We 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…
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?
In the midst of that scar, we came to Rainbow Falls, from which the fire got its name. Still worth a visit.
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.
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, with many stalls in one place, can be beautiful and welcoming public places, a value to the community. They can provide channels by which small local producers can get their products to market, and also opportunity for a number of small traders.
In some places such markets thrive, but there are fewer and fewer, many of them faded and many being pushed out by new development. Is the public market 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 together in one place. Marketplaces in towns have done just that for thousands of years. But, as with any other market, there are people who can benefit from taking control of the marketplace, raking off some rent. Once upon a time that would have been a king or a feudal lord; today it is superstores and shopping mall developers, who bring a single space under one ownership. This can be a profitable business because, once you are there, having parked your car or gotten off your bus, the business controlling that space has a kind of monopoly on your business.
(Notice that this happens with virtual marketplaces as much as with material ones: twenty years ago, the World-Wide Web seemed a place where anybody could freely connect with any business, and sages actually worried if it could ever be made profitable, or “monetized”; now we can’t figure out how to prevent Amazon and Google from monetizing our every move).
In Britain as in much of the world, public markets have been allowed to decay, shrink, and often disappear altogether, replaced by these privatized spaces. 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. Similarly the proliferation of farmers’ markets, which get custom despite being high priced, exposed to the weather and open just once a week, show how much we miss a real marketplace.
Why do local governments allow this? One reason is that the privatisers of the prime town centre space – the superstores and the shopping mall developers – can offer more, because of what they will earn from their monopoly control of that little space. Councils are short of money, and the property developers will give them a price.
The other reason is that, all too often, it is easy for developers and local governments to kill markets, because many are poorly run.
The management of a public market is not simple: many traders 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, I would probably say that it should go to another greengrocer because we already have plenty of butchers (i.e., me). The grocers are likely to think there are plenty of grocers 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 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, and with finding traders and community members who are willing to devote some time to market governance. Technically, this is what economists call a collective action, or free-rider, problem. The world is full of such problems – you get similar problems in the use of parks and streets and libraries and public toilets and stopping global heating: in each case, if the community wants a public good (in this case, a well run marketplace), it needs to ensure that good management is maintained.
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 substantial indoor public markets with a good selection of fresh food and other daily necessities, in good central locations, and they will serve as the best anchors for thriving town centers.
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.
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.
An updated version of this post can be found here:
Your Town Center Needs a Public Market
Nordhaus has gotten a Nobel for understating the damage from climate change, and overstating the cost of doing anything about it. Continue reading
Layers of bad news: OECD says carbon pricing is far too low to fight global warming – an 80% shortfall! But peel back the layers and the story is much worse. The cost of carbon they use for that calculation is seriously low-balled, so the real shortfall should be much higher. And then, deep in the OECD report, we learn that the benefits of motor fuel tax are double-counted – it seems we already needed that money to pay for costs of traffic congestion, local air pollution, and people run over by cars, so there’s little, if anything, left for carbon pollution. Then, following up the OECD’s sources for that double-counting calculation we see that this, too, is understated – it completely ignores the multiplier effects of driving & damage from chasing pedestrians and cyclists off the road. And, finally, if we pay for all that environmental damage with fuel tax, who pays for the roads themselves?
The carbon pricing report is undoubtedly put together by people with a great concern about global warming and effective climate policy, and they’re delivering some bad news. Yet it is hard not to see it as an example of what Kevin Anderson (@kevinclimate) has described: that most of the policy and advocacy and even the science of climate change is presented in colossally over-optimistic scenarios. Let’s peel back the layers to see how that works. Continue reading