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/.

Green Lanes Consultation: Item by Item

Yesterday I blogged about the severe limitations of the Green Lanes Traffic & Transport consultation. There’s a lot in the consultation, however, much of it pretty good, some of it excellent, and you should answer it. It is long, but comes in several sections (packages), and you only need to answer the ones that interest you. Here are my answers, item by item, with a bit of further explanation.

Package AW: Area-wide improvements

01 Improve streetscape. Support. Mostly simple inoffensive stuff, enforcing rules that already exist. In this spirit, how about also taking out those extra wide new “phone” installations on Green Lanes, which are just Trojan horses for hoardings on busy sections of pavement?

02 Greater provision of car clubs. Strongly support. Makes cars available when needed while discouraging over-use & taking up less space for parking storage. Continue reading

Green Lanes consultation: deference to traffic

New Green Lanes area traffic consultation is now available. There are some good elements to it, worth supporting, and there are tweaks that are worth proposing. The consulation documents outline some complicated and contentious issues concerning bikes and parking on Green Lanes, and what to do with Wightman Road. Overall, however, the proposals are timid: they do not contemplate or attempt any substantial reduction in traffic, which is to say that they don’t really set out to solve the problem the plan is meant to address. Haringey surely can do much better. 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

In paradise, build on the parking lot

Now cars only, soon no cars


In a more civilized country this would be entirely unremarkable, but in the city of my birth it’s a sign of great progress: for at least the second time in a year, the San Francisco Planning Commission has approved construction of a city-center apartment building with no car parking and a number of indoor bicycle parking spaces. The site is currently a parking lot, and was once under a freeway. Progress!
Continue reading