The case for the public food market as a tool for sustainability

After nearly sixty years of pushing for food efficiency and the following negative effects on the environment, the survival of the public food market could be a strategic public planning tool to increase the demand for local and more sustainable food, and to shape the short-distance city. So writes researchers Manel Guardia, Nadia Fava, Josè Luis Oyon.

Food systems and food policies, including more social dimensions such as food sovereignty and governance, are increasingly present in the political and research agenda. How we eat has gone from being an almost entirely neglected question to a perspective which is enlightening the socio-economic transition towards sustainable paradigms to tackle the relationship crisis between society and the environment. This renewed interest not only has an historical dimension which relates the question of food to a broader cultural and economic context, but also one which looks at how cities and landscape have been shaped over time to supply populations. The form, the uses and the functions of the city and the countryside, and their mutual dynamic relationship is a structural issue that depends on our way of nourishing, producing and distributing food. The food issue and its sustainable perspective seems to hunger for long-term thinking that can connect the natural cycles in nature and human actions to discover the relationship between agency and environment on a global scale. While local economies and policies tend to rely on short cycles, only a longue durée historical perspective might improve the operational meaning of and the commitment to the environment by studying the food issue in the long run.

Today the role of the public food market makes up only a small segment of the entire food supply chain.

Historically, markets were basically places (under public control) for supplying food. This entailed public policies on food production, processing, distribution and retailing. Today the role of the public food market makes up only a small segment of the entire food supply chain.

It is widely acknowledged that public markets, as a fundamental part of the food system, have been the driving force behind shaping European cities since medieval times and a fundamental nexus between the rural and urban realm. The exceptional example of this is the case of Catalonia, with its more than 650 weekly markets and 60 municipal market halls still active and well worth a study grounded in its specific local historical and cultural dimension, so difficult to translate to other contexts.

Historically, in Catalan rural villages and towns the weekly market was the intermediary of this fusion of cuisine and landscape. Catalan writer Josep Pla’s remark “cooking is the landscape in a pan” clearly illustrates the notion that traditional cuisine is born from the logic of proximity. Each comarca (region) identified itself with a certain landscape and cuisine. Landscape and cuisine consequently became two of the most widely-shared expressions of local identity.

From the traditional market to the modern public food market – Barcelona and the Catalan region

In his classic thesis, Henri Pirenne attributed the rebirth of the medieval city to merchant activity and the long-distance trade of sumptuary goods. Today, however, we think that the process was nourished by the countryside farmers and that the modest trade in local markets boosted the long growth cycle of medieval Europe. This original and generating function of local markets is readable in the shape of the cities of medieval origin. The traditional city, in both the north and south of the Mediterranean, reveals the extent to which markets and the commercial network were, and still are, the backbone of urban structure as this is often expressed in the name of a street or square.

In his seminal book, Fires i mercats a Catalunya, Lluis Casassas (1978) describes this process, from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century by focusing on the interplays between markets and local agriculture, commerce, institutions, landscapes and local gastronomies. Barcelona appears to be an exception. By the pre-industrial period the city imported meat, wheat and cod fish answering not only to a larger demand, but mostly to the capital city’s diversified consumer demand. In the Industrial Revolution, which began in the second half of the 19th century in Catalunya, the invention of the steam engine and the growing population, altered the relationship with the place of food production and the cities all over the region. The radius of supply had grown enormously over half a century, and this was not exclusive to Barcelona. There was, however, still a very strong dependence on the immediate surroundings. The open-air markets were no longer adequate for supplying cities, which were increasingly invading public space, and meeting the new hygienic paradigm asking for better conditions. The increasing abundance in supplies to the cities stemmed from not only a more efficient use of agricultural land surrounding urban areas, but also, for some products, it was aided by the supply radius being significantly expanded through new means of transport driven by railways and steam navigation. All this resulted in a general acceleration that fostered the rapid renovation of trade channels and profoundly changed consumption habits. In most cities of the Western world, these changes coincided with the consolidation and construction of the new generation of covered markets, and their conversion into modern facilities.

The impact of the “green revolution” on the food chain and the entrance of supermarket weakened traditional trade that had given life to urban centres.

In the Spanish case (Fava, Guàrdia, & Oyón, 2016; Fava, Guàrdia, & Oyóon, 2010) , although since the late 1920s under the impulse of the combustion engine, the radius of supply for some products increased significantly, the result of the long depression from 1930 to 1960 meant that in three decades there were scarcely any changes. The situation of extreme scarcity, which lasted two decades after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), led to an intense political support for the markets – especially in the two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona -, which makes them, even today, exceptions within an international context. In the fifties and sixties, when in other countries the old markets were disappearing, a new generation of markets was being built in the new suburban districts.

Only with the late lift-off of the Spanish economy at the end of the 1950s, did a process of change begin that precipitated the first Development Plan of 1964-1967, which proposed overcoming the inertia of the market structures and the persistence of outdated manners of distribution. The radius of supply increased rapidly with the fuel fossil transportation (GUÀRDIA, OYÓN, GARRIGA, & FAVA, 2017), reaching the entire Spanish territory. This process, which is a difficult trend to reverse, has been accentuated in recent decades to get products from around the world and redistribute them to all of southern Europe.

Markets from tools of urban planning to the new environmental challenge

The impact of the “green revolution” on the food chain and the entrance of supermarket weakened traditional trade that had given life to urban centres. From the 1950s, politics, researchers and industry was committed to increasing land productivity to achieve an efficient food system within the global economy. In Spain, the effect was recovering the traditional gastronomy and contrasted by the resilience of local commerce culture linked to the countryside. During the eighties, the rapid expansion of the large new retailing centres coincided with the adoption of the restrictive model of French commercial urbanism by the Spanish administration. The city-planning policy in Barcelona, developed by the democratic city council from the beginning of the 1980s, established a set of guidelines that would, in the long-term, support the local commerce and the local food market.

In 1985 a Special Plan for Food Retailing Facilities was approved by the Barcelona City Council that emphasized the importance of fostering traditional food retailing and recovering the enormous architectural and cultural heritage of the nearly 40 markets present in the city. The municipal markets were considered as the fundamental polarities of proximity retailing, and a tool with which to update the buildings and their urban role. In 1991, the Municipal Institute of Markets of Barcelona was created, with the mission to manage and modernize municipal markets, “aiming to maintain their social, civic and cultural centrality”. In rest of the region, mostly (but not only) in the popular tourist cities, new food markets were built during the eighties when in the rest of Europe, the discussion around the market was about their destruction or possible new uses or commercial formulas.

Food markets, if they are appropriately managed, can revitalize the dynamic relationship between the city and the rural area and link the food system with society, its history and the landscape.

The European Directives (the Bolkenstein Directive, 2004 and the Treaty of Lisbon, 2007), have supposed a clear menace to public markets in Europe, the resilience and resurgence of markets can be a useful tool against this type of positioning. Markets can be an asset, far from negligible, for more sustainable development.

Food markets, that are now also selling long-distance products, could recover their traditional character of being a rural urban link that improves the local and social economy and supports the local and proximity commerce that, with their presence in the heart of the city, competes with the supermarkets. After nearly sixty years’ commitment to pushing for food efficiency and the following negative effects on the environment, the survival of markets could be a strategic public planning tool to reverse this trend, thus increasing the demand for local food and diversity in food consumption, improving social cohesion and shaping the short-distance city. Face-to-face buying and selling and the different kinds of fresh, quality products available during the year, can offer a wide range of experiences linked with nature’s long natural cycles. Food markets, if they are appropriately managed, can revitalize the dynamic relationship between the city and the rural area and link the food system with society, its history and the landscape.

Manel Guardia, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Department of History and Theory of Architecture (CA).



Nadia Fava, Universitat de Girona, Department of Architecture and Construction Engineering



Josè Luis Oyon, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya





Fava, N., Guàrdia, M., & Oyón, J. L. (2010). Public versus private: Barcelona’s market system, 1868-1975. Planning Perspectives, 25(1).

Fava, N., Guàrdia, M., & Oyón, J. L. (2016). Barcelona food retailing and public markets, 1876 1936. Urban History, 43(3).

Guàrdia, M., Oyón, J. L., Garriga, S., & Fava, N. (2017). Meat consumption and nutrition transition in Barcelona, 1709–1935. Urban History.

Guàrdia, M., Oyón, J. L. (ed.), Making Cities through Market Halls. Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries, Barcelona: Museo d´Història de Barcelona,  2014.

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