Published on May 30, 2023

Public markets: The heartbeat of our cities

Learn more about benefits of public markets, what it takes to become a Market City and the 11th International Public Markets Conference.

They’re at the heart of bustling city life. Public markets around the world are vital to many communities as they’re places where people can access fresh and healthy food, connect with their community and support the local economy.


There are many different types of public markets, including farmers markets, flea markets, prepared food markets, artisan markets, open-air markets, covered markets and permanent market halls. But the one driving factor that connects all public markets is their role in creating thriving, connected cities.


We spoke with Chantal Stepa, Evergreen Farmers Market Manager and Marina Queirolo, Founder of marketcity TO, to learn more about public markets and Market Cities.


Benefits of public markets


Saturday Farmers MarketPhoto by: Al Yoshiki


They bring people together


For centuries, people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses have come together at public markets to share in experiences of food, shopping and conversation. They’re places that enable a daily, weekly or monthly ritual of connection for many people.


“Farmers markets are a gathering space and a place where people feel a sense of belonging. Food has this way of bringing people together because it’s a necessity in our lives. Also, many farmers markets tend to create programming around the needs of their communities. For example, they bring in musicians and have kids activities. These markets end up being little social hubs for the community,” says Chantal Stepa, Evergreen’s Farmers Market Manager.


They provide economic opportunities


Public markets are the backbone of many local economies. They are a mechanism for small and medium sized businesses to enter the marketplace, as it’s relatively inexpensive to operate a stall at a market in comparison to a stand-alone store. They also provide opportunities for local businesses to test out their products and get direct feedback from customers before expanding to permanent retail.


Markets are places where people can come together to support many local businesses in one location, thus promoting community economic development by keeping money in the local neighbourhood.



“When speaking about the Saturday Farmers Market, one of our farmers said that there’s nowhere else in the city where you can rent a stall for less than $100 a day. So, it really makes it accessible.”

– Chantal Stepa, Evergreen’s Farmers Market Manager



They provide access to healthy food


Farmers markets play a key role in improving people’s access to fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re places where nutritious, healthy food is put front and centre, creating a shopping environment where these types of food are affordable and accessible. Farmers markets are also great at connecting regional growers and food artisans to their customer base, as most people live in urban areas whereas agriculture takes places in rural areas. This allows consumers to learn more about where their food comes from and how it is grown.


Market Cities


Marina Queirolo at a public marketPhoto by: Project for Public Spaces


We chatted with Marina Queirolo about Market Cities and the 11th International Public Markets Conference in June this year.


What are Market Cities?


Market Cities are places with strong networks that allow for the distribution of healthy, locally produced food and other goods to consumers. The Market Cities Program aims to advance public market systems by creating infrastructure, policies and investments in public markets at the citywide, regional or national level.


It’s important that cities move away from thinking of public markets as individual places but rather a connected network of people (social infrastructure) and places (physical infrastructure) that can help advance city priorities. An example of this are pilot projects like the one that the Evergreen Farmers Market and Withrow Park Farmers Market are doing to reduce single-use plastics their markets. These types of projects can be scaled across other farmers markets in the region. Through a network approach we can see how place-based innovations can be adapted to other public markets, avoiding costly duplication, maximizing resources, and increasing impact.


In Toronto, we tend to see public markets operating independently, activating their own spaces and are usually led by community champions doing great things on their own. Imagine the power that markets in the city could have if they all came together. That’s why I founded marketcity TO. Our goal is to create projects that allow market managers to work together and collaborate with vendors, researchers and city staff to strengthen Toronto public markets.


Can you give an example of a Market City?


Barcelona is a perfect example of a Market City. Barcelona has 47 neighbourhoods and 43 public markets. Their policies embed markets as part of the municipal infrastructure. When the city was planned in the 19th century, they considered markets in the same way that they considered schools, health centres and libraries. For example, Barcelona has policies that limit square footage of large grocery chains in the downtown as a way to protect family-operated businesses.


Many people are familiar with the term ’15-minute cities’. Barcelona is a 10-minute city, with policies that ensure that residents do not have to walk more than 10 minutes to access fresh food. So, the question is, how can we build something similar in Toronto?


How can Toronto become a Market City?


The first step is to make them visible. Not many people know that Toronto has 105 food markers and 20 non-food markets. Also, education about the role of markets must improve. We need to transition from thinking of markets as special events and instead as important forms of retail. It’s important for the city to have a Public Market Strategy and organizations like marketcity TO that help to implement it. These types of strategies exist around the world — Barcelona has Mercats Barcelona and London has the London Market Board.


Through the 11th International Public Markets Conference, we have been working with more than 30 partners to build momentum towards Toronto becoming a Market City.



The 11th International Public Markets Conference brings together public market leaders and advocates from around the world to explore the cutting edge of market practice. This three-day event takes place on June 8-10, 2023, and includes a series of breakout sessions, mobile workshops and tours that aim to help unlock the potential of market systems as equitable sources of well-being and opportunity in Toronto.

Can you tell us about the 11th International Public Markets Conference?


It’s a super exciting three-day event with three main programmatic areas:


  1. Breakout sessions: We have an exciting line-up of speakers from all over the world including Italy, Uganda, Hong Kong, Australia, Peru, Brazil, the United States and Canada. The breakout sessions are going to be a great international learning opportunity and a place to talk about public markets with people from around the world.
  2. Mobile Workshops: There are 12 mobile workshops happening across the city led by local partners, ranging from important topics like waste management to food insecurity to alternative modes of selling. Many of the issues raised in these workshops will then be used after the conference to develop networks and build better policies.
  3. Tours: There will be seven tours that include stops at more than 25 markets, urban farms, and examples of retail innovations from across the city. We’re excited for people coming from abroad to see different public market models in action and take inspiration back with them when they return home. Attendees can take a tour of the Saturday Farmers Market at Evergreen Brick Works on June 10.


The Saturday Famers Market Photo by: Nathan Zhu


During the conference, Evergreen and Withrow Park Farmers’ Market will be delivering a workshop on ‘Setting a New Table With Reusables: Grassroots Action to Reduce Waste at Farmers Markets’. The aim of the workshop is to show how public markets can effectively reduce their waste. It will look at waste management through three different lenses:


  • Firstly, the workshop will run through the various waste reduction systems currently in place at these two markets, thus demonstrating how market organizers can implement similar systems at their own markets. Evergreen will share the results of a recently conducted waste audit which identified common sources of waste. Muuse will also speak about their model for reusables at the Saturday Farmers Market.
  • ChocoSol Traders and Bruized., vendors at the Saturday Farmers Market at Evergreen Brick Works, will present on how their businesses actively aim to eliminate food waste by incorporating ‘imperfect food’ into their products.
  • Alchemy Pickle Company will speak about circular packaging. They have a successful bottle return program at the Saturday Farmers Market. “They have a bin next to their booth and every week they’re leaving with three or four full bins.” – Chantal Stepa, Evergreen’s Farmers Market Manager


Public markets operate most successfully when they work together and are supported through public policy, programs and investment. Implementing strategies that build momentum towards Toronto becoming a Market City, help to increase support for existing markets and develop new markets in neighbourhoods that need them.