5 min read

Food Markets and Our Well-Being

Food Markets and Our Well-Being
Photo by Adli Wahid / Unsplash

Food markets are a key indicator of healthy cities. The more outdoor markets bursting with fresh, healthy food and buzzing with life, the higher the well-being indicator of that city. Besides the health benefits of buying fresh and local food, markets act also as a social glue, connecting people, cultures, and traditions, thus making us feel more connected to our cities.

Access to safe and nutritious food is essential for life and is indeed the foundation for health. The food market often serves as the commercial and social centre of communities, reflecting local culture and traditions of the people.

- World Health Organisation, A Guide to Healthy Food Markets

On a personal note, food markets are my happy place. And I believe that the sensorial aspect plays an important role: the abundance of colours, smells, noises, and movement. Moreover, I always found walking through them as an act of self-care: buying healthy food and taking things slowly. My main joy is walking around the market first, to take a quick look at everything, then I buy my weekly "essentials" (Kalamata olives, feta cheese, homemade hummus, spinach börek, fruits, and herbs), followed by some freshly prepared cappuccino to-go, and a second stroll around the market to see if I missed something (which almost always ends up in buying flowers).

However, not all outdoor food markets are created equal. All of them have the same things in common (selling fresh local produce and sometimes street food), but the most successful ones nourish more than just our bodies. The aesthetic-feel of their surroundings, the accessibility of the place, the proximity to cafés/bars/restaurants play an important role in how we perceive and connect with that space.

Berlin Frierichshain Food Market (Boxhagener Platz)

One of my most visited food markets so far is the Boxhagener Platz market in Berlin. In my time living in Berlin (2015-2020), I lost track of how many visits I paid to this market. I came across this place in the summer of 2016 when I started a summer student job in a shop vis-a-vis this place. My lunch time break would involve a quick stroll through the market, followed (usually) by buying some delicious pelmeni, and sometimes a good cup of cappuccino from Mokofuk. The market stroll was satisfying more than just my tastebuds or filling up my empty stomach. I was always energised and placed in a good mood when I saw people strolling, enjoying their Saturday with friends and family, walking their dogs, buying flowers, trying new foods, talking with the vendors.

To this day, I find this market (along with others that I visited in Provence, France and the Saturday market in Delft, The Netherlands) a successful attempt in combining commerce with urban well-being. And perhaps even beyond that: they are a promise that one can find pockets of stillness and joys in the hustle and bustle of everyday city life.

I listed below a few important factors that (if combined together) can create the joyous and feel-good atmosphere of an outdoor market. Cities have different ways of improving the well-being of their citizens, and I believe that designing and creating vibrant outdoor markets is a great first step.

  1. The Vegetable & Fruit Stands

my Delft market experience

A successful food market has an abundance of colourful fruit and vegetables stands, bursting in colours, aromas, and a diverse selection to choose from. Moreover, the quality of the products exceeds by far the quality of the supermarket options, mostly because of the emphasis on local and fresh fruits and vegetables, and homemade street food.

2. The Stories & The People

One thing that the supermarket experience doesn't offer is the direct connection with the person growing the food or having a direct link to the farm or person who baked that bread / grown that tomato / helped produce that cheese. The chit-chat happening whilst exchanging the product for money is also something that's quite a rarity in the supermarket environment. My best food market shopping experiences had a few moments of sharing stories and thoughts about food with the vendors.

3. The Location

Some of the most beautiful outdoor market that I visited were placed in the historical city center, usually in the town square, or on wide streets and boulevards. Proximity is important in terms of accessibility, and a central location ensures more visitors and customers. Moreover, if the location is central there is a certain rhythm and life added to the market, as customers visit the place out of curiosity, not only out of necessity or habit.

4. Mobility

Food Market in Rome (Credit: Mark Pecar)

Mobility is highly important in the process of making the food market accessible and available to everyone. By that I mean, proximity to public transport, and ensuring car-free public spaces, safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

5. Time

In Paris there are 64 marchés with different opening times. Some of them are open on Sunday, some during the week, but there is a routine and a known time and place for all of them. In The Hague, the city I live in, there are only around 8 food markets, the most well-known one being Haagse Market, but because it is not in the city center and it's quite far away from home, I haven't visited it yet.

The Haagse Market 

The only market that I visited a couple of times is placed in a welcoming public space, close to cafés, museums, restaurants, accesible in terms of walking or cycling: the weekly market taking place every Wednesday from 8 in the morning until 5 or 6 in the afternoon near Mauritshuis.

6. The Comfort of Rituals

I think the last key ingredient to any successful outdoor food market is the ritual. Happy customers return to the weekly market, establish close connections with the vendors, make more or less healthy food choices or are at least inspired by food, and are ultimately looking forward to this weekly ritual.

A Very Short Conclusion

My intention with this article was to bring into some sort of conversation the necessity of beautiful and accessible-for-all outdoor markets for the well-being of people and their cities. Markets are more than just commerce, they are the social glue of a city, and can become our weekly reminder to slow down and enjoy what life has to offer.