A Conference and Three Markets

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Borough Market
The perilous cheese cliffs of Borough

I was at the Oxford Urban Food Security Forum conference yesterday, organised by a bunch of inspiring grad students from the University. Although there was the usual oddball conference mix of all kinds of different bits and pieces of research, a few themes stood out. Amongst these, the role of social status implications in the way people make food choices – something that was clear from studies both in the global North (‘developed world’) and South (‘developing world’).

I was particularly interested to hear a talk by Dr Susan Parham, Head of Urbanism at Hertfordshire University, who has been carrying out a study of three posh foodie markets in London – Exmouth, Borough and Broadway. I worked for a while next to Exmouth Market and enjoyed eating lunch from the food stalls, which are now flanked by quality restaurants like Moro, with even more new arrivals sandwiched down the various side-streets of Clerkenwell. But do these kinds of emergent ‘food quarters’ as Parham calls them (or foodie quarters?), really increase access to good food for all? It’s hard to imagine that the residents of some of the none-too-wealthy housing estates around Borough Market make regular forays on a Saturday morning to top up on premium parmigiano reggiano and hand-pressed tofu. And even if you want to do your regular grocery shopping, you have to first squeeze through hordes of tourists to get to the fruit and veg. But Parham’s research suggests it would be unwise to see the markets simply as playgrounds of the well-to-do; rather as varied spaces of conviviality that have the power to bring together people of all kinds of background. There’s a link through to her work here and see also this pdf.

Although I think there may be a touch of wishful thinking in Parham’s conclusions (just read James Meek’s LRB piece In Broadway Market), I like Parham’s optimism. It supports my own conviction that food, and growing food, is ultimately a force for social unity and that food markets and food gardens, done in the right way, can be powerful spaces for forming more integrated communities.

My other key discovery of the day was the Urban Sprawl Repair Kit, which should be applied immediately on the suburban fringes of most British cities.