Coronavirus Recovery: Why Local Markets are Key to Reviving Our Locked Down Town Centres

Jerri-Lynn here. I post this today as the UK begins to open up, in spite of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, even though it’s long on its praise of the value of local markets a bit short on analysis of what needs to be done to keep these places viable

I used to enjoy shopping at local markets when I was an Oxford student in the 1980s, during some of the worst of the Thatcher years.  I particularly loved the Covered Market. Alas, the last time I visited  Oxford, I was very sad to see how that place had deteriorated, so now it caters mainly to tourists with souvenir shops rather than locals with its mix of butchers, fishmongers, and greengrocers. Although there were tourist shops even then, there was also Cardew’s for its loose tea and Brown’s Restaurant, which served up cheap and tasty traditional English fare. I think the latter two are still in business, but many of the food purveyors are gone.

During our last three years in the UK, my husband and I lived out in graduate student housing on the Banbury Road, past Summertown, and I often popped into the Summertown shops when I didn’t have time or inclination to visit the city centre. But even in Summertown, I always preferred the butchers and bakers to the supermarket outlets. And I always tried to squeeze out extra time to visit the Covered Market.

By Sara González, Associate Professor in Human Critical Geography, University of Leeds, and Paul Waley,Senior Research Fellow in Urban Geography, University of Leeds. Originally published at The Conversation

During the early weeks of coronavirus in the UK, there was an obsessive focus on supermarkets and how they were handling the pandemic. It was as if traditional retail markets and small shops didn’t exist. Many markets and traders, however, continued to provide essential goods and services during the lockdown, sometimes responding quicker and in more creative ways than larger stores.

On June 15, indoor as well as outdoor markets can reopen, but it is unclear how the sector will pull through this difficult time. Research by the markets sector has found that during lockdown only around a third of markets remained even partially open and just 50% of traders expected to be able to access any of the government support for businesses.

About 40% of operators feared they would not be able to open again. But we believe that markets need to be – more than they ever have been – at the centre of local communities. And for this to happen, they will need support.

Throughout the country, markets are a vital cornerstone of town and city centres. Their impact is enormous. There are 1,173 markets in Britain, including traditional and specialist markets, with a collective turnover of £3.1 billion in 2017-18. Pre-crisis, there were 32,400 market traders and 9,000 events traders employing 24,000 staff.

Broad Benefits

But the importance of markets takes in much broader horizons. They provide affordable, fresh and healthy food and other products and services. They are also entry points into the job market for many and spaces for people to develop entrepreneurial skills.

Markets also employ more people per sq metre of space than supermarkets, distribute their economic profits locally and add footfall and vibrancy to high streets. They build local wealth and promote a more sustainable economy and society by reducing waste, shortening supply chains and reducing car-based consumption.

Markets are social hubs. They are important for the development of community ties and trust, particularly between people from different age, ethnic and social backgrounds. It is this aspect that we have focused on in our ongoing research project, which examines the value of markets to local communities.

Grainger Market in Newcastle is a social hub. Roger/flickr, CC BY

In a review of existing research and policy, we have found that markets tend to be valued in narrow economic terms and their broader benefits are seldom taken into account. Austerity-stricken local authorities, who operate the large majority of markets, have tended to neglect them. Or they reinvent them as gentrified leisure spaces for wealthy new customers, marginalising the more traditional clientele.

Community Value

To uncover the community value of markets our research has focused on three case studies: Grainger Market in Newcastle, Bury Market and Queens Market in Newham, London. We’ve conducted interviews, focus groups with customers and a survey of 1,500 market users.

Our survey shows that market users are more likely to be women, elderly, live in poor neighbourhoods, not in full-time employment and not born in the UK. At the same time, they value their markets enormously, particularly for affordable fresh produce, and rely on them for food shopping. In terms of social interaction, markets are convivial spaces where customers feel overwhelmingly safe and welcome and receive support and information from traders and other customers.

What has particularly struck us is the emotional attachment that people have expressed for their market, of a sort one would be unlikely to find for a supermarket. In particular, the market occupies a central place in people’s social maps.

They told us things like: “I think the stallholders make it their business not just to talk to you but to remember what you’ve chatted about [and] to ask how things are. It is like a family, it’s like one big family”.

A customer at Bury market said: “When you come to the market, it’s a stroll. And people are very pleasant. And [you speak to people] that you wouldn’t normally speak to … I don’t know whether I’d do that in the supermarket.” Another said: “The market reminds us of back home, like in India.”

Queens Market in Newham. Sara González, Author provided

Economic and Social Recovery

Our research findings strongly suggest that markets can play a key role in the economic and social recovery from coronavirus. Markets will become even more crucial as customers who have lost jobs and have seen a drop in their incomes will need affordable food and other products more than ever.

As lockdown restrictions are relaxed, markets, while following the relevant sanitary protocols, can become spaces for social healing, where communities come together and people can interact again. This will be particularly important for elderly customers or those who live on their own for whom the market might be their only space for social contact.

Importantly, the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to promote more socially and environmentally sustainable and just local economies. Big supermarkets, by contrast, rely on unsustainable long global supply chains and prioritise profit for shareholders rather than local needs and livelihoods. There is now an opportunity to reposition markets not only as key pieces in the retail landscape but as community hubs for more inclusive economies.

Together with other groups we are pressing government to recognise the difficulties that markets currently face and take steps to support them. They are public resources and can play a central role in the promotion of more inclusive and sustainable town and city centres.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    When I was in London in the early 80s, the number of street markets was a surprise as I never saw them in Oz. And I swear to god that I actually saw a Pearly King in one too. Certainly those markets were more flexible in how they did business as the ones I saw were in the back streets of central London. I can only wonder how they are doing business now in the Age of Coronavirus but they did have a personal touch that was lacking in supermarkets which were just places you went to shop. If local economies prove to be more resilient, then I can see how places like London might give them a bit of leeway and let them proliferate. But I would hate to see them become just enclaves of hipster4s as that would kill the life out of them.

  2. jr

    I think better food education would go a long way towards promoting the growth of local, sustainable food markets. I pay 6$ a carton for really delicious locally, humanely, and responsibly raised eggs. A lot of people I know wouldn’t dream of paying more than 3$ for a carton of eggs. Yet, I’m getting the better value! The flavor and texture is like night and day for starters, so +1 for simple quality of life issues. The nutritional value is incomparable as well, a balanced diet versus…corn? Forget it, +1. Now let’s factor in the reality of subsidized big ag and how much of that cheap carton of eggs you’ve already paid for in taxes, pollution, geo-petro-political shenanigans…+1 +1 +1…

    It’s also about personal autonomy. Buying in smaller markets demands more shopper savvy, you don’t just pluck up a bag of carrots and go, you sniff them and feel them, learn to spot problems before you buy. In general, when you buy real food you have to learn to care for real food and to cook with it, you have to develop greater agency….

    1. kareninca

      Just curious, are you shopping for a whole household? Or just yourself? I do have two friends who shop at farmers’ markets. One is retired with a government pension, a paid-for condo, social security and savings. The other is in a DINK household (two high incomes, no kids). So, food costs don’t matter at all to them. But if you are actually shopping for several people who eat a real amount of food, the cost does matter. Poor people can’t afford good “regular” food, and middle class people can’t afford good “natural” food, at least as things are.

      1. jr

        I certainly never said costs do not matter, my point was to illustrate that there are other metrics by which to value food and therefore what you spend on it. Are you saving money by buying food that fails to provide adequate nutrition? Or that actively degrades your health? That feeds you today and hospitalizes you tomorrow? Why good food is prohibitively expensive is a serious problem, no doubt, but it’s just not where my particular focus was when I was teaching. I’m more concerned with changes that people can make within their current budgets and habits to try to improve the quality of their food.

        And just to be clear, I’m neither a pensioner nor a DINK, I’m someone who has had to scrabble to stay afloat and who managed to eat well along the way. I like to share that knowledge with others.

  3. jef

    Quaint nostalgia but can we maybe talk about how to not just go back to endless consumption and its toxic waste stream on this our one and only finite planet? Just stop shopping! Somehow more than half the planet, some 4 billion people can do it. The problem is that some 1.5 to 2 billion people more than make up for the lower 4 billion by consuming 50 times more energy. All anyone can talk about is how to get the top 1 billion back to raping the planet only in a little bit more green of a way.

    How about we all stop, go home, everyone now owns the home they live in, the economy is about food, clothing, health, education, farming/gardening, music, art, entertainment, public gatherings, and more.

    Solar and wind works great if we set up civilization to consume about 25% of the electricity we now consume, install infrastructure for the 4 billion that have little or no E, and mostly use the solar and wind when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.

    1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      Sounds good to me. But we eventually need to get new clothes, food, whatever. You’re identifying the homogenizin tendency of globalist capital with its endless stream of cheap plastic manufactures which causes ecological degradation and mass poverty.

      1. jef

        If we all focused on clothes, food, basically just the necessities, made sure everyone had them, and stopped producing all the useless junk the world would be a much better place.

  4. a different chris

    Enjoyable post. I always have to say this, though, so I’ll bore people with it again:

    >a bit short on analysis of what needs to be done

    I think it’s OK to not have answers? If you study something to death before you tell the world about it, it might be gone before you have figured out what to do.

    And as an academic, the writer has to tread extra carefully when it comes to proposing things.

  5. Chris

    So this isn’t good news for recovery. I’m sure we’ll eventually here similar things from all the rest of the Five Eyes.

    If the US and other countries keep having issues like that in controlled circumstances where the people involved aren’t strictly allowed to become bored with social distancing and cleanliness protocols we’ll never get out of the first wave let alone any potential second wave.

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    I think local zoning ordinances are the greatest danger to local markets, especially street markets. Coronavirus could be their coup de gras.

  7. K teh

    The folks benefiting from ghetto operations, at an arm’s length, are trying to figure out a way to keep it going. When density decreases sufficiently, the city will work again.

    Empire operation is a low bid function, driving out quality and increasing cost, while exploiting natural resources with financialization. When the same entity is both employer and landlord, including government, the only possible result is falling participation.

  8. kareninca

    I don’t shop at farmers’ markets. I’d like to, but at least here in Silicon Valley, their prices are staggeringly high. The $3 peach is the norm. Yes, actually, a $3 peach; I have friends who shop at such places and I get regular updates; they are typically single people and are not trying to feed a household so they don’t care about the cost.

    So those peaches are $9/pound. At Trader Joe’s I can get peaches for about $2/pound. They are grown in the U.S., and Trader Joe’s is a decent employer; I do not feel bad about buying them there. I would rather shop in an outdoor market due to it being safer than shopping indoors, but at those prices it is not a realistic option.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      Fair enough. As you likely realize, the ‘high’ farm market prices reflect the actual costs of smaller scale production, organic practices, etc., not an outsized profit margin. And it’s great that those who can afford it support local and sustainable: our neighbors’ livelihoods. We will need to return to more of that to survive as a society, frankly, which will also mean making do with less, but better quality.

      Otherwise, the ‘Abundant Affordable Food'(c) Big Ag suppliers of $2 peaches drive artisan growers out of business, and then charge us all $5 for giant tasteless Roundup-coated GMO peaches from Chile, or wherever. While we all forget what real peaches taste like. It’s nice to have low cost choices; but there’s a cost as well.

      Movin’ to the country….

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        “…the ‘high’ farm market prices reflect the actual costs of smaller scale production, organic practices, etc., not an outsized profit margin.”

        need Parity Pricing for Agriculture, and put the speculators to work in the fields, doing something useful for once.
        currently, farm products are priced according to “what the market will bear”….not accounting for what it took to produce the item in question.
        This benefits “economies of scale”…the Very Large…to the detriment of the small, the local, etc.

        That said, a lot of the “Organic” produce available today is anything but, and is produced by the same Big Ag monstrosities as all the other corporate food…thanks to the federalisation of “Organic”, which was driven and perverted by Big Ag, because they didn’t want to compete with little guys like me who had built the Organic Movement.

        Know Your Farmer.

  9. Billy

    Lovely article. Please remember to always pay cash to local merchants as a further support to them, and to assure your everyone’s privacy.

    This saves them the scalping by the credit card companies that return anywhere from 94 to 98 cents of every dollar charged at a shop in the U.S., or the fifty cent fee Square charges, per transaction.
    Corporate stores? F* them, rack up the points on your credit card that benefit you.

    Cash might spread virus? Microwave bills for 20 seconds until hot.
    OK for U.S. paper money, not sure of composition of UK money, or Euros however.

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