3. Market and Supermarket

Posted by Carolyn on June 6, 2008 at 10:44 am

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Chapter Three looks at the way food is bought and sold in cities, and how that effects our use of public space. If you go to the centre of any city built before the motor car, you can be sure to find a market at its centre. Markets were once the social and physical hubs of cities, where people not only went to buy fresh food, but also to swap news and gossip.

They were where the country came to the city, and where seasonal festivals and public events were held, as well as other civic functions. Markets, in other words, were public spaces in the fullest sense: the space of everyman – shared places in which anything could happen.

The Salone in Padua

Today, the fact that most of us buy our food from supermarkets has changed the way we inhabit cities fundamentally. Instead of heading into town to buy food, we drive out to large, anonymous boxes. The civic aspect of food selling has disappeared, and along with it, much of the character and purpose of our town centres. That’s more than just a shame. Those who control food, control us, and when you consider that that 80 percent of the grocery trade in Britain is controlled by just four supermarkets, that gives them incredible power, not just over our wallets, but over our bodies too. The latest trend is for large supermarkets like Tesco to become urban developers, offering local councils incentives to allow them to build large chunks of city with mega-stores at their core – effectively creating captive markets for their business.

The issue here is not just one of choice – it goes to the heart of what a city is, and the public life that has always been its essence. In 1994, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that shopping malls had replaced town centres as the place of free speech, since they were the only places where people actually went any more. I find that scary, because malls – and supermarkets – are not public spaces. They are private property, there for the sole purpose of making money for their owners.

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