by Britain. In this regard, though, I think Cummings assertion is entirely correct, even if (for reasons I’ll get to) his idea is bad. Britain did use its position as the first industrial power to both own and coerce much of the world, and it did so successfully for over a century. And Britain’s success in this does offer some parallels with America’s, and the trillion-dollar tech companies of the Silicon Valley and Seattle, today. But does that mean Britain can, or should, try to follow that model today? Let me tell you why not.

From the late 18th century through the early 20th, Britain strove to keep its industrial head start by protecting the position of its manufacturers in international markets, in ways familiar to any student of history. For many decades, when it was the workshop of the world and controlled most of the cutting edge technologies, it forbade both the export of industrial machinery and the emigration of people who knew anything about making it. Eventually, the secrets leaked out anyway and Britain began to lose its manufacturing monopolies to rivals like Germany and the USA. Britain responded by building a larger empire, so that the sun never set on its captive market. Within the empire there was a strict division of labor, with manufactured products coming from the home country; parts of the empire had already developed internationally competitive manufacturing industries, and those had to go – India’s textile and shipbuilding industries, for example, were destroyed so that they would no longer threaten Britain’s industrial (and military) monopoly. So, yes, plenty of control and coercion, as Cummings says.

Today, the international monopolists are American the tech giants. These giants – the trillion or near-trillion dollar companies – are not the foremost technological innovators, but are companies which have become as rich by carving out monopolies in software and the Web, digital gardens large or small with walls to keep competitors out. Google dominates search, Amazon online retail, Microsoft office applications and personal computer operating systems, Google and Facebook online advertising, Google and Apple phone apps, and so on.

It is important to distinguish between what these tech giants have done, and technological innovation. There are many, many tech companies in the world, but only four (Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft) at or near the trillion dollar mark in market capitalization (Facebook is also very valuable, the fifth most valuable tech company, but in this league it’s mini-me). Take phone apps as an example. Google’s and Apple’s phone operating systems are based on sophisticated open source software others have written and given away; the phones, marvels of electronics and miniaturization, are made by others; the apps on the phones are written and sold by thousands of individuals and companies around the world; Google and Apple, in their positions as gatekeepers, take generous cuts from each sale of an app. Many, many tech companies are involved in phones, phone software and phone apps, but only two are anything close to being trillion dollar companies; that’s because they’ve established strong monopoly positions, just as Britain did for its world-serving workshop about two hundred years ago.

When he says “trillion-dollar tech companies”, that is the sort of business Cummings wants to get.

Cummings’ fascination with trillion-dollar tech companies, then, does fit nicely with the characteristic Brexiteer’s nostalgia for empire; he is seeing, accurately, today’s analogue. The question then is, should the UK try to join in the game America is playing?

Some would say not on the grounds that, in the long run, the imperial-monopoly strategy left Britain weak. To succeed in a world dominated by Britain, its late-industrialist rivals devised superior industrial systems: Britain was out-produced by the USA, out-engineered by Germany, out-managed by many countries; sheltered behind its imperial market and the returns from previous overseas investments, it clung to a strong pound to prop up the value of a diminishing stream of income from overseas. Many would say that the US is doing something analogous today, its considerable diplomatic powers devoted to protecting Silicon Valley and a few other sectors, at the expense of hollowing out the rest of its industries (see Dani Rodrik on this point). But is that really failure? Nothing lasts forever; Britain had a very good run, as now America has had as well.

But Britain is not going to be able to do it again.

One thing Cummings has right is that if the UK were to attempt this strategy, it’s probably good that it’s left the European Union, because Brussels – the European Commission and all those nasty bureaucrats – are the only force on the planet making a serious effort to tame and regulate the monopoly power of Big Tech. That’s not the game Cummings wants to play.

But, being out of the EU leaves the UK with the problem of having a relatively small domestic market. The classic late industrializer response to Britain’s power was to use a protected domestic market as a greenhouse in which to develop new firms, which can then compete globally when they’re big and strong. China is doing exactly that for its own web giants. The UK domestic market, however, is nowhere near big enough to do what China is doing.

An alternative version says that the UK’s imagined tech titans would neither be exposed at birth to the fierce storms of global competition, nor confined in the UK’s too-small domestic market, because the post-Brexit UK will somehow become part of a new Atlantic or Anglo-zone economy – Airstrip One, as Orwell had it. This vision of course gets a reality check every time Nancy Pelosi has to remind the British government that it won’t have any trade deal with the US if it allows its Brexit extremism to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. But let’s say for the sake of argument that the government can solve the problem of creating a hard border around the UK without creating one on the island of Ireland and, following further triumphs of diplomacy, the UK’s emerging tech companies find themselves within a very large protected market which includes the United States.

Now, one place Cummings’ thinking does make contact with reality is in understanding that the UK – and in particular, London, Cambridge and the Southeast of England generally – does have great strengths in the tech giants’ sectors – software, web applications, business services; it has the skills, the financing, the start-ups, and the very close links with the American tech giants themselves. It is already part of that industrial eco-system. Surely all it lacks is to itself be the home base of couple of very rich companies? Perhaps, as the West Coast becomes uninhabitable due to smoke from forest fires, opportunities to form the next generation of tech monopolies will shift back to the mother country?

Many places, though, offer themselves up to become the new center of tech gravity, should it ever shift; if there were a new center and it were not in Asia, it would more likely be someplace else in the United States; Boston, New York, or even North Carolina would be more likely than London, even if the UK were part of a seamless Atlantic market. That’s because UK has never been good at building big businesses. From the late nineteenth century onwards, the US, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, France, Sweden, and Switzerland all have been better at building big companies with sustained internal programs of innovation and investment, and with global reach; in recent decades, Korea and China have joined those ranks. We have seen this in steel, chemicals and electrical equipment in the 1870s-1890s; in automobiles and other mass production industries in the early to mid twentieth century; the computer, semiconductor and telecommunications industries in the late twentieth century. We see it again in the software, web and business service giants of today.

The roots of Britain’s relative weakness at building and sustaining big companies lie in institutions which served it well as an empire: powerful financial institutions which invest with a focus on short-term gains; financial and govenment decisions in the hands of a narrow national elite with generalist educations and little grounding in the particulars of any industry – but born to rule; companies which stay light on management, on capital investment, on training, and on research and development.

That these proclivities stay stubornly in place is a classic problem of path dependency, of the interlocking and mutually supporting nature of any set of established institutions which restrict the range of choices as things change. However you understand the reasons, however, the fact is that the US is far, far better at building and sustaining big companies than the UK, and if the UK is operating within the US sphere it is not the UK that will be the home of the trillion dollar companies.

Is it a bad thing that the UK will not become the home of several trillion dollar tech companies? Not really. America’s tech empire, like Britain’s empire of yore, is a system of appropriation which makes one corner of the world rich at the expense of the rest. And it can’t even be said that it makes the US, as a country, rich: within the US, these tech monopolists and their financial and political enablers enrich particular places – particular cities and regions – at the expense of the rest of the country, as Maryann Feldman, Simona Iammarino and I discuss (with lots of nice maps) in this paper. There’s a similar pattern in the UK, with divides between South and North; between those paid well enough to live well in overpriced gentrifying tech+finance cities, and everybody else. Becoming home to one or more trillion-dollar tech companies would only exacerbate these divides. Cummings and his ilk would do well in that bargain, but for the UK as a whole it would not be a good thing, so we can be glad that Cummings is wrong.

Unfortunately, with Cummings’ strategy out the window, we are left with the question of what sort of post-Brexit economic strategy would work for the UK. I can’t answer that one.

 

Name droppers

My friend Don Cushman is one of the few people I know who actually liked the third Godfather movie, but this has to do with Don’s views about the Vatican and all its works, views hanging over from his years as a seminarian. On that topic, I preferred Don’s 1996 novel Visitation, though perhaps Coppola had simply set too high a bar with I and II. About the Vatican I know almost nothing beyond what I see in such popular sources, but I did know an obscure trivium, namely that the American magazine editor Norman Cousins had once been sent by JFK to feel out both the pope (John XXIII) and Nikita Khrushchev about some matters of world peace. I knew this from reading the dust jacket of the book Cousins wrote about it; in the early 1970s, I worked for a while for an organization called the World Federalists, in whose ranks Cousins was a luminary, and our storeroom had piles of unsold copies. “I knew Norman Cousins”, I said.

Now this is a name I should have dropped long ago, since most of the people who would be impressed by it are by now no longer with us. Timing has never been my forte. Don and his wife Joann, however, being American intellectuals somewhat older than myself, were the right audience and it seemed to make an impression. Joann could probably drop the names of most of the civil rights leaders of the early 1960s if she wanted, and then I’d use them second hand, but she’s too modest and self-assured to help out in that way.

Cousins was much better about sharing names. Having been evidently bored in a meeting he said, when it came to a break, like a player hoping to be asked to bring out the cards, “Have I told you about my meeting with Arafat?” Arafat was then, as they used to say of Dick Cheney, in a secure location, presumably somewhere in Lebanon. The US government was not openly talking to him; somebody had asked Cousins to do so. We sat spellbound. All I remember of the story – probably, all he could tell us – had to do with being blindfolded and driven around for a while so that he would have no idea where he was when the meeting took place.

After dropping his name I figured I ought at least to read Cousins’ book, The Improbable Triumvirate. After fifty years, nearly-new copies remain available at remarkably reasonable prices, as if the World Federalists’ storeroom had just been emptied. It’s a funny book, for two reasons. One is that the famous literary editor had written something which seems to have been composed mainly from his old appointment books and memoranda from meetings – the clunkiest narrative I’ve ever read. The other is that the big character in the book is Cousins himself, the only real energy amongst all these minutes of meetings is him setting both Kennedy and Khrushchev right (he doesn’t actually meet with the Pope, and whatever he said to Vatican diplomats can’t leave the same impression). Underneath this is a remarkable story – and the behest of JFK, he’s staying with Khrushchev at his Black Sea retreat, talking about capitalism, communism, war and peace, I’m all ears – but the surface is just an advertisement for Cousins.

Luther Evans could drop a name with more finesse. I have just dropped his, a name which the passage of time might have rendered worthless were it not for Wikipedia, which will fill you in if your really must know. Working in the cause of world peace we often found, as in any political organization, that our most menacing enemies were rivals within, and some of us youngsters were perhaps rash in our plans for thwarting one such person. “I am reminded of something Macleish once said to me”, said Luther to us: “don’t kick a dog ’til you know it’s dead.”

Location can help. Walking through Berkeley with Stuart Hampshire and Nancy Cartwright, we came across a notice – as one would, those days, in Berkeley – for some event involving Ivan Illich. “Illich”, quoth Stuart, “old chum of mine. Went a bit off the rails with that Medical Nemesis stuff, I’m afraid.” And then – I want to make this the same walk, though that seems too lucky – upon seeing a notice for an event celebrating EE Cummings, almost the same: “old chum of mine. Terrible reactionary, really.” These opportunities would not have presented themselves had we been walking through Omaha. But then, we would not have been.

San Francisco, New York, Washington: Iron Triangle of Rent

Note: an earlier version of this post appeared in November 2019. Since then, the problem of monopoly – particularly, the platform giants we could call Big Tech: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook etc – has grown as a matter of public concern, with the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Antitrust issuing a report calling for major reforms. Also, the research paper on which the blog post is based has now been published: Maryann Feldman, Frederick Guy, and Simona Iammarino. 2020. “Regional Income Disparities, Monopoly and Finance.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society rsaa024 (December). You can click through to that or, for the condensed, non-technical version, read on!

The map below shows where the higher paid jobs in the USA were concentrated in 2016; green is for greenbacks.

top20incwage_2016

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Transitioning to desert

Carr-fireWe were back in California for a visit last year. It was the end of a road trip, across the US in June. There were fires in New Mexico and Colorado as we passed through, but it was California that was a shock. We crossed the Sierra Nevada at Mamouth to visit Devil’s Postpile, and immediately we were in smoke an ash from a fire in the John Muir Wilderness a short way away. Helicopters, fighting that fire. We saw the great postpiles…

Devil-postpile

Devil’s Postpile: worth seeing

then walked, through smoke and a drizzle of ash, across the scar left by the Rainbow Fire of 1992. There was a forest here before that fire; will there ever be again?

Rainbow-fire

In the midst of that scar, we came to Rainbow Falls, from which the fire got its name. Still worth a visit.

Rainbow_fall_at_Devils_Postpile_National_Monument

The next day, we crossed Tioga Pass and headed across Yosemite into the Central Valley. From the western boundary of the park, for the rest of our visit – another month – we were in smoke and haze, rarely seeing fire but knowing that there were active fires in every direction.

Much is made of houses and even towns burning, and of the problem of houses built scattered in woods on the urban fringe. Yes, that’s a problem: the fire damage is greater, both because houses burn and because the priority of protecting houses can compromise that of minimizing the spread of the fire; insurance companies, the state legislature & local planning commissions will need to sort it out. But, for the houses amidst the trees, we can miss seeing the bigger picture: we are watching the creation of deserts. These Mediterranean climates, which have always been warm and dry, are now getting drier, and hot. The vegetation, live and dead, which had before been part of a healthy landscape, is now just fuel. Mature deserts don’t burn so much, because there’s not much to burn. These places will keep burning, year after year, until there is nothing left to burn.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 care about freedom of movement in Europe

160 days until our EU citizenship and freedom of movement turn i

Note (1st October 2019): The post below was written in April.  Today at the Conservative party conference, Home Secretary Priti Patel smirked while she declaring she will “end the free movement of people forever” as if that were driving a stake through a vampire’s heart. The Labour party, on the other hand, has made some progress, the party conference voting overwhelmingly to support free movement; yet Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott makes clear that the leadership doesn’t feel bound by that – so, despite the appearance of progress, my plague-on-both-your-houses must stand.

The original post: 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.

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