How Markets Make our Communities Resilient

April 29, 2022
Katherine Peinhardt
RESILIENCE: A Market City has distribution networks that prioritize and support healthy, affordable, and safe food as well as other goods produced in the region.
7 Principles for Becoming a Market City

When are we most resilient? 

What probably comes to mind is the impact of a disaster or shock, the way it affects a community, and the concrete actions taken in the process of recovery. But resilience goes far beyond post-disaster response. It relies on social connections forged in our shared spaces, and it is built slowly over time—often in everyday circumstances. 

We are not only resilient when we react to a crisis. More often than not, resilience is a quiet, everyday phenomenon that relies on the support systems that contribute to our well-being. It takes many forms, always helping us to navigate the challenges we face in our communities, in good times and in bad.

Public markets are both supporters and indicators of resilience in a community: They demonstrate how quickly a place bounces back from a shock, while also providing the necessary social connections and resources to make this possible. In recent years, when the coronavirus pandemic has deeply impacted markets, we have seen both the value of these vital shared spaces—as well as what is at stake when we neglect to support them. 

As key parts of our social infrastructure, access points for food and other goods, and providers of ongoing economic opportunity, markets are incredibly important in our collective response to difficult times. As we confront ongoing crises like climate breakdown and the lingering effects of a global pandemic, markets should be part of every community’s path toward a more resilient future.

Look to Markets as Social Infrastructure

Markets are a key part of what many call social infrastructure. Perhaps best defined by author and professor Eric Kleinenberg as the “underpinnings of social life,” social infrastructure is a wide-reaching concept that includes everything from public and green spaces to buildings like libraries, as well as community organizations and businesses that act as gathering places. In other words, social infrastructure consists of a long list of places in which we connect with others—and public markets are high on that list.

After a disaster, we depend deeply on this social infrastructure, and draw on our social connections to both ask for and provide support. After all, it is our ties to others that make up our personal safety nets. So while it is less obvious than physical infrastructure like streets and utilities, elements of our social infrastructure (like markets) are usually a crucial part of recovery.

Food and other essential goods are collected by the Lublin Wholesale Market in Poland and forwarded to the Lubelskie Regional Branch of the Polish Red Cross to support those affected by the war in Ukraine. Credit: Lublin Wholesale Market.

It is not only the ties that members of a community have with markets that confirm their role as vital social infrastructure, but also the ties that those markets have to one another. When acting as a part of a wider system, as they do in a Market City, their benefits are magnified. For example, as the war in Ukraine displaces people, Italy’s Campagna Amica, which manages more than one thousand farmers markets, has turned its markets into a platform for philanthropy, gathering direct donations for those impacted by the war, while European members of the World Union of Wholesale Markets (WUWM) have also been called to action in a campaign to gather donations for Ukrainian refugees.

These timely outreach efforts speak to the power of markets as connectors, linking people and organizations as they take action in times of need.

FROM VICTIMS TO PROTAGONISTS: RECOVERY IN NEW ORLEANS’ MARKETS

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of public markets acting as crucial pillars of our social infrastructure can be found in New Orleans, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina. There, the Crescent City Farmers Market took only ten weeks to reopen; a process that required a nimble and adaptable approach, and that set the stage for the market to embark on a new era of experimentation. 

A performance takes place in the repurposed community tent at the Crescent City Farmers Market, which was given the tongue-in-cheek name "Office of Homeland Serenity." Credit: Richard McCarthy.

Before the storm, Market Cities partner Richard McCarthy ran the Crescent City Farmers Market. At that time, New Orleans had four year-round weekly markets in different parts of the city. This network of markets was incredibly important to the regional food system. “New Orleans was a place where the bonds between rural and urban had become estranged,” says McCarthy, “and this market was one of the few places where this was built up.”

In Katrina’s wake, many of the city’s supermarkets and indoor markets flooded or were damaged by wind. Luckily, outdoor public markets were agile in their response, drawing on their usual simple, mobile infrastructure, like folding tents and tables, to get up and running again. The market reopened in a new location, and even with this change, it was a place where people sought to reconnect. 

“People first came to hug and then to cry,” recalls McCarthy. From there, the market transformed, always building on the robust networks and systems for communication that they had pre-disaster. 

Soon after reopening, McCarthy led the conversion of the market’s community tent into the “Office of Homeland Serenity.” This space provided programming to market visitors, from musical performances by brass bands or chamber music groups to massages. The tent was perhaps the most tangible evidence of the role of the market as a place where people could find a sense of normalcy, even if only for a moment.

The market was a place in which New Orleans residents could exercise their agency. Even beyond their choices of products, visitors could engage with politicians and decision makers, who were frequently invited into the space. The market was also the centerpoint for the post-disaster microfinance initiative called the Crescent Fund, which featured a voting system to determine the distribution of small grants to vendors and producers. The program was “​inspired by the giving circles of African American churches,” notes McCarthy. “The market community would vote on which projects to invest in, and recipients would pay back their loan, topping out at $500, via time, talent, or treasure.” In this exercise of decision-making, locals were able to take control of some part of their new reality, a process which McCarthy noted as an active shift toward the role of protagonist, rather than that of a victim.

Journalists often sought out vendors at New Orleans markets post-hurricane, interviewing them about their work and the recovery process. Credit: Richard McCarthy.

After working to reopen post-Hurricane, McCarthy notes that the return of the market was an emblem of recovery, and a milestone in New Orleans’ journey toward becoming a Market City. 

“By rebuilding it,” says McCarthy, “we became much more intentional in our project of connecting the region through food.” 

Boost Access to Food and Goods

Street vendors and farmers markets can be essential providers in times of disruption that follow a disaster. Adaptable and able to meet changing needs, their presence can be the difference between having what one needs to recover, and going without.

The mobility of street vendors in Kathmandu, Nepal proved invaluable during an earthquake in 2015. Credit: Kristie Daniel.

A RELIABLE MEAL IN TIMES OF NEED: MOBILE STREET VENDORS IN NEPAL

Despite providing strong support for local economies and food access, street vending is often neglected, looked down upon, or even criminalized. But, as noted by Market Cities partner Kristie Daniel, director of the Livable Cities Program at HealthBridge, “In low- and middle-income countries, vending is critical for livelihoods and is also used as a social safety net in times of financial disruption.” 

After an earthquake in April of 2015, many residents of Kathmandu, Nepal, fled to outdoor public spaces like Durbar Square for safety. Mobile vendors quickly arrived on the scene providing affordable food and drink to meet the needs of the crowds. What these vendors provided turned out to be a lifeline to the many locals unable to go indoors or return to their homes. Because these vendors were already circulating through the city, they were well-prepared to feed people on the move.

Most of Kathmandu's markets are outdoors, which made it easier and safer for them to reopen post-earthquake, when compared to indoor spaces. Credit: Kristie Daniel.

In addition to these vendors, Kathmandu’s markets were able to reopen quickly after the earthquake, thanks in large part to their short supply chains. This was crucial, because even before the earthquake, the majority of food purchases took place through such markets. The fact that the majority of markets in Kathmandu are open air was also important for their ability to provide a stable source of everyday goods, as indoor spaces carry heavy structural risks after an earthquake. 

Whether through formal vending in established markets, or more informal operations, this type of vending activity provides the foundations for economic stability and access to essentials, both of which are crucial on an everyday basis, but even more so in times of need.

Value Markets as an Ongoing Source of Economic Opportunity

Markets are often incubators for entrepreneurs and new ventures. But in times of stress, they provide a safety net, creating opportunities for people to rebuild their lives by finding new livelihoods.

FINDING ALTERNATIVE INCOME STREAMS: TEACHERS TRANSITION TO VENDING IN UGANDA

During the multiple rounds of coronavirus lockdowns, many people saw severe disruptions to their normal incomes as closures hit many sectors, from the cultural and food industries to education. 

Along with frontline and health care workers, teachers have had to be among the most adaptable professionals throughout the course of the pandemic, continuously changing their lesson plans to accommodate closures or remote learning. But in some cases, teachers found themselves almost entirely out of work as well.

The markets in Kampala, Uganda offer a variety of fresh produce, goods, and a source of economic opportunity for locals. Credit: Advocates for Public Spaces.

This was the case in many parts of Uganda, where teachers were especially affected by lockdowns. According to HealthBridge partner Boney Sensasi, Project Officer with Advocates for Public Spaces, the closures compounded on existing challenges teachers faced, including poor and late pay, and inadequate housing, food, and medical care. 

“Teachers sometimes find themselves missing on the payroll and many work under extremely poor conditions,” says Sensasi. “Added to this, the Covid-19 lockdown has left them idle for close to two years.” 

Noticing that local markets in cities like Kampala were suddenly “overflowing with activity,” Advocates for Public Spaces in Uganda quickly caught wind of a new pattern: Many of the new faces in the market were teachers from the community who had turned to vending to earn an income as schools remained closed. In a country that lacks a formal social safety net, the markets provided an informal one for teachers to seek out new ways of supporting themselves while their usual work remained stalled.

Now, these changes seem to be here to stay. 

“A good number of teachers have found alternative income sources and are more likely to stick to that than return to teaching,” says Sensasi. He recounts the story of one former teacher who turned to brickmaking during the first lockdown. 

“It became so lucrative for him that he built a house, bought a car, and became an employer with over 20 workers. Going by the above, a good number of teachers will remain vendors. It guarantees them a daily income, which cannot be said of teaching.” 

While this pattern highlights huge challenges in the education system in Ugandan cities, it also brings to light the opportunities for entrepreneurship and new streams of income that markets can provide.

Motorcycle riders have begun to offer delivery services in Ugandan cities, expanding access to fresh food. Credit: Advocates for Public Spaces.

This transition to vending was accompanied by other shifts that appear to be part of the “new normal” in Uganda, including the ways people access food and goods. Sensasi recalls that many entrepreneurial boda boda (motorcycle) riders saw this as an opportunity, and started offering to go buy their neighbors whatever they needed in exchange for a small fare. These motorcyclists now carry everything from food to household items between communities, oftentimes selling to people who had no means of reaching fresh food markets. The system evolved over time, and the newfound ease of access for customers bodes well for this growing business model. This new delivery system has provided a livelihood for many people over the course of the pandemic while transforming the way urban residents access everyday necessities.

Even though they play an important role as safety nets, vendors and markets face marginalization. Sensasi argues that to fulfill their potential, markets need greater inclusion in policy and regulatory frameworks.

Supporting Resilience through Markets

Knowing that public markets support and boost resilience in communities, we need to support them in continuing to play this role. 

One possible path forward is taking place in California where local farmers markets are planning to do just that. Cara Mae Wooledge, MPH, the Director of Napa Farmers Market, has crafted a strategy to protect vendors, customers, and local food access from hazards like wildfires and smoke. Her Disaster Preparedness plan supports managers in making the call to close a market, creating procedures for communication that help avoid last-minute decision making and unwelcome surprises for vendors.

Creating clear roles and maintaining communication among market stakeholders is key, because, as Wooledge recalls, “Resilience comes from building relationships with each other. Plans can check a lot of boxes, but it is really about who you know and who you can reach out to for help that can make all the difference.” 

Regular visits to the Napa Farmers Market creates trust between members of the local community. Credit: Napa Farmers Market.

Wooledge’s initiative and unique experience is exceptional, but we can’t expect every market to devise its own disaster preparedness plan. Instead, cities and states should consider the important role that markets can play in their broader resilience planning. In times of uncertainty,  trust is the first and most important building block for resilience. And thanks to their role as social infrastructure, foundations of our food system, and sources of economic opportunity, public markets are uniquely positioned to build this trust.

But the resilient potential of markets is squandered without preparation. Perhaps Eric Klinenberg puts it best when he says, “all social infrastructure requires investment, whether for de­velopment or upkeep, and when we fail to build and maintain it, the material foundations of our social and civic life erode.” 

Meanwhile, the resilience embodied by markets is deeply linked to other Market Cities principles. Characteristics of Market Cities like variety and a sense of place reinforce resilience, and vice versa. 

Katherine Peinhardt has a background in climate change, and writes about the intersection of resilience and placemaking. She currently works at the ICLEI European Secretariat, and is a former German Chancellor Scholar.

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