Posted January 19th 2011 at 10:50 am by
in Cooperatives & New Business Models, Public Markets for Community Development, Thesis Chronicles

Public Markets: Non-Economic Venues and Intangible Sources for Community Building

Upon entering the market, I experienced nostalgia for my youth, traveling with my parents out to the San Fernando Valley to sell goods every weekend.

— Jeffrey Juarez


Over the weekend, I decided to take a trip outside of Los Angeles and into the suburban community of Costa Mesa to begin my preliminary research on outdoor public markets for my Urban Planning masters thesis at MIT.  My primary question concerning the topic is: How can urban planners and community organizers use these types of venues as not just an income-driven enterprise, but something that offers more intangible benefits to the community?

Public Markets: Non-Economic Venues and Intangible Sources for Community Building

The Orange County Marketplace is about an hour drive from Downtown Los Angeles, located on the Orange County Fair Event Center property. The space is used most heavily during the summer when the County Fair takes place on the lot.  The fair provides food, fun, and events for the entire community. I came out a couple of years ago to see a skateboarding competition and rock concert there. However, using the space alternatively for a public market on property that otherwise might go unused offers planning students an opportunity to think more creatively about how to address issues of job scarcity, blight, land use, and community-building, especially in areas that lack any space on which to develop new projects.

The Marketplace itself is surrounded by two colleges (one a city college, the other a private university) and a high school. It is in a primarily residential area (just slightly more rentals than homeowners) cut by two major roads that intersect nearby (see Figure 1). Demographically, according to the 2005-09 American Community Survey, the city is approximately 73% White and 34% Latino. Median household income, on average, is $62, 303 and over 80% of the population are high school graduates. These statistics are interesting to me because I have always assumed that marketplaces like this (which I’ve grown up referring to as swap meets or flea markets) are set up to serve poorer communities.

Not discounting my assumption, I feel that more research into this interesting finding regarding the income level of flea-market shoppers is worth delving into; a marketplace that caters to both underserved and well-off communities offers an opportunity to create a cohesive environment for the people who live in area, work in the venue, or who come to buy goods and tour the area.

Public Markets: Non-Economic Venues and Intangible Sources for Community Building

Back to my market trip: Upon entering the market, I experienced nostalgia of my youth, traveling with my parents out to the San Fernando Valley to sell goods every weekend. The fresh air that hit my face as I traveled down various aisles lined with independently-owned stalls was refreshing—it was a welcomed opportunity to get out of my house and do some much needed walking. The place was filled with both vendors and their hired assistants working hard to lure me in to buy whatever they sold.

I began to wonder why the use of outdoor public markets as a strategy is not more emphasized in planning and public policy research.  The lack of research on this topic is proving to be a barrier as I begin my master’s thesis research.  It is evident that there is a strong case to be made for bringing public markets to communities that are in desperate need of jobs, fresh produce, and low-priced services and goods. Furthermore, generating a diverse environment where groups from all ages and backgrounds can come together at a common site to have a good time and enjoy the space is also an asset that any city or local community would embrace (see Figure 2).

All of these qualities were evident to me as I passed fresh fruit vendors, clothing and shoe merchants, and even a couple of surprise vendors, including a semi-permanent stall (most of the vendors here have to tear-down at the end of the day) that sold modern mobile homes, which were fascinating to see and fun walk through in person (see Figure 3).

Public Markets: Non-Economic Venues and Intangible Sources for Community Building

Another thing that made the trip worthwhile was the chance to see a couple of free live shows that I was not expecting (see Figure 4). One was a musical performance by an acoustic musician who was rather good (although, embarrassingly at one point he forgot the lyrics to his own song!). The other was a wonderful vaudeville-like act by a street performer who put on a show imitating everything and everyone from American Idol auditions to Eddie Murphy, and even Cheech and Chong. There were fun slides, sandboxes, and Lego “imagination zones” for the children; parents could spend time with them there, or run errands.

Public Markets: Non-Economic Venues and Intangible Sources for Community Building

What I am most interested in is the benefits that a public market can bring to a community, within the marketplace as well as outside of it. In the case of the OC Market Place, there is evidence that non-profit organizations partner with market officials at the site to help raise money for their respective campaigns or causes. The space allocated at the venue is small but nevertheless present. When I went, a leukemia foundation was taking their turn using the space to sell the ice cream. Patrons, such as myself, get a delicious chocolate and almond-covered ice cream.  The proceeds go to the organization advertised on the storefront for that particular day (see Figure 5). It is estimated that over the course of a 12 hour day as much as $1000 can be garnered from these ice cream sales.

Notably, I found it telling when the non-profit organizer asked if I knew of other marketplaces that also did this type of activity.  I said that I had only just begun my studies and was not sure. The question that crossed my mind, however, was: How can other swap meets, flea markets, or public markets reach out to the community and help improve lives outside its boundaries? While the space provided at the OC was small, the larger take away for me was that the allocation of a designated place for non-profit groups helps to increase awareness and visibility for their issues. The strategy represents an innovative possibility in bringing resources (e.g. volunteers and funding) to the non-profits, and in educating the community about services that might otherwise go unnoticed.

OC Market Place, even with just providing a small-scale locale in the public market, deserves recognition for thinking big about community issues and the impact it can have in the broader community.  According to its website, the OC Market Place helped 44 non-profits raise a combined $49, 438 from this sharing of community space in 2009 alone.

As for myself, I am left to ponder where to take my research from here; it depends on whether my interests lie in keeping with this particular site and interviewing different organizations that have operated here, or visiting other public markets and seeing what strategies they have compared to OC and its community involvement.

Public Markets: Non-Economic Venues and Intangible Sources for Community Building

As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the venue was located next to the Centinela Farm (also on the same property as the OC Market Place). After I left the Market place, I walked into the farm, and to my surprise found that it housed animals of all different kinds: sheep, cows, pigs, and even a couple of llamas. In addition, the farm had an exhibit on all kinds of vegetables and fruit that visitors could see, thereby bringing people close to nature and showing how food looks before picked from the earth.

Although Centinela Farm is not directly tied to the OC Market Place, the strategic location of a market can have an impact on how people view themselves and their community. I had not been close to a cow or chicken since I was kid, nor had I ever seen how pineapple or cabbage grows up-close because I’ve lived in the an urban setting my whole life.  The educational placards around the site and the demonstration of cow milking added an extra layer of appreciation for the food and animals adjacent to the market.

Realistically, not all marketplaces are able to provide amenities such as a farm, but this example highlights an opportunity to dialogue about the vast opportunities marketplaces can offer urban planning students and experts. I see the role of market places as potential venues that do not require new development (i.e. building a shopping mall or community center, although I am not disregarding either) or about merely enticing people to buy and sell (and thereby invest solely in an economic sense back into a community).

Instead I envision marketplaces as venus that can offer something more holistically positive to an area.  In this case it was an opportunity for community organizations to come in and interact with members of their immediate area and from outside, or for vendors and clientele to take advantage of live entertainment and family fun. (i.e. the intangible assets which make a person want to keep coming back to a place for the experience itself). I especially think that these latter things are of great use in communities that lack access to these resources.

People who visit these venues can learn and grow as individuals and community-members. It is an experience often ignored at major shopping malls which are often more concerned with money-driven incentives rather than a community-building opportunity.

All in all, my experience both at the market and at the farm, make me want to go again, even if it is an hour away from home.

Public Markets: Non-Economic Venues and Intangible Sources for Community Building

This post is part of the Thesis Chronicles series.

2 responses to “Public Markets: Non-Economic Venues and Intangible Sources for Community Building”

  1. Lily Song says:

    Jeffrey, thanks for sharing your observations and insights! Your descriptions make me want to hop in the car and drive there tomorrow (since I happen to be in LA at the moment).

  2. Gayle says:

    Jeffrey, I’m so glad you are doing thesis research on the Marketplace. I look forward to hearing more about the potential to replicate such a place in other cities. I am also curious, although I am not sure if it falls within your realm of research, to hear if you think having a stand in a market like the one in Orange County is a good starting off point for a business owner. A stand is much less costly than renting a storefront and so could provide a good entrepreneurship stepping stone.