Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Market Potential

How Public Markets Breathe Life into Urban Decline

Calgary and Lachine are rarely mentioned in the same breath-actually, make that never. The prosperous city of one million and the working-class Montréal borough of forty thousand have little in common but for one thing: new public markets. The year-old Calgary Farmers' Market and the Lachine Market, which was revamped several months ago, differ significantly in size-the Calgary market could swallow its cousin in Lachine several times over-but with good management and a keen eye for community development, both could radically transform their respective neighbourhoods.

Inside the Calgary Farmers' Market, open since June 2004.


What exactly is a public market? Generally speaking, it's a place where independent merchants gather to sell many different things-usually fruits, vegetables and other food products; but also crafts, books, antiques and anything else. Unlike an ordinary retail street, it's centrally managed. Unlike a shopping mall, rents are low, overhead costs minimal and market management is not out to make a profit. Markets make a point of providing an alternative to mainstream retail, and this is accomplished with panache by some of North America's biggest and best-known markets, including Seattle's Pike Place Market, Vancouver's Granville Island Public Market and Toronto's Saint Lawrence Market.

Above all, markets are public spaces. Market-goers go to meet friends and neighbours and witness their city's diversity. They go because merchants and vendors know about the products they're selling, can cater to special requests and can offer recommendations on what to buy and how to use it. It's the kind of relationship that is impossible to foster with faceless chain merchants, and one that is set amid the exciting sights, smells and noises of a lively, distinct area.

But markets aren't just nice places; they also have a tangible impact on cities. Two years ago, the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a New York-based non-profit organization, conducted a study that examined several public markets across the United States. The study concluded that public markets are incubators of social integration, upward mobility and economic dynamism. Steve Davies, PPS's vice president and the study's co-author, points out that 54 percent of market vendors surveyed spent less than $1,000 to set up their businesses. "While initially they were getting less than 10 percent of family income from the market, there was potential for improvement," he adds. "We saw people making 100 percent of their income from the market and being able to buy houses, send their kids off to college, go on vacations ..." Some market businesses become so successful that they open up storefront locations in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

It's that kind of spillover effect that makes the public market such a vital part of the city. Foot traffic generated by markets is a boon to nearby businesses, and markets are natural gathering places that create a neighbourhood focal point and provide new local job opportunities. The more successful a market becomes, the healthier its surrounding neighbourhood is.

The Calgary Farmers' Market.

British Columbia cherries inside the market.

The market's emphasis is on locally produced products from Alberta and BC.

Ample space to sit invites congregation and conversation.

Of course, new development around a public market invites gentrification, which could easily undermine the market's effectiveness-its role, after all, is not to provide expensive luxury items to yuppies, but an accessible range of products to diverse groups of people. For a market to truly work well, says Davies, it should be well managed, but it must also contribute to the surrounding community.

Montréal's Jean-Talon Market is one example of a market that works. With 2.5 million visitors per year and more than one hundred businesses, it draws people from across the city while remaining firmly anchored in its community. Since 1933, Jean-Talon's presence has transformed the surrounding area into a business hub: Asian supermarkets crowd nearby St. Denis Street, numerous shops and restaurants thrive on the pedestrian traffic generated by the market, which sits near several main streets and the intersection of two metro lines, and dozens of new condominium units are currently being built in the place of nearby parking lots and industrial buildings.

Montreal's markets haven't received direct subsidies since 1993, when control was transferred to a nonprofit market corporation, but city officials recognize the important role public markets play in Montreal's development. Unfortunately, some other city governments and planners don't quite grasp their potential. "[City-owned markets] tend to be underfunded and not that well-managed," says Davies. Some markets fail despite their location in vibrant neighbourhoods, while others are independently successful but provide no benefits to the community at large.

That's where Canada's two newest public markets come in: the Lachine Market and Calgary Farmers' Market are quivering with potential. The former is located in charming-but-bedraggled downtown Lachine, just a few blocks from the picturesque Saint Lawrence River. Nearby commercial streets are sleepy and underutilized, with vacant commercial spaces and crumbling sidewalks. A large vacant lot sits across the street from the shining new market hall, begging for an imaginative mixed-use development that could potentially add both residents and businesses to the market area. Public transit service to the market is pitiful, but with a bit of help from city planners, the Lachine Market-with its café; cozy enclosed hall; and outdoor flower, fruit and vegetable vendors-could be a huge success for its oft-forgotten community.

The Lachine Market's new market hall on a quiet weekday afternoon.

Herbs in the outdoor portion of the market.

A vacant lot and industrial buildings across the street from the market, begging for development.

The Calgary market, housed in an old airplane hangar on a former military base, hums with activity every weekend. Farmers from across Alberta and British Columbia flock there to sell fresh, inexpensive produce while permanent businesses such as butchers, cafés and grocers-even a Montreal-style bagel shop-ensure that the building is packed with lingerers and loiterers. The area around the market poses a problem, however: although it is situated just across an expressway from a commercial district and a New Urbanist-style infill development, the former military compound remains a collection of industrial buildings and parking lots. Several years ago, the federally owned Canada Lands Company planned to transform the site into a high-density, mixed-use neighbourhood home to thousands of residents, but progress seems to have stalled. The Farmers' Market would make a perfect centrepiece for such a development.

Ultimately, well-managed markets can be the beating heart of any city-if city leaders have the foresight and good sense to embrace their potential.

The Project for Public Spaces maintains an impressive online collection of studies, reports and visitor-submitted guides to the world's public markets. This October(28- 31) in Washington, DC, PPS is also hosting an international conference on public markets. More details can be found here.

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.