Reinstating the municipal market in retail centre planning

Once essential infrastructure

Publicly owned markets under the administration of local Councils or not for profit Trusts were once regarded as essential economic and community infrastructure in the city building process. They were treated as a defining element in urbanism, alongside the civic precinct (town hall and courts), places of worship and the network of ceremonial and recreational parks.

While we still enjoy, and treasure, a handful of publicly owned markets as a legacy from past phases of city building, they seem to have disappeared entirely from our standard practices for planning new urban development. Why is this so?

Markets "forgotten" in current planning practice

Conventional planning practice for retail networks continues to be premised on a hierarchy of activity centres principle. This envisages nested retail catchments where consumers travel to their nearest centre for day to day requirements and further to higher order centres for comparison goods.

The planning rationale for a nested hierarchy of centres is that it minimises vehicular travel for consumers, it enables governments to better target the best locations for various public investments like public transport, libraries, community centres and recreation facilities, and it provides nodal points in the urban fabric around which higher density housing and employment can be clustered leading ultimately to a more compact urban form.

This is a very worthwhile planning objective. Its delivery involves application of effective floorspace quotas for different levels of centres in the hierarchy. Thus, lower order centres intended to service local community needs are restricted to a floorspace level and mix which would prevent diversion of retail sales from designated higher order centres. In practice, the currency of this floorspace allocation process tends to be ‘supermarket units’. That is, low order centres are, in one way or another, capped to accommodate one relatively small supermarket, and as one moves up the hierarchy the scope to add more supermarkets, discount department stores and other ‘big box’ floorspace increases.

‘Supermarket units’ in this sense have come to dominate planning parameters for activity centre management in both growth areas and established areas. In the process, other aspects of the retail system, namely independent shops operating from their own independently owned premises and traditional municipal markets have become secondary, or in the case of the latter, non-existent issues.

Dominance of supermarkets reinforced

Once the hierarchy configured around ‘supermarket units’ is established through the planning process, development controls act to protect this spatial order as much as possible, so that, as noted, lower order centres do not usurp the role of higher order centres.

In this way, conventional retail planning methods reinforce the hegemony of big box and corporate forms of retailing. This inadvertent concentration of market power leaves us with a retail monoculture, diminished food security and diminished walkability, especially in our new suburbs.

Community benefits are lost

Moreover, the demotion of independent retailing and municipal markets in retail planning models implies foregone community value. Independent retailers and markets are known to be generators of social capital. They foster interpersonal relationships and community networks in ways that supermarkets simply cannot emulate, notwithstanding their importation of the motifs of traditional markets.

Independent retailers and municipal markets also perform a vital business incubation function that cannot be replicated within corporatized big box retailing. Markets, for example, offer a low barrier to entry forum for the testing of new retail concepts and services.

Moreover, independent retailers and municipal markets contribute to the public realm in a way which is beyond the reach of corporatized forms of retailing. This is because they are of the public domain, relying on infrastructure and assets which are owned and operated by community institutions.

Bringing back municipal markets

Diversity and resilience in urban development warrants the reinstatement of priority for independent retailing and municipal markets in the planning process. A strong case can be made for mandating structural provision for modern municipal markets and independent retailing clusters in greenfield and major brownfield planning, in the same way as open space and community infrastructure is mandated in these settings.

To advance this agenda, better data is required on municipal market business models, to confirm that they can prosper in new urban development in the same way as they do in legacy suburbs.

We also need to better understand the wider economic benefits of markets, including their contributions to social capital, business formation and enhancement of the public domain. This will frame expectations for the commercial returns that might be expected from the operators of these markets. Given the value of collateral benefits generated by this infrastructure, it should not be expected to perform to the benchmarks that might apply to supermarket units.

Finally, we should recognise that the planning system inevitably grants quasi monopoly rights to certain asset owners as a by-product of hierarchy based activity centre strategies. Licence fees should be levied on these rights and, perhaps, fed back into supporting markets and independent retailing to create more sustainable and resilient systems for distributing food and other household goods in our cities.

* This article is an edited version of a presentation given by Marcus Spiller to the ‘Modern Markets’ seminar, convened by Queen Victoria Market, City of Melbourne, RMIT University and SGS Economics & Planning on October 26, at RMIT, Melbourne.