Utopian ideals: an introduction

Categories: Reflections and opinions

In this new series, Jane Levi, writer and visiting research fellow at King’s College London, explores the many ways in which the place, people and values of Borough Market represent the concept of Utopia

In 1516 Thomas More invented Utopia, a distant island where people lived in social, political and personal harmony. His traveller’s tale has been in print ever since, translated into most world languages. The word has a deliberate double meaning: it can be translated from its original Greek as ‘no place’ or ‘good place’. Either way, utopia has come to be used to describe almost every fantastical future and model society over the past 500 years. But while More’s work was an exaggerated fantasy full of comic inversions—like golden chamber pots demonstrating the absurdity of society’s idea of ‘value’—he also proposed a practical vision of a functioning city state, which he illustrated through his approach to food. In Utopia, everyone learned to work the land and help with the harvest; people shared the produce, distributed it fairly, and dined together; and markets existed to supply freely and fairly people’s needs for produce and for community.

This new series takes a look at Borough Market through Thomas More’s ‘utopian’ lens. We’ll be asking what the elements are that make the Market a ‘good place’, beyond it simply being a fabulous location to pick up some unique produce. We’ll look under the surface, talking to traders, producers and customers to find out how the Market’s ethos impacts the everyday life of its users and what all this means for our community at large.

A specific terroir
To get started, I talked to Donald Hyslop, chair of the Trustees of Borough Market, who explained how the charitable trust that was set up in 1756 to buy and preserve the Market’s land thinks about its role. “We see the Market as its own ecosystem, almost a specific terroir,” he said. “It flourishes because it is a network of internal and external connections that has developed over an extended period of time—there has been market trading here for about 1,000 years—and this makes us something unique.”

The charitable structure is one of the things that makes Borough Market stand out from other food retailers. It offers protection—the Market owns its land so it can remain in situ to serve the needs of its traders—and brings a culture of community service that goes to the very heart of the place. It has strong principles of quality, an obligation to educate and inform, and it’s required to be accessible to start-up traders and customers alike.

Environmental responsibilities
The Market also takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. From recycling, to innovative waste management practices, to nurturing new forms of urban wholesale and retail (such as on-foot and pedal-powered delivery services), it is working hard to make its inner city site as sustainable as possible.

Donald told me: “Borough Market has its own rhythm, a strong sense of place and a long-term view of time. This place would be impossible to invent from scratch in an urban context today.” While no-one is claiming that Borough Market can create a perfect world, there is a lot this collectively responsible organisation can and is doing to make its users’ lives more pleasant and its communities thrive. Over the rest of the series we’ll look at some of the aspects of market life that embody its positive approaches to community, provenance and sustainable practice, all of which contribute to a cleaner, greener, happier world.