“History is like a slingshot – the deeper you pull back the further you shoot.”
Consumption and companionship
Markets are public spaces, where traders regularly sell their products directly to consumers. They formed the nuclei of historic cities and are now widely deployed as an urban development tool. This article will explore the potential value of markets, using the lens of social infrastructure. It will argue that this ancient form of public space, mixing commerce with congregation, offers an underappreciated opportunity to strengthen food systems, secure affordable housing and tackle social exclusion.
Eric Klinenberg’s book ‘Palaces for the People’ neatly categorises how cities respond to challenges. Technocratic approaches build hard infrastructure, to improve the circulation of resources. For instance, a monorail may be built to serve low-income residents, unable to afford housing near their place of work. Modern societies require impressive civil engineering. However, cities can also engineer a more civil society. A second approach focuses on incubating stronger urban communities, through voluntary organisations and non-profits. One typical example might fund a skills-swap program, designed to increase the earning power of low-income residents.
Technocratic and civil responses are necessary. Yet they are insufficient to tackle the urban crises of today. Klinenberg argues for prioritising social infrastructure; the physical spaces where diverse people can form relationships. Social infrastructure describes the built environment where communities can build. Such spaces come in an abundance of forms, from pubs to health centres.
Unfortunately, Klinenberg’s book has a restricted focus: schools and libraries in the United States of America. These provide coherent examples of how social infrastructure can improve community resilience and quality of life for residents. However, the limited typology obscures the potential contribution of other public spaces. Markets are a paradigm cases of social infrastructure, which have been curiously underexplored in the existing literature.
Pre-industrial city centres danced to the rhythm of markets, with their geometry dictated by the flow of food. From a bird’s eye view, London’s medieval streets are an incoherent tangle. However, the urban fabric makes sense from the view of a different kind of bird: poultry on the way to market. Cheapside (from the old English ceap, to barter) leads on to Poultry and Cornhill, with Fish Street peeling off towards the docks. This pattern is repeated across many of the world’s great cities. Even after they stop trading, markets remain etched into physical space.
Food is quickly consumed, meaning satisfied market customers will frequently return. Regular face to face contact facilitates social connection between buyers, sellers and other regulars. When people sustain in recurrent interactions, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships inevitably grow. These relationships are rooted in a physical space, where people can linger regardless of whether they purchase anything. It is no surprise that two quintessential public arenas (the Athenian Agora and Roman Forum) were originally food markets. Their innate capacity as social infrastructure made them ideal sites to forge the kind of collective, negotiated co-existence which is a defining feature of urban life.
Across the Atlantic, Wall Street takes its name from a physical barricade built to protect (what was then) New Amsterdam. This wall was the site of a vibrant street market, which created a magnetic pull of social and economic activity. In 1792, a group of traders met in the open air of Wall Street and signed the Buttonwood Agreement, a series of rules laying the foundation of the modern financial system. Modern economic paradigms, which Wall Street has come to symbolise, now determine the survival and contribution of traditional markets to the communities they serve.
Markets have been superseded by market forces; abstractions used to describe flows of capital. Industrial supply chains are outcompeting and extinguishing many of these once vibrant public spaces. The first supermarket was built in 1930. Galvanised by the emerging urban typology of suburbs, fridges and cars, the model expanded with deleterious effect on incumbent traders. Some cities moved to insulate existing food systems, enacting legislative measures to curtail the growth of supermarkets. For instance, Barcelona prevented them from selling fresh food at street level, which partly explains the continued proliferation of food markets in the city.
Supermarkets pose a great deal of challenges to sustainable urban development, crowding out local food systems and generating staggering amounts of waste. However, they are particularly adept at feeding large numbers of people, coordinating a complex logistical process to meet the needs of growing populations. Our urban challenges cannot be explained or resolved by merely condemning a solitary aspect of our food system.
Furthermore, it would be naive to seek redemption in the rash of ‘farmers markets’ which perch in affluent corners of city centres every weekend. These pop-up sites offer house price boosting ‘place-making’ with minimal infrastructure investment, cementing their place in the handbook of urban regeneration clichés. Private sector actors (The London Farmers Market Ltd operates 18 markets in the city) have carved out a profitable niche, targeting consumers eager to pay a premium for an artisanal cheesemonger. The UK has allowed its local distribution networks to wither away, creating lucrative opportunities to recreate them for middle class entertainment.
Happily, designing for social infrastructure offers an escape from the false dichotomy of supermarkets and luxury markets. Food markets need not be synonymous with high prices, if they focus on value beyond profit maximisation. The National Market Trader Federation carries out an annual Shopping Basket Survey, which claims that fresh produce is cheaper, on average, when purchased at markets over supermarkets. They are particularly valuable to low-income, marginalised and minority communities, who rely on markets to access affordable fresh food.
Markets have a further advantage over the alienating scale of suburban malls - the opportunity to enjoy meals in a space saturated with potential acquaintances. The social value of shared meals is reflected in our language; ‘companionship’ is derived from cum, together, and panis, bread. Breaking bread is an effective tool for breaking down boundaries between individuals. Eating together makes strangers less strange, enhancing the social infrastructure offered by markets. Markets provide an opportunity to gather easily, inexpensively, and regularly. The inclusion of somewhere to sit and enjoy food boosts the performance of a market as social infrastructure.
A Home Crowd
As humanity is increasingly situated in its cities, access to affordable housing has been eroded. In the UK, this has been exacerbated by the absorption of formally public housing into networks of global finance, which relentlessly extract capital from place-based property. Under the neoliberal order of contemporary urbanisation, market forces are structurally unable to provide adequate housing for all citizens. What is needed is the proliferation of alternative residential logics.
Welcoming tenants into a food market may provide one such model. Clearly, this approach could never solve more than a tiny fraction of the affordable housing deficit. However, it is an idea which can build on real world examples. Les Grand Voisins occupies the abandoned Saint Vincent-de-Paul hospital in Paris’ 14th Arrondissement. The upper floors have been converted into dignified housing for up to 100 refugees, among the most socially excluded residents of France. At street level, a thriving market generates bustling social activity which entices the public through its gates. Vendor profits are used to fund the housing and an inclusive programme of training activities.
An award-winning restaurant is staffed by refugees, who are paid to showcase the culinary highlights of their origin countries. A hyper-local currency allows residents to participate in the public and economic life of the market, despite formal restrictions on their right to work and earn wages. By combining housing with a public commercial space, Les Grands Voisins facilitates powerful and practical solidarity between producers and customers, residents and neighbours.
The synergy between housing and food markets offers a practical response to the spatial inequality in many cities. Low income households are frequently consigned to peripheral food deserts, with little access to decent food or social infrastructure. In Seattle, the popular Pike Place Market is operated by a 501(c)3 organisation, which exists to nurture a thriving neighbourhood model. In practice, this means the economic surplus of trading is used to fund supported tenancies for 72 residents, whose apartments are built into the physical structure of the market. In addition, over 1 million lbs. of nutritious food was distributed to low-income community members, some of which was grown in the Market’s own vegetable garden. Markets, if well designed and properly run, can deliver profound interventions against multiple challenges of their urban environments. However, in order to do so, they must be well-located.
Market Place: proposing a location strategy
Public hubs of trade and social connection played a foundational role in early cities, orientating the material conditions for urban life. This has left an imprint in the built environment. Arterial roads lead to expansive squares, which previously hosted markets. Reclaiming these historic locations, enriched by hard infrastructure, can provide a promising site for social infrastructure.
Alternatively, one might be led by more recent distortion of the urban fabric. The influx of personal cars has created a new infrastructural typology. Multi-story car parks have emerged as an important part of the spatial grammar. These buildings are largely empty most of the time, consuming valuable space. This waste is economically incentivised by extracting rent, from those prepared to pay to forget about their unwieldly possession.
Infrastructure has a way of expressing dominant ideas and values about the organisation of urban space. When those values start to shift, the built environment can form an uneasy relic of path dependency. Public transport infrastructure is a key frontier for cities, which must accommodate for swelling populations during a climate crisis. This policy trend will, theoretically, reduce the demand for city-centre parking. Markets offer an effective and sustainable model for repurposing the distinctive structures associated with reliance of mass personal transport.
Multi-story car parks are typically within walking distance of the city centre, so users can abandon their vehicles and proceed on foot. Thanks to the campaigning by Disabled Motoring UK and equivalent groups in other countries, these spaces are increasingly likely to be accessible for people with mobility issues, offering an inclusive space for potential customers, vendors and tenants. Their design is a functional response to a flood of cars demanding to be efficiently circulated and neatly stored. This legible, vertical space could be pedestrianised, with enough room to integrate commercial stalls, communal eating and housing.
Whilst this will require more initial investment than a pop-up farmers market, the potential density of social and economic exchange is unmatched. Multi-story car parks offer a central, accessible and large space with a relatively small urban footprint. The only thing to be displaced is the ranks of abandoned cars. This fits the sustainable urbanism goals of many local authorities, which valorise public transport in the context of carbon emission targets.
How might we choose between placing a market where one once traded, or repurposing multi-story car park? Tellingly, this may not be necessary. Pre-industrial patterns of food distribution echo in the urban fabric, shaping where we chose to abandon our vehicles. For instance, Edinburgh’s award-winning Castle Market is erected on top of Castle Terrace carpark every weekend. This was also the site of a medieval market, situated to catch trade between Grassmarket and Haymarket. Again, the names of busy modern streets reveal their previous role in a city’s economy. A marketplace establishes the flow of goods and services in a city, creating the ideal site for a car park. This is then occupied by pop-up markets capitalising on a busy central location. This pattern is repeated throughout the UK, with markets from Bellfield Car Park in Banchory to Holly Road Car Park in Twickenham.
Trade-offs: why use a social infrastructure approach
Both in the UK and further afield, awareness of the benefits markets can offer is growing amongst policy makers, community groups and urban planners. This has been accompanied in some regions by an explosion of the number and diversity of markets. For instance, the USA has nearly 10,000 markets across the country, a growth of 76% since 2008. The UK only got its first urban ‘farmers market’ in 1997 when Bath launched a monthly event in response to the Local Agenda 21 policy initiative. The sector now employs 57,000 people, turning over £3bn for the UK economy every year.
In an effort to evidence the contribution of these spaces, there have been a number of notable attempts to define their socio-economic value. Methodologies such as Local Multiplier 3, SROI and Market Umbrella’s SEED tool have shed useful light on the broad impact of markets on consumer behaviour. These outputs have undoubtedly been useful for galvanising the support of local authorities and challenging urban strategies that threaten existing markets. For instance, Friends of Queens Market successfully campaigned against Newham’s renewal plan that would dramatically reduce its size in favour of a new supermarket. In 2012, Queens Market was awarded the status of an ‘Asset of Community Value’, having quantified the importance of its trade to the local economy.
However, reliance on these quantification methods risks a failure to appreciate the positive impact markets provide beyond economic transactions. Markets can be an inclusive, heterotopic space even for those who are not spending money. Social infrastructure is a conceptual framework capable of capturing the public good that they offer to their communities around the world. Furthermore, it expresses this value in terms easily understood. Markets are good for a city in the same way libraries and community centres are.
Urban planners should be under no illusion that social infrastructure will be delivered through expensive, profit-driven outposts catering to those with disposable income. However, examples provided by enlightened place-makers, from Paris to Seattle, demonstrate that purposeful management can deliver an inclusive commercial environment. The urban void left by multi-story car parks provide a promising opportunity to experiment with markets, operated with an explicit aim of maximising social infrastructure. Similarly, the glaring blind spot in Klinenberg’s prescription for the cities of the future illuminates an opportunity to explore new frontiers of sustainable urbanism.