The latest “model” to be exported is the redevelopment and modernisation of Barcelona’s municipal food markets. International delegations of market managers visit Barcelona in search for the holy grail of how to keep municipal markets alive. The next occasion for this will be the 9th Conference of Public Markets to be celebrated in Barcelona on the 26th-28th of March. The UK also looks at Barcelona for examples and local politicians wish their city could also have a Boqueria Market. Years ago when I worked in Newcastle I was told that the leader of the council, after a trip to Barcelona, decided to redevelop the Grainger Market. In Leeds, where a long term plan for the redevelopment of Kirkgate Market has been hotly contested, I have heard local Councillors in decision making meetings using the Barcelona Markets as examples to follow.
But is the “model” replicable in the UK? Given its appeal for market managers and local decision makers in the UK, it is important get a critical perspective on what is happening to markets there. Below are some reflections collected from observed trends in Barcelona and conversations with academics as well as an interview with a Barcelona municipal official 3 years ago. These should be taken as exploratory findings which need more research. Get in touch or comment below if you want to contribute.
A short history of Barcelona’s municipal markets
Barcelona has historically invested in neighborhood markets. A first phase of markets was built at the end of the 19th century with the famous Boqueria and the now iconic Santa Caterina. being the first ones. These were modelled on the traditional British and other European market halls and were centred around the historic neighbourhoods of the city. These covered markets, like everywhere else in Europe, had the aim to regularise existing informal street trade. It was part of the modern urban project, displacing many informal traders and “tidying up” the streets. The network of neighbourhood markets was part of the modern expansion plan of Barcelona of the late 19th c and beginning of 20th c. The intention was that the network of municipal markets would be able to serve the whole city for fresh produce. In the 60s there was the final wave of expansion where modern markets were built mostly in the more peripheral neighbourhoods. Every resident would have a market at walking distance. This historical network was expanded as the city grew. By the 1980s there were around 40 food markets in the municipality.
A modernisation plan for Municipal Markets
In the mid 1980s a comprehensive study was carried out to understand the state of municipal markets and local retail. The result was a municipal market modernisation plan where markets were re-imagined as economic engines and neighbourhood revitalisation hubs which supported a vibrant and rich small and independent commerce inside and in the surrounding area of markets. The plan partly reacted against what was seen as the excessive expansion of hyper-supermarkets and shopping centres which was taking place in the US and France. But the plan was not to fight against supermarkets but to make them relate to and complement the traditional market by bringing them INSIDE. The municipal food market was seen as being able to capture both the low and high end of the commercial demand: cheap and everyday fresh produce and high end, delicatessen. Supermarkets could complement this offer with household products. A hugely expensive and interventionist plan was then put in practice to systematically “modernise” markets bringing them up to date in terms of competitiveness, health and safety and logistics. So far out of the 39 markets 20 have been modernised and the 2015-25 strategic plan for Markets in Barcelona promises more modernisation interventions.
Gentrification of Markets?
Up to now this description of the Barcelona Markets model would seem almost ideal as it has preserved markets and invested heavily to modernise them. Indeed there are many positive lessons and most of what has been written by the local authority itself and internationally is always positive. However, if we are interested in learning from this experience, we need a critical analysis to understand in detail what this strategy has actually translated into and why and how it was taken this particular shape in Barcelona.
The Barcelona model for the redevelopment of markets is based on the following principles:
· Reducing the number of market stalls, by amalgamating previous small stalls together and reducing the overall area for market stalls
· Bringing in a supermarket inside the market
· Building a car park underneath
This redevelopment model has been planned and implemented by the public local authority but is inevitably interlinked with wider and global urban and economic trends (such as the expansion of supermarkets, tourism, gentrification of urban centres) which have together generated the following trends:
a) Reduction of stalls
The modernisation plan so far has meant a significant reduction of stalls in markets, sometimes up to 50%. Stalls now are much bigger and might incorporate 3 or 4 of the previous stalls. This means that in effect many traders have lost their stalls and have been displaced somewhere else or stopped trading.
Displacement of traders happens in different ways. Many markets had empty stalls before the redevelopment and this would require further investigation. But in terms of the modernisation plan, when a redevelopment project is announced in a market the first displacement takes place as some traders calculate that it won’t be financially possible for them to afford the renovation and/or survive the temporary decant. The market therefore starts to lose traders and the council don’t rent them out to reduce compensations and conflicts. This has a result of filtering out the weaker traders, those older and selling cheaper produce. In turn this has the effect of displacing customers who come to the market looking for those traders.
The new modernised markets are considerably more “upmarket” and sell more expensive products than before. In particular a trend towards a gourmetisation of the market can be noticed; that is more stalls selling delicatessen and what is known as “gourmet” food: very high quality food products (extra quality ham, artisan bread) and also prepared food. However it must be explained that although a gourmetisation process has probably taken place, selling prepared dishes and extra quality food has always been a characteristic of some markets in Barcelona. This is now expanding. But some of the “ordinary” traditions of, for example, selling soaked pulses have now been reinvented as part of the goumetisation trend. If we couple this gourmetisation trend to the reduction of stalls we get a situation that a bigger proportion of stalls are now not selling essential food products but higher end, more upmarket gourmet and delicatessen products.
c) Higher prices
The redevelopment projects to modernise markets across Barcelona are paid partly from the municipal budgets, partly by the supermarkets that are located inside and partly by the traders themselves. To pay for this investment traders often have to increase the price of the produce. The result is that market produce in Barcelona is not generally cheaper than supermarkets. It could be argued that the municipal modernisation of markets in Barcelona has led to a commercial gentrification; with the displacement of traders and some customers who are priced out of municipal Markets.
Markets in central areas of Barcelona have become the target of tourists in Barcelona and the local authority has promoted them as such. As a result it is now accepted by most people in Barcelona that Markets such as the Boqueria “have been lost”. Traders there mainly cater for the tourist passer byes with bowls of chopped up fruit or souvenirs. Very few traders at the back of the Market still cater for the essential food shopping of local neighbours. The current municipal policy to disperse tourist flows from the central locations of the city means that other Markets, such as San Antoni, could be the next target for tourists. Recent protests have highlighted the excessive touristification of the city.
Is the “model” replicable AND do we actually want to replicate it in the UK?
The "Barcelona model" for markets has been praised because of the municipal commitment to invest heavily in public markets in the context of fierce competition from supermarkets. But who is this investment benefiting? The consequence of the trends described above is that markets are not as affordable for those in lower incomes. This trend for the gentrification of markets has already been researched for the case of the Santa Caterina Market (Hernandez Cordero, 2014) but more research is needed particularly since most of the attention so far has been on central urban markets but peripheral neighbourhood markets follow different trajectories. Each Market has its own characteristics and therefore it is difficult to generalise even for the city of Barcelona.
However, one big difference with markets in the UK that can be identified is that Markets in Barcelona do not have a high presence of immigrants. In the UK, Markets are an entry point for migrants wanting to start a business with low capital and they act as meeting places for migrants who generally have less expendable income. This does not seem to be the case in Barcelona because setting up a stall is expensive and fresh produce is not cheaper than in supermarkets or in the proliferating “ethnic” grocery shops.
A preliminary conclusion therefore is that the Barcelona model for the redevelopment of markets is not replicable in the UK. If transplanted uncritically it can lead to the gentrification of markets- a trend that is already discernible in the UK (Gonzalez and Waley, 2013) Markets in the UK still play a very strong role serving not only migrants but more generally the working class. This is an aspect of British Markets that should not only be maintained but supported and exploited. At the moment, experience from our research in Leeds Kirkgate Market suggests that local authorities are almost ashamed of these demographics; instead they should be proud that markets are still welcoming and supporting the right to the city for everyone.