Public Markets: The Seeds of a New Economy

June 12, 2022
Nate Storring

What we eat and drink is just one of the many areas where the massive forces of corporate consolidation affects our everyday lives.

Food apartheid leaves white and wealthy neighborhoods with multiple choices of where to shop, while communities of color often have few or none. Grocery delivery services rely on startup capital to operate at a loss in the hopes of outlasting more traditional business models. And perhaps worst of all, when something seems unfair, unsafe, or downright criminal, it’s not always clear whether that wrong will be righted because the systems involved are so large and opaque.

“The laws of antitrust can chip away at concentrated power, but they will dissolve it altogether when other ways of doing business hold more sway.” —Robert LaValva

In March 2022, public market and placemaking consultant Robert LaValva made the case for public markets as a potential antidote to our consolidated food systems at Yale Law School’s Reforming America’s Food Retail Markets conference. As real life places where competition and regulation come together in face-to-face interactions, he argues public markets could offer the “seeds that store the DNA of new economies.” 

New York City's Essex Market embodies many of the values that LaValva argues could create a fairer food system.

In his talk, LaValva observes three key ways that public markets can teach us how to create more fair, competitive, and creative economies and food systems: engagement, or their interactive and human-scale nature; order, or their commitment to rooting out fraud; and democracy, or their role as inclusive civic infrastructure.

Engagement: Promoting Human Interaction

As delivery services have boomed during the pandemic and the growth of self-checkout systems continues to creep ahead in our increasingly industrialized and digitized world, public markets are one of the few places where a consumer can meet the person who produced, or at least selected, a product before they buy it.

“Public markets are the ideal stage for testing and creating better food systems because they are real places, that answer to real people, in real time, unlike the promised metaverse to come.” —Robert LaValva

Since ancient times, markets have been places not only for the exchange of goods, but also for the exchange of information and opinions. While we no longer rely solely on the agora to catch up on the day’s news, the chattiness of these spaces has continued. Buyers make small talk with sellers, neighbors run into neighbors, and behind the scenes, vendors talk shop and commiserate with other vendors, too. While these interactions may seem insignificant, they add up to create greater responsiveness and inventiveness on the part of vendors, and also lay the groundwork of social resilience in times of crisis.

A customer at Essex Market makes a purchase from a spice vendor.

The face-to-face interaction that is inherent to public markets also provides a vital foundation for demonstrating accountability and building public trust in commerce. No business, including a public market, is immune to corruption. But, as we will explore in the following section, “The human scale of public markets makes flaws easier to access and to remedy.”

Order: Ensuring Fair Exchange

When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty incredible that today in many parts of the world, we can send our money out into the aether of the internet with the assurance that a few days later, a delivery will show up at our doorstep. 

Of course, we often hear about the astounding global web of logistics infrastructure that makes such convenience possible, but less talked about is what Jane Jacobs called the “gossamer web of morality and trust” that also underpins it. We believe that the delivery will show up because fraud is kept at a tolerably low enough level by the ethics and day-to-day behavior of countless business people, as well as legal consequences when those norms are violated. 

“The prevalence of market rules in ancient, medieval, and modern societies reveals that the human tendency to lie and cheat is constant. What wavers is our willingness to accept this fact.” —Robert LaValva

But as LaValva observes, the consolidation of markets and the opacity of supply chains in our food systems and elsewhere pose a threat to that web of trust we often take for granted. He cites a 2017 story from the Washington Post about a multinational dairy corporation that has been able to continue operating under the “USDA Organic” label despite apparently violating the standard for years because of lax inspection in some states. By skimping on organic practices like grazing, such corporations are able to produce supposedly organic milk cheaper and at a larger scale than smaller producers that play by the rules.

Public markets are not exempt from fraud, but they have the distinct advantages of personal relationships and short supply chains that make it easier to hold them accountable. For example, LaValva recounts that when New York City’s Greenmarket system was growing rapidly two decades ago, one market manager began pressuring vendors to give preference to well-known local chefs, while some vendors began sneaking in produce from wholesale distributors. But Greenmarket was able to uncover and end these abuses with help from its community advisory board.

Union Square is home to one of New York City Greenmarket's busiest locations four days a week.

How? The Greenmarket system employs two full-time inspectors, who spend their days visiting farms—sometimes unannounced—and conducting audits of inventory to ensure the vendors sell what they grow themselves. Market managers also set expectations for vendor behavior at market, including arriving punctually, keeping to agreed upon stall space, providing clear signage, and treating others with respect. 

By investing in this kind of management excellence (one of our seven Market City principles), public markets have a tremendous capacity to build public trust, both through day-to-day interactions and in the way they respond when things go wrong. When the products and the people behind them are right in front of customers, the proof is often in the pudding.

Democracy: Treating Markets as Civic Infrastructure

While public spaces may not always live up to their promise of being for all people, at their best our parks, plazas, libraries, and transit systems are civic spaces that everyone in a community can stake a claim to. Unfortunately, as LaValva observes, it’s much rarer for places of commerce to capture that same democratic spirit. This is particularly true in a time of rising inequality, when the only option for groceries and other necessities in many neighborhoods is a dollar store.

“There is no ‘poor door’ at Essex Market.” —Robert LaValva

However, public markets like New York’s recently relocated Essex Market demonstrate that this is not a foregone conclusion. As we have argued in our recent article on the Place principle of Market Cities, with thoughtful management, programming, and design public markets can provide a model for how retail environments can become genuine public spaces. 

For the new Essex Market, their commitment to the democratic spirit started at the very beginning. Market modernization projects can often lead to the exclusion of vendors and customers that are not considered part of the new (often more upscale) vision for a market. By contrast, when Essex Market moved from its crumbling Depression-era building to a space in a new development, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the market, fulfilled community demands to retain all of the old market’s 24 tenants with the same rent and stall size, as well as new equipment at no cost to them. The result is a uniquely inclusive market that serves a wide variety of customers, where bodegas and artisan cheese mongers operate side by side.

The design and programming of New York City's Essex Market treats all vendors and customers with dignity—regardless of price point.

But as LaValva notes, “Bringing diverse people to the same space is only one aspect of building community. It is equally as important for these same people to feel and claim the space as their own.” The design of the market by SHoP Architects shows equal respect to all tenants, with high-quality finishes and historically inspired signage on every stall and light-filled common areas for demonstration classes and public seating. Likewise, multilingual, multigenerational cooking classes and other programming help send the message that Essex Market is for and by people of many different backgrounds. 

By crafting visions in partnership with market managers, vendors, customers, government stakeholders, and the community at large—and following through—public markets can help recenter commerce as part of our civic life. 

Next Steps for Public Market Policy

To support the role of public markets in promoting fair competition and diversifying our food systems, LaValva recommends that governments at all levels in the U.S. craft new policies to support their creation and sustainable operation.

“Cities and municipalities throughout the country can devise and implement their own food policies and build public markets to support them.” —Robert LaValva

As a baseline, much as we argue in our case for Market Cities, governments must recognize public markets as part of their key civic infrastructure on par with parks, libraries, or transit systems. While public markets can and do earn a substantial amount of their own income, we must invest public funding in their design, programming, and management for them to meet their full potential as engines of opportunity, health, and resilience.

This additional funding need not come solely from municipal and state governments. As LaValva observes, these gains could be accomplished in part by expanding upon successful U.S. Department of Agriculture initiatives, like the Farmers Market Promotion Program or Local Food Promotion Program, by broadening their definitions beyond farmers’ markets to include other kinds of public markets as well. Compared to the $60 billion annual subsidies currently given to commodity crop and livestock industries, LaValva suggests that a modest $5 billion investment in greater competition through public markets would be a good place to start.

Lastly, while public market systems are hungry for large-scale public investment, they also need hyperlocal, community-powered visions to succeed. This is the only way to ensure that locals have the opportunity to define for themselves what engagement, order, and democracy mean in their market.

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Heading One

Heading Two

Heading Three

Heading Four

Heading Five
Heading Six

Body Text    Body Link

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Here is some highlighted text from the article.

-Author
Caption
Caption
Caption
Caption

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

  • Bulleted List Item 1 Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.
  • Bulleted List Item 2 Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.
  1. Ordered List Item 1
  2. Ordered List Item 2
Stay Connected
Sign up for the Biweekly Bazaar—a round-up of public markets news, events and opportunities, and the latest announcements from the Market Cities Program.
Thank you! Your information has been received! Please check email to confirm subscription.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.