The function of food: designing the modern city market

2 February 2015 (Last Updated January 30th, 2020 09:34)

With urban populations expanding, city marketplaces could be the key to reinstating our connection with the food we eat. With accessibility and affordability high on the agenda and city planning issues throwing up challenges, what is the way forward for the city market of the 21st century?

The function of food: designing the modern city market

Market hall

According to the latest revision of the UN's 'World Urbanization Prospects' report published in July 2014, 54% of the world's current population lives in cities and the urban majority is set to grow to 66% by 2050, potentially adding 2.5 billion people to the global urban population over the next 35 years, while the rural equivalent is set to fall from 3.4 billion to 3.1 billion people in the same timeframe.

In short, the world is changing in a fundamental way and we must start working now to keep up with that change. "Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century," said UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division director John Wilmoth after the report's publication. "Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda."

Just below priorities like housing, healthcare and education, an important ongoing issue to address in our new urban world will be access to high-quality food, something that can suffer in the transition from rural communities to cities that might support ten million inhabitants or more. Densely packed urban populations can feel somewhat disconnected from their food supply, with the convenience of pre-packaged food often prioritised over fresh local produce, which can lead to nutritional problems in low-income districts.

This context emphasises the importance of affordable, accessible urban food markets, both as a source of fresh, healthy produce and as social hubs that help bind communities together. To fulfil the latter role - and to ensure that market spaces are enjoyable enough to attract a loyal base of local customers - smart design-build methods are important. Here we highlight four market designs from recent years that help identify some of the core design and construction trends for the modern market.

Market Hall, Rotterdam, Netherlands (MVRDV)

As cities become denser to cater to larger populations, new regulations are beginning to change the requirements for urban food markets. In the Netherlands, for example, new legislation requires meat and fish markets to include covered areas for hygiene reasons, effectively meaning that the time-honoured open-air food market is, strictly speaking, no longer a possibility in the country.



China's rapidly urbanising population has created a construction boom, with large-scale mixed-use schemes proving popular.


For the new Market Hall building in Rotterdam, which opened at the beginning of October 2014, Rotterdam-based architect MVRDV and engineering collaborator Inbo seamlessly complied with this regulation and other city planning requirements while creating a market scheme that is both aesthetically welcoming and impressively suited to high-density urban living.

The building, which has been nicknamed 'the Horseshoe' for its unique shape, features a central 100-stall marketplace in a mixed-use building that incorporates 228 apartments within its outer 'horseshoe'. The massive market is technically housed indoors but has the brightness of an open-air market thanks to the huge glass facades at either end of the building and the enormous mural of fruit and vegetables that covers its walls and ceiling, mixing the colour of a psychedelic album cover and the mind-boggling continuous scale of the Sistine Chapel.

The orientation of the integrated apartments has the kitchen and dining room windows facing inward, on to the market, and other rooms facing outward, ensuring that all rooms get enough daylight under EU and Dutch law. In conforming to strict regulations, Rotterdam-based MVRDV and its partners have laid out a new blueprint for a mixed-use inner-city marketplace that makes good use of space and places food at the heart of a community. It would not be at all surprising to see other forward-thinking cities, especially Asia's densely-packed new mega-cities, using it as a template for the future.

Leicester Market Food Hall, Leicester, UK (Greig & Stephenson)

Leicester Market, the largest outdoor covered market in Europe, has been an institution in Leicester for more than 700 years. Of course, for any site with that much heritage, updates and upgrades are required from time to time. A £7m redevelopment plan for the market was announced in 2012, and since then the project, designed by Greig & Stephenson, has embodied an important principle for redesigning marketplaces in busy city centre locations - staged implementation.

The project will eventually see the demolition of the 40-year-old indoor market hall, which has been described as "no longer fit for purpose", but when works have to be carried out amid business as usual (not to mention a tight financial environment), reconstruction projects can't do too much too soon. Before the market hall could be destroyed, a new food hall - a sleek add-on building featuring prominent timber and glass elements - was built to house meat, fish and cheese traders. The hall opened in May 2014, paving the way for the market hall to be demolished in 2015 so the rest of the project can move forward.

"Could the markets of the future blur the boundaries between production and consumption?"

"Leicester Market sits within a conservation area, surrounded by many attractive buildings, and it needs to capitalise on its location," said Greig & Stephenson director Nigel Stephenson, emphasising the difference good design can make to a market's success. "It's clear that Leicester Market has the potential to be a major attraction on the scale of Borough Market in London - and it could even replicate the success of food markets in places like Barcelona and Madrid."

Mobile Good Food Market, Toronto, Canada (LGA Architectural Partners)

As accessibility to sources of fresh and reasonably priced produce becomes an increasingly acute issue for isolated neighbourhoods, enterprising designers and city planners are starting to respond to the problem with innovative ideas. Pop-up markets have the potential to address accessibility issues as groups of stalls can be set up on a relatively informal basis in areas that wouldn't necessarily support a permanent market site. But pop-ups have, to some extent, been co-opted by trendy marketing and merchandising organisations, and are more likely to be found selling high-end trainers than affordable fruit and veg.

But some groups are taking the idea of the mobile market a step further with fresh food markets on wheels. In Toronto, for example, FoodShare Toronto collaborated with a number of public organisations to fund the Mobile Good Food Market - a donated TTC Wheel-Trans bus converted by LGA Architectural Partners and Crew Chief Conversion into a fully functional mobile fresh food market. This allows the vehicle to make stops around the various 'food deserts' in Toronto and give local people somewhere to shop for fresh greens on a regular basis. As LGA partner Dean Goodman told The Globe and Mail, smart design is key to the success of mobile food markets, which are starting to spring up across North America.

"The design also offered the opportunity to shop from the inside in inclement weather," Goodman said. "Good food is beautiful when displayed well, so when we decided we wanted this to be a feature we worked out the mechanism so one person could fold out the shelves, restock as necessary and display the food so it was attractive."

French Pavilion concept at Milan 2015 World's Expo (X-TU Architects)



Architects and designers are combining sustainability with innovation to create remarkable wooden structures.


Much has been said of the disconnection that modern urban living places between people and the food they eat. Clearly the marketplace has a role to play in reinstating that connection, but could the markets of the future blur the boundaries between production and consumption? According to French design studio X-TU Architects, they could.

In May 2014, the studio unveiled the design for the French pavilion at the upcoming Expo Milan 2015 universal exposition, the theme for which is 'feeding the planet, energy for life'. The pavilion design is inspired by, and takes the form of, a covered market made mostly of laminated wood, with airy entrances and enticing flows between inside and outside. The concept calls for an exhibition and market floor on the ground, with a restaurant on the top floor serving produce that is hydroponically cultivated on-site, within the façades and on the terraces of the building itself.

"On the façades we will grow hops, on the terrace aromatic herbs, and in the restaurant, vegetables to be eaten on the spot," said the architect. "Hydroponic production that depicts French innovation in partnership with the world leader of the sector...and at the end, there will be a great event for the harvesting of hops!"

The pavilion is clearly designed to promote France's architectural and agricultural expertise first and foremost, but it nevertheless presents a compelling vision for the future of large-scale city marketplaces, if such a radical blending of the food supply chain through design could be achieved in an urban environment.

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