Markets are inextricably connected to the social and economic life of cities in virtually every culture around the world. We treasure a great market full of people enjoying the numerous pleasures of being there, and we've found that there is a science to understanding how these markets act as engines for local economies and hubs of social activity.

Three Small Cities Where they have made a Big Impact

Markets play a unique role in animating city squares and other public spaces and, in return, benefit economically from this vitality. It is the powerful, mutually beneficial connection between market and square that we explore in this article, looking at three new markets in the U.S. that have opened in the past decade. These markets are located in very different cities, representing different contexts from a small city to a dense urban neighborhood: NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Corona Plaza in Queens, New York; and Flint Farmers' Market in Flint Flint, Michigan. What these places have in common is their bustling economic activity, both as marketplaces and vibrant squares. They are redefining what a market can mean to a community, as an economic engine and as a destination for social life.

Historical Roots

Throughout history, cities have evolved naturally around central places for trade and community life. Public markets and public squares are often conceived of and operated as separate, unrelated places, but they are more powerful when they work together – acting as a city's heart and soul.

Since markets were the starting point, the square where the marketplace was located became the natural first core of the city. Indeed, the Greeks called their ancient marketplace the "agora," which literally means "gathering place" – a physical location where the city's cultural, commercial, social, spiritual, and political life came together. "Agoras" continued to emerge later in other forms — as the great cathedral squares of medieval Europe and countless others around the world. They were places where markets and civic life thrived and, in many cases, continue to thrive. Today, places like the Viktualienmarkt in Munich, Germany show the versatility and staying power of such markets.

Viktualienmarkt, Munich Germany

Driving the Local Food Economy with Social Life: Munich’s Victuals Market
The Victuals Market (Viktualienmarkt) in Munich, Germany Central “Market Square” is typical of the historic squares around Europe, showcasing the local commerce, culture and diversity in the center of each city.

How Markets Support Local Economies and Social Life

Markets come in a wide variety of forms – from simple open-air markets with little physical infrastructure, to more fully developed markets inside buildings or other structures, to entire districts of markets in cities. It is this inherent flexibility of form that makes them so adaptable to different contexts.

The flexibility and light nature of open-air markets means they are especially adaptive to demand and supply and to the changing circumstances in which they find themselves, making the market a resilient commercial hub and a great asset to a square. The market is like an intelligent living thing that can respond to changing needs as they arise, organizing itself to maximize productivity, efficiency and sales.

Markets offer small businesses the perfect conditions to grow. With markets, small entrepreneurs have an affordable way to set up shop and test the success of their wares with local buyers before having to invest in setting up something more permanent.

The bustling activity and mass of different vendors selling a great diversity of products is an important reason why people of all kinds shop at a market. There's something for everyone. And the transactions between buyer and seller are often social and friendly.

The social life that various offerings foster increases economic activity further: people go to markets not just to shop but for the social experience. That's why markets function best when they are also social hubs, allowing customers the option to sit down and have a cup of coffee, participate in an event, and meet up with friends or family.

Why Squares are Good for Markets

A good square offers these kinds of social opportunities too, and the social life of squares helps to reinforce the social life of markets. A square with many other things going on is also good for a market's businesses. People might come for an event, performance, or gathering and then end up buying lunch or picking up a gift for a friend. Shopping becomes less of a chore when you can do it while having fun!

Well, what if a market is not located on a square? Then the markets should make their own "agora!" With the right public spaces, markets can be designed to become the de facto main square, which is good for both business and the community. While these market spaces can be designed to drive foot traffic to vendors more effectively, by doing so, they are really building a beloved community place that is so much more than a place to shop.

Bryant Park in New York City is the heart of Midtown and is renowned for its myriad attractions, which draw millions of people year-round. The park has been a true catalyst for the heart of Midtown. Its vibrant holiday market is part of an annual winter celebration that works because the park itself is so animated that it draws people in year round, even in freezing temperatures.

Bryant Park, New York City

This successful marriage of square and market can be seen in other parts of the US as well — each one is a social and commercial hotspot.

Three Case Studies

NewBo City Market, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: When a Market is also the Town Square

After a devastating flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, community activists created a new market from scratch, replacing an abandoned warehouse and a vacant lot in the emerging NewBo district, thereby launching one of the best city squares in the U.S. in the process. There's a vibrant synergy between the market's role as a public gathering place and its mission as a business incubator for new entrepreneurs.

Read the full article here.

Corona Plaza, Queens (New York City): How Street Vendors Created the Soul of a Queens Neighborhood

During the pandemic, some 80 immigrant street vendors from Latin America seeking a livelihood began selling their wares at Corona Plaza, Queens and quickly became something of a sensation in the neighborhood and in New York City. The vendors created viable businesses that energized the previously underutilized plaza. But because they were operating without permits, the City of New York shut them down in the summer of 2023, dissipating the energy of the plaza. Following public outcry, the vendors are now back legally after the city developed a special permit mechanism that enabled the creation of a formal marketplace.

Read the full article here.

Flint Farmers Market, Flint, Michigan: A Market Designed Around Public Spaces and Social Life

For over a century, the Flint Farmers Market has been a treasured community institution. In 2014, the market moved to a new location in downtown Flint in a 10-year-old printing press building adjacent to the University of Michigan campus. The new building was larger than the market's previous location and presented the opportunity to not just house the market, but also a range of indoor and outdoor public spaces that now act as important draws. The market has become Flint's de facto town square, and home to some 50 local, thriving businesses and hundreds of community events every year.

Read the full article here.

The Key to Prosperity

Markets are not only bustling with local economic activity, but they also add intense vibrancy to whatever place in which they are set. They are beautiful equalizers and a true "melting pot" of communities because people from all walks of life get together on equal footing to do business together. Customers from all backgrounds share the space with vendors from all backgrounds, and together, they enjoy the experience of the market in each other's company.

It is natural that the diversity and social life inherent to a market spills out into the square it stands on and into the neighborhoods around it– and vice versa – creating thriving and economically prosperous communities. The key to bringing a city to life is creating its heart and soul through the square and the market, a powerful partnership.

Bringing Back the Heart of Communities - Squares and Markets
Markets and squares are the heart of communities where people gather, celebrate, play, and enjoy life on a daily basis.
A Great Market Street: Buenos Aires’ Calle La Defensa
Buenos Aires’ Calle La Defensa is a memorable street any day—but especially on Sundays, when crowds gather to walk, shop, dance, eat and have fun interacting with the street performers.
Social Encounters of 4 Kinds: A Field Guide to Markets
A big reason we enjoy markets are the plentiful opportunities for conversation
Driving the Local Food Economy with Social Life: Munich’s Victuals Market
The Victuals Market (Viktualienmarkt) in Munich, Germany Central “Market Square” is typical of the historic squares around Europe, showcasing the local commerce, culture and diversity in the center of each city.
London’s Borough Market: A Public Market Driven by and for Social Life
The Borough Market is woven into the neighborhood. Coming at it from multiple directions one finds themselves suddenly in the market. The intensity increases as you get into the many the hearts of the market.
This Could Be the Main Street of the Future — Ithaca Farmers Market
Main streets are so important because they are the backbone of a community, but they don’t have to have just one look and form. This market in Ithaca is as good a main street as any other.

Resource Guide

Social Life Project Resource Guide
This is a collection of Social Life Project’s articles grouped in our main focus areas - a resource guide for those interested in diving into our work.
The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection in public spaces around the globe. Through our online publication, presentations, campaigns, and catalytic projects, we can create transformative impact on communities everywhere. Our work grows out of more than 50 years devoted to building the global placemaking movement. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of leaders who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities.

If you are interested in collaborating (articles, presentations, exhibits, projects, and more) or supporting the cause contact us.
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