E Every farmers market is unique in its own way. This is what I tell people when they ask me what the key is to starting a new market in their own communities. There is, in fact, no single key because every community has its own distinctive character, and for this reason I am convinced that farmers markets are most successful when they grow organically out of the efforts and initiative of the citizens of the community. This is what the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) means by the idea of “placemaking.” As PPS explains on its web site, effective placemaking is a collaborative process that engages people and inspires them to utilize the unique assets of their community in building, or renovating, public spaces.2
Recognizing how difficult it is to create successful public spaces, PPS published a book entitled How to Turn a Place Around, in which it identified eleven principles for successful placemaking. These are:
1) The community is the expert,
2) Create a place, not a design,
3) Look for partners,
4) You can see a lot just by observing,
5) Have a vision,
6) Start with the petunias: Lighter, quicker, cheaper,
8) They always say “It can’t be done”,
9) Form supports function,
10) Money is not the issue, and
11) You are never finished.3
I support these principles. And yet, as I’ve tried to show in this book, it is also possible to look at farmers markets from the perspective of architecture and design. I have identified three traditional types of markets—heritage building, open-air pavilion, and pop-up canopy—plus a fourth one in the making—the mobile market. It is no mistake that farmers markets across the country tend to fall into one of these categories. Not only do the types reflect a long history of public markets in America, they embody certain elements of architecture and urban design that engage our human bodies and allow us to make sense of our experiences and build collective memories. Ultimately, these elements boil down to the eight scales of interaction and interface I identified in Chapter 1—hand, container, person, individual vendor stall, group of stalls, street, block, and market’s situation within neighborhood or district.
Taking it a step further, effective markets incorporate physical architectural elements (columns, thresholds, doorways, floors, roofs, signage, seating, etc.) within a specific urban setting (surrounding buildings, plazas, parks, sidewalks, parking, transit access, topography, etc.) that result in a successful community gathering place. But it is not enough for these elements simply to exist; it is how these elements come together in a particular location that gives each market its own architecture of place. In every case, the eight scales of interaction and interface can be seen in the following:
• Configuration of stalls
• Human-scale display of goods
• Places for people to sit, eat, chat or linger
• Individualized vendor signage
• Protection from rain and sunshine
• Location, visibility and accessibility
The configuration of stalls allows smooth flow through the market and quick viewing of what is available. Individualized vendor signage enables customers to identify new vendors as well as verify regular ones. Human-scale display of goods permits shoppers to select their purchases with ease. Protection from the rain and sun is rather obvious in its importance. Places for people to sit, eat, chat, or linger is crucial to building community and thus placemaking. Likewise, location, visibility, and accessibility (parking at the very least) allow shopping at the farmers market to become ritual.
In addition to these architectural factors, successful farmers markets often have the following:
• Variety of vendors
• Area for local musicians to perform
• Adjacent public open space
• Acceptance of SNAP benefits
• Access to public transit
• Annual special events
Seemingly minor design features can also play a role in turning a simple landscape into a place where people want to gather. For instance, at the Blacksburg Farmers Market curvilinear benches and cobblestone pavers provide variation in an otherwise unremarkable setting. On the convex portion of the curve, the serpentine benches allow strangers to sit adjacent to one another without feeling crowded, while on the concave portion, people can face each other in conversation. They also serve as a barrier akin to a fence along one of the adjacent streets. The cobblestone pavers under the structure and in the alley and parking area provide an urban floor akin to a plaza, such that when cars are not present one does not realize it is a parking lot. And finally, a half-dozen leafy green trees on the grassy area of the park define a space where friends can huddle in conversation, children can dance to music, and families can sit on blankets and eat ice cream. There’s even enough room for a 20-foot by 20-foot tent for annual tomato and apple tasting events.
It is difficult to measure the impact that the architecture and design of a farmers market can have on the community. Still, even in a small town like Blacksburg the indicators are positive. Since the renovation of the Blacksburg Farmers Market pavilion and park, vendor revenues have doubled, from $600,000 in 2009 to $1.2 million in 2018. This translates into more money kept in the local economy as well as more jobs on local farms and at farmers markets. To keep up with customer demand on market days and to avoid long waiting lines, some vendors have hired college students to assist at their stalls and, in some cases, to even intern on vendors’ farms. More people stay longer at the market, listening to local musicians and chatting as children play in the park. Also, new partnerships have formed, with local food pantries supplementing canned and dry goods with fresh healthy produce. On most market days the New River Valley Master Gardeners Association sets up a stall with their banner “Share the Spare” and collects fresh food donations. After the market ends, the NRVMGA delivers excess produce to Giving Tree Food Pantry, the Interfaith Food Pantry, and Spiritual Roots Community Food Bank.
The future looks bright for the Blacksburg Farmers Market. In late 2018 town leadership completed a Downtown Strategy Plan that includes the potential of building an indoor market hall as part of its vision. If enacted, a new market building will be constructed in the coming decade adjacent to the existing pavilion. This would be a major step forward in revisioning downtown Blacksburg with the farmers market at its core.
Cincinnati’s Findlay Market offers one more example of the far-reaching impact that a market can have on a community. Since City Council adopted the Over-the-Rhine Comprehensive Plan in June 2002, the market has expanded from a single building into a multiple-block district from Findlay to Liberty streets and Central to Vine streets (see image 6.1). The Corporation for Findlay Market has taken a leadership role as the “preferred developer” for 39 city-owned buildings and acquired several additional properties to accelerate development in the blocks surrounding the market building. The plan identifies Findlay Market as a key development asset and envisions Findlay Market as “a food and flowers district that is eventually seen as a daily market for residents of Over-the-Rhine and outlying neighborhoods with additional restaurants and housing.”4 The newest development, Market Square, was completed in 2018 by local developer Model Properties, a leader in community revitalization for 38 years. This project includes the complete renovation of 23 apartments, 10 for-sale residential condominiums, and 47,576 square feet of retail and office space.5
In addition to redevelopment, the opening in 2016 of the Cincinnati Bell Connector was significant to the prosperity of the market district. It is a 3.6-mile streetcar loop with eighteen stops connecting Cincinnati’s riverfront, Downtown, and Over-the Rhine neighborhoods. This public amenity has improved access for people working in downtown to easily get to Findlay Market for lunch or shopping during their workday. Like DC’s Eastern Market, Findlay Market now has a transit stop named for it (see image 6.2).
As I was finishing up the writing of this book, the Blacksburg Farmers Market was in full swing for yet another season. One Saturday morning I visited the market, taking time to sit on one of the serpentine benches and do a bit of people-watching. Vendors were busy selling fresh flowers and produce. Colorful banners with farm names were strung between columns. A child leaned on a column as she stood in line for homemade ice cream. University students were ever-present as spring exams had yet to begin. Blacksburg’s farmers market is small, especially compared to other market cities I’ve visited, such as Cincinnati and Washington, DC. Still, the experience of sitting in the sun on a busy market Saturday feels pretty much universal. This no doubt explains, at least in part, why I go out of my way to find a farmers market whenever I am visiting another town or city. I both know and don’t know what I will find. The experience is both new and familiar. How could it be any other way.?