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Public markets were once central components of the urban food system in cities but declined in number and importance by the middle of the 20th century.
Despite a diminished role in feeding the city, public markets have persisted, and interest abounds in both existing markets and in the development of new ones.
In addition to creating an alternative to the mainstream commercial food system, public markets can generate a range of community benefits including small business opportunities, preservation and promotion of local foods and foodways, and a forum for public interaction.
Despite these benefits, developing new, permanent, indoor markets is a unique challenge.
Importance of a marketplace
Public markets can take many forms from outdoor markets (such as the Jan Powers Farmers Markets in Brisbane and Hobart’s Salamanca Markets), enclosed or permanent indoor market halls (such as Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne), and seasonal and one-off markets (such as Christmas markets and neighbourhood street festivals).
But what can a public market do to make a community a better place?
A successful public market is a catalyst for local businesses. A market will bring in customers who not only shop at the market, but at local businesses as well.
Public markets are not just places of commerce. Successful markets help to grow and to connect urban and rural economies. They encourage development, enhance real estate values and the tax base, and keep money in the local neighbourhood.
Public markets also offer low-risk business opportunities for vendors and feed money back into the rural economy where many vendors grow, raise and produce their products.
The spin-off benefits of markets are numerous. From increasing access to fresh, healthy food to providing important revenue streams, markets positively impact local businesses, governments and residents.
But perhaps most important is the way markets serve as public gathering places for people from different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic communities. As one of the few places where people comfortably gather and meet, markets are our neighborhoods’ original civic centres.
Successful public markets are the heart and soul of downtowns and neighbourhoods, infusing our cities and towns with new energy and social and economic activity.
It is a place to hang out, shop and spend not only money, but time. A large public market might host not just stallholders, but events, classes and other community-building endeavors.
Attracting the locals
Public markets give local residents access to fresh, locally grown food, and often affordable organic food, increasing the health of the entire community.
They also become the centre of a neighbourhood, instilling pride in the community.
A successful market encourages visitors and enhances tourism, as well as giving local residents a place to meet. For example, the Pike Place Market in Seattle is the largest tourist attraction in the Pacific Northwest of the US and is a popular spot for locals as well.
Meanwhile, research shows more than 80 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents had visited the city’s Granville Island Public Market over a two-year period, with 29 per cent saying that shopping at the public market was the reason for their visit.
It’s important local residents are a big part of the patronage. Destinations that are purely designed for and frequented by tourists lack authenticity and will lose their appeal over time. Visitors want to see and experience how locals live.
A market can also create a pedestrian-friendly area that links other area attractions and neighbourhoods.
Public markets have the ability to aid in revitalising a downtown area as a retail shopping destination for residents and visitors, bringing much-needed cash and foot traffic to a city centre.
When opportunity presents
In Australia, some public markets, especially enclosed markets, are perhaps an underrated urban amenity but have great potential.
However, there are a handful like the Sydney Fish Market which are undoubtedly landmarks.
The existing Sydney Fish Market is the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere and the third largest seafood market, in terms of variety, in the world. It trades over 13,500 tonnes of seafood a year.
The market will undergo a multi-million dollar redevelopment this year to create a new “foodie” waterfront destination for the city.
Located adjacent to the existing fish market in Pyrmont, the new Sydney Fish Market will have some 6000sqm of new public space in a four-storey market hall setting with restaurants, fishmongers and specialty food retailers.
In another show of faith, the largest open-air market in the southern hemisphere, Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market, is also getting a $30 million restoration facelift.
The market has been the heart and soul of Melbourne for more than a century and sells everything from Australian fruit and vegetables, and local and imported gourmet foods, to cosmetics, clothing and souvenirs.
Meanwhile, Saluhall in Malmö, Sweden exhibits architectural excellence and is an example of a public market created from no more than a roofless shell of an old freight depot. Wingårdh Architects was commissioned in 2013 to transform the industrial ruin into a market hall for about 20 vendors and restaurateurs.
Iconic city guide, Time Out, has developed a series of branded markets, starting with Lisbon in 2014, and now expanded to Miami, New York, Boston, Montreal and Chicago, with London, Prague and Dubai in the works. These spaces offer a curated selection of each of these cities’ best restaurants, bars and providores, as well as event and business spaces.
The public market concept has also influenced more conventional food retailing such as the advent of fresh food precincts in many shopping centres which mimic the market style.
Food tenancies, such as the Australian hawker street-style 8 Street, are examples of operators in shopping centres which reference street food markets.
And retailers such as Eataly, American celebrity chef Mario Batali’s chain of Italian food markets, combine retail and restaurants and bars in a market hall format, proving the market scene is alive and thriving.
The future of markets
The growth of markets has been so rapid in the past decade that some skeptics claim that the wave has already crested but demographic trends, meanwhile, point toward the continued growth of public markets globally.
Existing markets are getting a big push from the growing numbers of immigrants in all parts of the world, who bring new products, energy, and dollars to the table.
This all bodes well for the future expansion and health of the public market movement.