I BEGAN THINKING ABOUT the architecture of community gathering places when I lived and worked in the Bay area in the late 1980s. As an architect I was involved with several urban design projects, including one in San Jose in the area known as Communications Hill. The city of San Jose was considering annexing Communications Hill in order to turn the land (more than 300 acres) into new mixed-use neighborhoods. During the planning process I thought a lot about how to incorporate community gathering places into the neighborhoods. It occurred to me at the time that community spaces were becoming afterthoughts in much urban planning, except perhaps in private development where the spaces were accessible only to those people living or working there. It also seemed to me that many of the community gathering places that did exist were not necessarily working in the way the designers had envisioned, as evidenced by the fact that they were frequently empty.
I moved to Blacksburg, VA, in the mid-1990s and several years later had become a regular at my hometown farmers market. I couldn’t help noticing how the market served as a public gathering place for the community, but felt it did not fulfill its full potential. People lingered after making purchases, chatting with fellow shoppers or vendors, but there was no place to sit and enjoy the bustle of the market or a relaxed chat with friends. This experience started what has become for me an ongoing fascination with public and farmers markets across the country. As an architect, I am particularly drawn to the design elements that make these spaces magnets for their communities. At the time I did not realize that these markets were booming throughout the United States. According to the USDA National Farmers Market Directory, the number of markets in the U.S. has grown dramatically between 1994 and 2019, from roughly 1,755 to over 8,700 markets, an astounding 397 percent increase. This certainly piqued my curiosity. How much of this resurgence, I wondered, had to do with the desire to buy fresh healthy food, and how much of it had to do with a longing for a sense of community and face-to-face interaction in an architectural place?
My thinking about the architecture of place has been greatly influenced by the book Chambers for a Memory Palace (1994) by Donlyn Lyndon and Charles Moore. The book is an exchange of letters between the authors, both architects, in which they discuss a wonderfully eclectic set of buildings, gardens, and monuments from around the world—the Taj Mahal, Mosque of Cordoba, Beverly Hills Civic Center, et al. What ties all of these places together for Lyndon and Moore is a common set of architectural elements, elements that give each space a sense of place. They use terms such as “walls that layer,” “openings that frame,” “roofs that encompass,” and “niches that embrace.” In one sense, these elements are present in architecture everywhere, but they manifest themselves differently in different places. Ever since I read Chambers for a Memory Palace I’ve watched for these elements when I visit someplace new, so it is not surprising that I’ve incorporated them into my thinking. In fact, they are key to three of the typologies of markets I identify and explore in this book—heritage building, open-air pavilion, and pop-up canopy.
Additional popular books by Jane Jacobs and William H. (Holly) White informed how I observed these markets. In Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) Jacobs discusses at length the importance of a sense of community for neighborhood vitality and encourages every resident to keep “eyes on the streets” as a way to participate in public spaces. In White’s book, The Social Life of Small Urban Places (1980), he discusses necessary elements for engaging people (particularly places for people to sit) in public places, including streets, plazas, parks, and civic squares. White’s work has been influential for the nonprofit organization Project for Public Spaces’ (PPS) multi-faceted urban endeavors since its inception in 1975.
PPS has been supporting communities that want to rejuvenate existing public spaces or to create new ones for over forty years. Their work has been persuasive among architects like me, encouraging us to think in new ways about the notion of “placemaking,” which PPS defines as people working collaboratively to improve public spaces for the benefit of everyone in the community. Over the years PPS has played a role in community development projects in Boston (Boston Public Market), Detroit (Campus Martius Park), Fort Worth (Sundance Square), New York City (Bryant Park) and many more. PPS has also published a number of influential books and reports, including Public Markets and Community Revitalization (1984), How To Turn a Place Around (2000), and The Case for Healthy Places (2016), some of which can be downloaded for free from the PPS website.
I bring to this book my own unique perspective as a teacher and practicing architect. I have also been involved with my own local farmers market. In 2001 I founded Friends of the Farmers Market, which led to the opening of a new farmers market pavilion in Blacksburg’s new Market Square Park in 2009. Over the years my travels have taken me to all of the markets I discuss in the book and many more (Seattle’s Pike Place, San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza, Albuquerque’s Downtown Growers, and Boston’s Copley Square, to name a few) that I do not discuss. The ones I chose to include are markets that are part of my life’s routine, whether shopping in my hometown market in Blacksburg or in Washington, D.C., or taking students to Cincinnati or Charlottesville to study the city’s architecture. They span the gamut from classic market buildings to temporary assemblages of pop-up canopies that can be found all across our country. A key point I want to emphasize is that even the humblest of markets, in edifice style and size, perform as places for community gathering and civic engagement through the architecture of place they make. It is my hope that readers will feel as though they are with me as I tell the stories of a few markets in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia. Perhaps I will even inspire them to look at their own markets with fresh eyes.
I also want readers to think about what lies ahead. I conclude the book with a broad look at the way of life and living that farmers markets have spawned, while looking forward to what I see as an emerging new typology—the mobile market—which takes the bounty of local farmers to neighborhoods underserved with fresh healthy food—otherwise known as food deserts. Market vendors speak enthusiastically about the qualitative benefits that farming life allows, and the greater good their individual choice provides for the general public and region. I unexpectedly found out that people with limited incomes who receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can redeem them at most farmers markets. Both the mobile market and SNAP acceptance at farmers markets make fresh food access more equitable. Finally, an array of governmental, commerce, and community leaders champion the economic development farmers markets catalyze through allied business development and civic commitment. The impact of these markets on local economies can be significant, generating not just income for farmers but also tax revenues for communities. Similarly, it is estimated that growers selling locally generate four times as many jobs as those who sell beyond their region. All in all, I hope readers will come to appreciate how multidimensional farmers markets are.