Your town center needs a public market

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

 

 

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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.

OECD’s bad news on carbon tax is hopelessly optimistic

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

Municipal food markets: why Cagliari but not Wood Green?

I’ll begin with my conclusion: municipal markets – daily indoor markets with a core of stalls selling fresh produce, meat and baked goods – should be at the centre of “regeneration” plans for town centres.

In April this year I was in Cagliari, Sardinia, working (life in the academy is tough, I tell you). I was fortunate to be staying near the San Benedetto market. At 8,000 square meters it is the largest of Cagliari’s four municipal markets; the city’s tourist information claims it’s the largest municipal market in Europe. Continue reading