A matter of opinion: the social life of markets

Categories: Reflections and opinions

This issue’s guest columnist is Donald Hyslop, chair of the Trustees of Borough Market. He argues that markets have a social function that goes far beyond the buying and selling of food

In an era of food deliveries, click and collect and supermarket self-checkouts, the simple, everyday personal interactions that used to punctuate our lives aren’t nearly as frequent as they once were. In fact, it is quite possible, in a city packed with millions of people, to go for long periods of time without ever really talking to anyone.

That’s not the case here at Borough Market. Of course, no one is going to force you to chat if you don’t want to, but at a market, conversation is just part of the culture. When stallholders care about and take pride in the food they sell—which is very much the case here—they want to engage with their customers by offering advice and ideas, seeking feedback or just passing the time of day. Traders also talk with other traders, shoppers with other shoppers.

Conversations are the foundations upon which communities are created, and communities can change cities. In my day job as head of regeneration and community partnerships at Tate Modern, the focus of my work is on exploring the role that cultural institutions can play in the regeneration of urban environments, and my belief has always been that markets can have a similar impact.

A focal point
Since time immemorial, market squares have provided a focal point for towns and villages, and they can do much the same now, even in a vast modern city, by offering a lively hub in which countless interactions play out every day. It is through these interactions that ideas take shape, preconceptions fall apart, relationships are forged and new businesses are started. That busy energy streams out into the wider area, with an impact that can be felt for miles around.

One of the most satisfying manifestations of the sense of community that has coalesced around Borough Market is the way in which the Market’s traders and staff, volunteers from the Plan Zheroes organisation and representatives from a whole host of local charities gather together every week to redirect surplus food to some of London’s most vulnerable people. 

For Borough Market, providing a public function that goes beyond the purely transactional isn’t just an incidental extra, it’s a fundamental requirement. Written into the 1754 Act of Parliament that established the Market in its current location was the stipulation that it act for the “convenience and accommodation of the public”, and accommodating the public is something that we, as trustees, see as central to our role.

Rest, eat, talk
That’s why in recent years we have worked so hard on improving the Market’s public spaces, particularly with the construction of the Market Hall, a place where people can rest, eat, talk, or watch one of our regular free cookery demonstrations. It is also why we set such store by public events that draw people here for reasons that go beyond shopping: the Borough Talks programme, the Cookbook Club, Apple Day, St George’s Day.

Markets aren’t always the slickest and most convenient of places. They’re not built for speed and efficiency. But they do bring people together, to talk and laugh and share their knowledge. And no self-checkout in the world can claim the same.