What is a Market City?

07 October 2020

A Market City should have seven key features…

It should recognize its wide variety of public markets operating as one market system; have diverse partners and stakeholders to take action together; measure value and understand how markets function; have regional distribution networks; regularly invest in its markets; help diverse types of vendors start and grow their businesses; and recognize that its markets are inclusive public spaces. These are the seven key characteristics of municipalities that operate highly-functioning public market systems. That’s what makes a Market City.

The Market City Initiative is a partnership between the Project for Public Spaces, HealthBridge and Slow Food. 

And yet, cartographers would have difficulty identifying many towns like this on the map.

Few cities have yet to embrace markets as strategic institutions. Moreover, from mega-cities to small towns, few municipal decision makers can even identify the markets that flourish within their own city limits. For most markets, they operate almost outside of the norms of mainstream business development, public health or civic planning. And yet, they offer many clues to (and help shape) a region’s health and capacity for social cohesion.

Wet markets, street peddlers and bazars (sic) are essential for most family’s daily shopping needs in Dhaka, Bangladesh (a city of 21 million). The COVID-19 lockdown provided an unprecedented pause to recalculate how these institutions may be reconfigured physically and strategically with local and national government priorities.

Despite countless attempts by local governments to condemn these ancient mechanisms of commerce to the rubbish bin, they continue to reinvent themselves to meet place- and time-specific needs. This begs the question: Are they resilient precisely because they are simple or because they are universal? Or both?

The Global South

In the Global South, markets are often perceived as chaotic and dangerous vestiges of the past: hardly appealing for emerging nations whose middle classes yearn for all modern conveniences. As a result, there exists this precarious tension between municipalities and collaborating aid agencies that go out of their way to demolish informal markets, replace them with banal brick and mortar supermarkets. It is alarming to consider that, at the very same moment, the vanguard of the alternative travel economy seeks out markets as authentic places where flavor and originality prevail. In this regard, we are in a race against time. Many markets are endangered by war, climate change, political priorities and neglect. Consider the Souq Al-Madina in Aleppo, Syria. While the civil war all but demolished the market, it has since been rebuilt. However, this is the exception and not the rule.

Barcelona – A Market City already?

Where we do see markets not only survive but thrive are places where their visibility and value have been not only recognized but also integrated into municipal priorities. In Barcelona, for instance, the Mercado de La Boqueria is more than just an art nouveau temple to Catalan food and culture, it serves as a flagship for the many markets that dot the city’s landscape (providing everyday foods for families to live and shop in their neighborhoods). In fact, Barcelona is one of the places that shows evidence of being a Market City. While it may not possess every one of the seven-attributes described at the start of this essay, the municipality invests in markets when many cities have abandoned theirs.


In London, where tradition itself is a valued currency, many of the city’s ancient street markets are grandfathered into local ordinances, regardless of changing demographics in a city where the economy has been built upon real estate speculation, for decades now. 

Whereas Catalan food culture may propel the trajectory of Barcelona’s markets, it is cultural diversity that defines the public market experience in London. Few maintain strong ties to regional food systems (except for the grower-only London Farmers Markets). However, all recognize their roles as business incubators welcoming the world of immigrants who seek  low-overhead entry points into the economy. This point was not lost on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, whose family heritage is Pakistan. His administration established the London Markets Board to address the myriad of regulatory complications each market faces. This effort represents the kind of collaborative posture from city government that is an essential ingredient to the Market City approach. Not only does the Board assemble market leaders as peers (as opposed to competitors in an otherwise cut throat economy), but it also invests in innovation through competitive grants and the delivery of capacity building resources. 


Canada’s HealthBridge Foundation, New York’s Project for Public Spaces and Slow Food are forging an exciting international collaboration to match the top-down investments made by governments and international aid agencies to the bottom-up efforts of residents and businesses to reimagine their markets.

As one of the fastest growing economies in the world, the pressures are extraordinary to meet rising consumer and developer demands. This does not bode well for markets. After all, places of exponential growth reward the highest bidder. By design, public markets are messy, complex, and there to serve those with modest means. 

Local government views markets as expendable. Rather than maintain their (admittedly degraded) infrastructure, why not repurpose the high land value on which they stand and sell to the highest bidder? Recognizing that these pressures would undermine community, commerce and the sense of place for residents, community leaders joined forces with HealthBridge Hanoi to stage community charrettes involving market vendors, neighbors, shoppers, and architecture students from the university to reimagine three pilot markets: Ngoc Lam Market in Long Bien, Ha Market in Me Linh and the Chau Long Market in Ba Dinh. This process caught the attention of local government and has  helped to reposition markets in general.

The right-size point

These unanticipated bright spots during a dark year have inspired city administrations to seek new ways to trigger food commerce in local wards. Among the efforts being explored are the renovation and training for wet markets, the development of new American-style farmers markets, and online strategies that link urban with rural. Increasingly, no matter where you look, municipalities are emerging as the “right-size” point of intervention to recalibrate food policies, investments, and infrastructure to preserve biodiversity and traditional agriculture and match them with new opportunities for community, economy and a possible future to flourish. 

Join the Market Cities Forum: How public markets can pump life into regional food economies and forge social cohesion, as part of Terra Madre 2020.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

by Richard McCarthy, info.eventi@slowfood.it