Perfectly Disorganised Markets - By Freek Janssens

Publication date 25-04-2015

Urban markets are hot. From Seattle to Sydney and from Turin to Toronto, marketplaces are popping up in cities to meet the interests of city dwellers in sustainable and healthy food and lively places to meet one another. This development has not gone unnoticed by planners and politicians. Increasingly, they appreciate the value of urban marketplaces.

At the same time, real-estate developers have cleverly snatched the romantic image of the marketplace as a ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ urban experience by incorporating ‘marketplaces’ into their designs. In London’s recently opened Westfield Stratford shopping mall, for example, the Great Eastern Market is a collection of food outlets, much like a food court, that is promoted on signs throughout the mall as ‘a modern interpretation of a traditional market.’ Likewise, the market stalls that ought to resemble a marketplace stand somewhat uncomfortable in the sterile, marble environment of the Kanyon shopping centre in Istanbul.

Urban Food Market

'Eataly Smeraldo' in Milan is an example of a perfect disorganised market. Picture made by Freek Janssens.

Departing from this paradox – the market’s celebration might very well be a disguised abduction of the public character of the marketplace – the Centre for Urban Studies hosted a guest lecture by dr. Kirsten Seale (University of Technology, Sydney), with discussants Ceren Sezer (TU Delft) and Asli Duru (University of Munich). Following Seale’s argument that marketplaces can be thought of as ‘barometers’ of urban place – a declining market is a reflection of a deteriorating neighbourhood, a thriving market indicates a healthy neighbourhood – this raised the question how markets can also be used as strategies to improve urban spaces in an inclusive way without running into the place making fallacy of ‘festival marketplaces’ or blatantly displacement. Seale was sceptical on the possibilities for designers and planners to create successful markets. With examples from Sydney, she explained that very often these new markets – such as Bondi Junction Market – are not well integrated into the fabric of the city, representing rather a ‘fetishisation of chaos’ where collections of different stalls are (mis)placed together to form a market. This is in line with Arnold Reijndorp’s argument that the Markthal in Rotterdam is not a market, as food appears out of nowhere, and the logistics are hidden from view. These new markets are, as it were, perfectly disorganised. But isn’t it the imperfect organisation what it is all about? The crucial element that differentiates marketplaces from supermarkets, shopping malls and food courts? For what is a market if not a visible, tangible and sensible node in a network of products, people and ideas? Too much planning, and too much design, then, masks this imperfection, and with it, the manifestation of the market as part of the city’s life.

Freek Janssens 

Freek Janssens is PhD student at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and member of the Centre for Urban Studies. His research focuses on the politics of urban food markets. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in London, Amsterdam and Istanbul, as well as on the island of Sardinia, and has recently published a Special Issue of the journal ‘Built Environment’ on ‘Marketplaces as Urban Development Strategies.’  

Published by  CUS

3 February 2016