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.