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/.

A daylighted stream for the “Haringey Heartlands” (old gasworks) project?

Cheonggyecheon Stream, Seoul (photo Park Ji-Hwan/AFP, via Guardian)

Sometime back I posted a comment on the proposed housing + commercial development of the old gasworks site near Turnpike Lane. That post focussed on parking – I thought (and still think) that the site is handy enough to public transport (bus, tube, rail) and to retail services that it could, and should, be parking free. For reasons detailed below, I didn’t say anything about the failure to open the Moselle Brook (which runs in a culvert under the site) to daylight. It is time to come back to that now, and if you’re a Haringey resident I hope you’ll take the time to address this point in a response to the consultation. Continue reading

Too many buses?

(Short answer: no.) Hoisted from comments – in an earlier post I complained that TFL and Haringey Council were making “improvements” at Bruce Grove (that’s in Tottenham, north London) that make things worse for both buses and cycling. But some say London has too many buses. Continue reading

Hansen: even 2 degrees sinks coastal cities

statueoflibertyunderwater
Politicians in Paris will try, if that’s not too kind a word, to find an agreement that will hold down temperature increases to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels [+2C].

Still too much, says James Hansen, of NASA (retired) and Columbia University, who has been warning us about this since 1981 or so:

• The last time Earth was +2C, 120,000 years ago, sea levels were 6-8 meters higher than today. 2 degrees would lock that in, the only question being how fast we would get there.
Hansen88Temps Continue reading

Going Dutch: more about kids than commuters

Percentage of trips by cycling, UK (blue) vs. Netherlands (orange), by age group. From City Cycling, eds. Pucher & Buehler, 2012, via AsEasyAsRidingABike.

update: David Hembrow reminds me of an excellent resource on this – his A view from the cycle path blog, and the linked Campaign for Childhood Freedom.

Two densely populated countries in northwest Europe, with similar mild-if-dreary climates. The difference? Cycle infrastructure. It’s why “going Dutch” has become a motto for cycle advocates in Britain.

Who would benefit from going Dutch? From San Francisco to London (two cities I happen to pay attention to, for personal reasons), public concern about bicycle safety and infrastructure focuses on hardy adults, 18-60, at risk of being hit by motor vehicles – particularly trucks – when commuting. Sometimes we cycle commuters are not the most sympathetic lot, especially when pumped with adrenalin after a near-death experience on the road. For an excellent discussion of why quality cycle infrastructure is not about today’s cycle commuters but the much larger population of potential cyclists – disproportionately children and old people – see this post at AsEasyAsRidingABike. Continue reading

Such a linear, ordered, minimalist …. purposeful graffito

Book him, Danno.

Anthony Cardenas was arrested by Vallejo police for felony vandalism. … Cardenas is in [jail] for painting one crosswalk and adding cross-hatching to the three official ones…. [jail] time, …. $15,000 bail …

Read from the whole story from David Edmondson at Vibrant Bay Area.

CO2 and shopping: walking better than web, web better than driving

Home delivery of groceries produces far lower CO2 emissions than driving to the supermarket: Erica Wygonik and Anne Goodchild find this in a recent study of the Seattle area (thanks to Tanya Snyder at Streetsblog for the reference). Wygonik and Goodchild cite similar findings from Sally Cairns in the UK, Hanne Siikavirta and colleagues in Finland, and Tehrani and Karbassi in Iran.

These studies find that the CO2 savings can be as high as 80-90% Continue reading

Impervious surface cover and the virtures of federalism


While we’re on taxes: several counties in Maryland (if your knowledge of American geography is limited, that’s Baltimore and The Wire) will now tax impervious surface cover. That’s rooftops, driveways, decks, etc. The contributions impervious surfaces make to urban heat islands, groundwater depletion, building subsidence, flooding, and water pollution are well understood (the wonkish may want to see Arnold & Gibbons, “Impervious surface coverage: The emergence of a key environmental indicator”). Taxing impervious surfaces is a simple and elegant solution, because there are very often simple, cheap, low-tech fixes (like replacing impervious surfaces with …. pervious ones!, or getting your rooftop exempted from the tax by collecting rainwater in a cistern for garden use): the tax provides an incentive for property owners to go fix these problems themselves.

Now, in honor of UKIP and of the general Brussels phobia that is sweeping Britain and much of the rest of Europe, here’s the connection between this wonderful tax, and federalism: Continue reading