Want a Vibrant Market City? Start by Supporting a Variety of Markets.

December 9, 2021
Priscilla Posada
VARIETY: A Market City includes an array of market types—from fresh food to crafts and second-hand goods—as part of one market system.

7 Principles for Becoming a Market City

A true Market City values and supports the full diversity of its market system through investment and policy. In some countries, the conversation on markets is focused just on farmers markets and perhaps market halls, but when we talk about Market Cities we’re including everything from farmers markets to street vendors to flea markets to wholesale markets, and more. 

Embracing variety is key to understanding a city’s assets and mapping out stakeholders. In a fundamental way, it helps achieve the other Market Cities principles, like Collaboration, Resilience, and Opportunity, by making them more actionable and responsive to local context. 

As cities around the world look to expand access to entrepreneurship, promote a sense of well-being, secure food access, and support cultural heritage, coordination between all types of markets would lead to more efficient use of resources, as well as innovative and surprising collaborations. 

In this article, the first in a series that will explore each principle in detail, we will dive into three types of markets—street vendors, flea markets, and wholesale markets—that are at best forgotten about and at worst excluded, and why it’s so important to take them into account when thinking about market-related networks and policy. 

Policymakers leave out these vital parts of a market ecosystem to their own detriment. Street vending provides opportunity by allowing people a low-barrier way to start a new business or expand an existing one, flea markets contribute to a sense of place by providing public space that celebrates cultural heritage, and wholesale markets support resilience by serving as key nodes within food distribution networks. 

Consider Street Vendors

Street vending is a relatively low-barrier entry point for entrepreneurs looking to begin the climb up the small business ladder. Not only is street vending critical for economic opportunity, it is also an important source of food and goods in many parts of the world. When these vendors are left out of planning decisions, it leaves them vulnerable to extortion and harassment. And having hazy regulations can also lead to conflict around how public space is used. 

Vendor selling vegetables in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust.

To get more insight into this, we talked to our partner Naima Akter at Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust. At last count, approximately 300,000 street vendors live and work in the city of Dhaka, the capital and largest city of Bangladesh, a figure that has likely increased. Yet despite the number of people who rely on street vending for their livelihoods, there is no licensing scheme or legal status for street vendors. 

Not having a license means vendors cannot rely on their businesses as their primary source of income. In addition, many vendors spend anywhere from ৳12,600 to ৳108,000 (BDT), or $145 to $1,260 (USD), in bribes each year.

“They pay money to the police or local goons or any influential local people to continue vending,” says Naima. 

Vendor selling street food in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust.

Furthermore, since there is no vendor management policy in Bangladesh, vendors set up wherever they can, sometimes leading to conflicts that overshadow their contributions to society.

Now imagine a city where street vendors are included as part of a broader public market strategy. This could eliminate or cut back on corruption, saving the vendors money, and licensing could open up a dialogue between city agencies and vendors to collaboratively identify locations where vending could benefit public space goals. In fact, studies show that vendors help bring foot traffic and more sales to areas with brick and mortar stores and restaurants.

Collaboration between vendors and various types of markets could lead to innovation. For example, market hall managers could seek to fill their stalls by choosing from the street vendor pool. Or, they could experiment with expanding their market to new pop-up locations via vending. Perhaps most importantly, increased collaboration between market types would strengthen their advocacy efforts and give them more political clout.

Consider Wholesale Food Markets

Wholesale food markets play a pivotal role in facilitating the efficient exchange of food and goods, yet these markets are often overlooked precisely because they are not visible to most people—they tend to be located on the outskirts of cities and some even require special permission to enter. However, they are vital in many countries around the world because the vendors at consumer-facing markets are often resellers who get their goods from wholesale markets. 

The Kitchener Farmers Market in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, includes both local producers and resellers in order to offer a wide range of products and price points in all seasons.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), wholesale food markets “link production to consumption, providing important services (e.g. information, standards, transparency, competition, scale, traceability, food safety) that ensure safe and affordable supply of fresh and nutritious food products.” 

Forthcoming research from the FAO Investment Centre found wholesale food markets have served as key infrastructure during the pandemic, providing safe access to local products at fair prices while securing the food supply of cities and regions. 

Their research found that during the pandemic countries that had organized and upgraded wholesale food market infrastructure networks, like France, Italy, and Spain, demonstrated a high capacity to deal with disrupting challenges, while supporting traditional sectors and local production.

Melbourne Market in Melbourne, Australia. Photo courtesy of FAO Investment Centre and Melbourne Market Authority.

Around the world, wholesale markets are the lifeblood of more recognized retail markets as they tend to offer good prices, a diversity of fresh and packaged food, and even logistical support. A greater investment in these markets would benefit the rest of a city’s market vendors and the people who depend on them.

Consider Flea Markets

California’s San Jose Flea Market, known locally as “La Pulga,” is an important site of cultural heritage and cultural exchange. There are crafts for sale, rugs and tapestries, spices from all over the world, and fresh produce and juices you can’t normally find in the U.S.

It is also a special place to Roberto Gonzalez, the president of the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association. His father runs a business there selling Mexican piñatas and he grew up calling the neighboring Korean vendor grandma. 

“My dad and two uncles were able to buy their houses from their businesses,” says Roberto, who was also the first in his family to attend college thanks to the family business. On weekends, he still goes back to the market along with his nieces to help his father out. 

People who have emigrated from the Middle East, Asia, and South and Central America have all told Roberto that when they step into the flea market it reminds them of the markets they used to visit back home. 

“If you go to a Target shopping center,” he continues, “you’re not going to get that rich aspect that literally transports you to another country.”

The San Jose Flea Market. Photo courtesy of Roberto Gonzalez.

Roberto knows from firsthand experience that flea markets play a key role in expanding economic opportunity and building generational wealth. In areas like San Jose where prices have skyrocketed, having a business at the flea market allows more people to hit milestones like homeownership and funding college. In other cases, it allows older vendors a much-needed supplement to their social security income. 

Despite these financial benefits and priceless connections, the city of San Jose has approved a plan to rezone the flea market to make space for a new development called the Berryessa BART Urban Village. The plans include dedicated space for the market, but would shrink its footprint from its current 61 acres to 5, displacing the majority of the approximately 400 vendors who currently work there. 

Garment vendors at the San Jose Flea Market. Photo courtesy of Roberto Gonzalez.

However, it’s not too late for San Jose to take steps towards becoming a Market City. The city could start by acknowledging the full cultural and economic value of the assets it already has, like La Pulga, and protect everything that makes this market so special and valuable not just for vendors but to the community as a whole. ”I have so many memories there that are going to be wiped out,” says Roberto, “That’s why we’re fighting to find another location and ideally some type of co-ownership or lease from the city.”

Mariachi band performing at the San Jose Flea Market. Photo courtesy of Roberto Gonzalez.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

When all public markets band together, they are stronger than when this ecosystem is fragmented. Farmers markets and the usual suspects can’t do it alone. A city needs to embrace the full variety of its markets in order to become a Market City. 

Want to showcase your city’s market ecosystem to 400 public market leaders from around the world? The Market Cities Program will explore various types of public markets and how they can work together to achieve common goals at the 11th International Public Markets Conference. We are currently seeking a local co-presenter. 

Don't miss this opportunity to share your city’s food and non-food markets including flea markets, wholesale markets, and street vendors—as well as farmers markets, craft markets, market halls, and more! The deadline to apply to be the local co-presenter is Friday, December 17, 2021 at 11:59pm EST


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