At a recent gathering in downtown Austin, the breakfast fare said it all. Organic yogurt, locally produced honey, fresh breakfast tacos broke from the usual offerings of croissants and Danish pastries. This crowd was invested in their food, mostly emotionally, some economically, as farmers, chefs, city planners, food activists, non-profits, and individuals gathered to learn about the possibility of a public food market in Austin.
Austin has farmers markets but no public market, yet. And even the future of the farmers markets is undetermined and fragile. So how did the meeting go?
The answer requires a brief tour of public market history and our relationship with food. The relationship has always been contentious as cities (not only Austin, but all over the world) have historically been defined by their food markets and yet have moved their markets further and further away. The struggle over land values, sanitation, and urban design have left most public food markets out in the hinterlands. And now city dwellers want them back.
Why? You’ve probably noticed a farmers market, or two, in your city, selling food from local producers and somehow feeding a growing desire to meet those who grow our food, see shake their rough hands, hear their stories.
Great, you say. In a digital, industrialized world we all need more humanity. Since the 1970s, environmentalists and the organic movement have been advocating for food to rejoin our urban landscapes. Both to keep local businesses in business and to provide a more connected relationship between producer and consumer. Some argue that the presence of farmers markets in a city adds to the social fabric, sense of community, and aesthetics of the urban experience.
Today’s desire to bring food back to our urban landscape runs against the ejection of large public food markets that began in earnest during the mid-19th century when cities began to modernize. City dwellers wanted to leave behind their rough, tough rural lives behind and food production was threatened sanitation, a serious problem in the 19th century when diseases like cholera rolled through urban landscapes. Markets consultant David K. O’Neil, the keynote speaker at the Austin meeting, has collected 10,000 old postcards depicting elegant public food markets, most of which have long been torn down to make way for more modern urban landscapes. By the 20th century many cities saw their public markets as occupiers of space that could be developed to create more revenue, provide more sanitation, and improve traffic and pedestrian traffic.
A few of these public markets refuse to budge, but now seem to be on their way out. Smithfield meat market in London and Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo are both big historic markets that are in the crosshairs of developers and urban improvement programs. Both define their neighborhoods, have historic roots, and contribute to the social and economic fabric of their host cities.
London’s Smithfield meat market, opened in 1868, and Tsukiji, began its evolution as the world’s largest fish market in 1935. In Smithfield’s case, the City of London owns the land occupied by the market and has watched land prices rise and some of the buildings fall into disrepair. The Smithfield meat market has come under attack several times during the past few decades because of increasing congestion around the market and the anomaly of the occupation of prime, centrally located space as a place for a wholesale meat market. The history of London’s meat market has been contentious for most of its 800-year history, so this battle for its place in London’s landscape was familiar. But those who want to keep the historic market buildings in the City this time may lose the battle.
Some of Smithfield’s buildings have been deteriorating while the neighborhood has been modernizing and becoming a trendy area for new restaurants and businesses. Smithfield’s meat market and its grand Victorian structure would not be removed, exactly, but developed by a real estate development company, Henderson Global Investors. The company proposed a design by John McAslan + Partners that would integrate the construction of office towers within the old “skin” of the market while adding shops and office space. The design and development plan has been approved of by The City of London and British Heritage, a conservation group that usually backs the preservation of historic buildings. .
Recently, a last minute rally by high-profile chefs and other prominent figures in London’s cultural scene piled on to object to Henderson’s plan. Now, SAVE, an organization that has been almost the lone voice of protest against Henderson’s plan, has gained a little momentum towards at least a reconsideration of the development plan. It’s still not clear if Smithfield will maintain its identity as the City’s last wholesale food market. The development plan and design is now undergoing more reviews and perhaps may yield a reprieve, yet another time.
In Tokyo, the fish market, Tsukiji, has become a tourist attraction, a trend fed by the announcement of its removal 14 years ago. The announcement met opposition at first but then gradually gained support, even of the union associated with the market in spite of those who objected the loss of the neighborhood’s culture and history. Costs for the removal have risen but the decision to build a new market outside of the center of Tokyo will most likely stick. The arrival of the Olympic games and the need for the world’s largest fish market to conform to global sanitation requirements are important to Japan’s overall economic and diplomatic status.
So Austin’s recent initiative to consider a public food market sits within changing tides of urban development as food markets come and go and attitudes change about how we view food, the countryside, and our public spaces. Should Austin join the move to bring public markets back into the city? Or should Austinians wait to see how other cities manage their farmers markets, urban agricultural initiatives, and urban infrastructures? Are the removals of Smithfield and Tsukiji relevant to cities such as Austin? Or is Austin exceptional in some way that could allow it to break new ground for those who want a closer relationship with their food?
The meeting in Austin went well. The city invited feedback, ideas, and participation in the discussion about the possibility of building a public food market. Looks like a strong start for a city that provokes innovation and embraces collaboration.