THR Web Features   /   April 6, 2015

The Triumph of the Farmers’ Market

Stephen Assink

Nothing quite says springtime like a farmer’s table loaded with kale, mustard greens, and spinach. And with the arrival of warmer days, soon communities will be enjoying the benefits of fresh, locally grown produce. Though farmers’ markets are often criticized over affordability and exclusivity, the appetite for them has grown significantly. In 1994, there were 1,700 markets nationwide; now, there are more than eight thousand.

The proliferation of baby bok choy is indeed cause for praise. Markets help circulate dollars locally. More vegetables mean slimmer waistlines. And farmers’ markets can revitalize neighborhoods. These markets can also serve as a setting for what Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet,” a public space connecting people to each other. Their diverse functions—shopping, eating, or simply engaging neighbors—facilitate social interactions. In fact, the farmers' market is unfortunately one of the few remaining civic places that facilitates such shared public encounters.

The decline of mixed public spaces can be traced back to the early twentieth century, when public officials began partitioning cities into areas based on functionality. At first, zoning was a public health initiative, especially in industrial cities plagued with unregulated pollution, rubbish disposal, and sewage handling. To keep factories and housing far apart, urban planners created restricted residential and industrial zones. However, a form of zoning logic, known as redlining, began to isolate populations of the city along lines of race and class. (The effects of redlining became more pronounced by the mid-twentieth century.) With the further help of the automobile and the suburbs, American cities became even more demographically and functionally divided.

Zoning has led to dispersed cities with low population densities, often with highly homogenized neighborhoods and voting districts. Political polarization between conservatives and liberals is geographical, not just cultural. Suburban sprawl may make it easier to live with (seldom encountered) difference, but it prevents a shared sense of identity and place.

Commercially speaking, zoning ended the traditional mixing of shops and homes, even making such mixed use illegal in most cities. The corner store disappeared and supermarkets and shopping centers appeared in other parts of town, supplemented by big-box retailers and malls in the suburbs. Increasingly, these private spaces have become places where customer behavior is scripted and highly monitored by data-driven retailers.  Although great for shopping, these homogenous spaces are ill-suited for fostering robust social interaction and local identity.

Farmers' markets, on the other hand, operate under their own unique logic. As shared, fluid open spaces, they encourage novelty and flexibility. Vendors and wares come and go, customer traffic patterns are random and unscripted. These markets defy easy classification and regulation. According to the Project for Public Space, “Traditional public markets are about so much more than food. They are, like the cities that they support, about people. They are some of our most vital public spaces.”

The farmers' market does not replace the local supermarket, but rather supplements it as a much-needed space for mediation and cohesion across communities inside and outside of the city. The vegetables grown at the farm down the road connect people to the particular nuances of their region. City markets represent an intersection between town and country. The urbanite and rustic become partners and purveyors in the same community. Ultimately, farmers' markets make visible what has otherwise been rendered invisible by supply chains and clever marketing.

At the same time, it's true that farmers' markets reinforce social divisions. Community stakeholders, then, should stay attuned to the needs of the city and ensure that these markets remain open and equitable. While farmers' markets won't fix the polarization plaguing our cities, they do further the kind of communal spirit that is so often missing in urban locales. Our cities don’t just need farmers' markets: They need more places like them.

Stephen Assink works for Thriving Cities Project. He also manages and curates the Common Place blog.