For good, affordable food in 15-minute cities, we need public markets

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San Benedetto Market, Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy (Google it, or just visit). 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.

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/.

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, 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.

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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/.