Have You Been to the Public Market?

Jan 20, 2016

The term ‘public market’ means different things to different people. Regionally, a flea market, fish market, craft market or farmers market might seem synonymous with public market, but in Baltimore, MD, it has a very specific meaning. Public markets are true to their name, more than most. Baltimore public markets, owned by the city, are the oldest continuously operating public market system in the US. A few decades ago the city found the markets floundering and in 1995 they decided to try a new model of management. The city supported the formation of a nonprofit, Baltimore Public Markets Corporation,a not uncommon model in Baltimore, that would be solely tasked with management of the public markets in the public interest.

Baltimore public markets are a cultural landmark to be proud of in a country where gratuitous public services and spaces are harder and harder to come by, but the markets have suffered through the transition from a local economy to a global one. The markets originally served as distribution centers for produce, meat and seafood as it rolled in from the farmlands or floated in from the harbor. It was a hub for food and commerce in a new urban lifestyle.

Over the last seventy five years, supermarkets have solidified their position in the urban and suburban landscape, cars have become a ubiquitous mode of transportation, refrigeration is a given and fresh produce has been engineered to stay fresh much longer. This is not a new story. But as urban localism is arriving in our city centers, new concepts for local and fresh goods are popping up and filling the void the Baltimore Public Markets left behind.

Today, the public markets are a shell of their former self. Five of the eleven markets remain. While each caters to a unique neighborhood, they all rely on cheap prepared food as their main draw and it isn’t bringing in enough people.

Two weeks ago A couple of months ago, the students in MICA’s Social Design MA program got a crash course in design research through an intense weekend with Baltimore Public Markets and Greater Good Studio’s founder, George Aye.

An intro to design research

George taught us the principles of human-centered design and design research and reinforced it’s value. A design process that starts with research (and I would argue, any design process) is a series of moments of divergence and convergence.

He suggests looking for brightspots: people who are making the system work, systems that have been designed to excel, spaces that work better than intended. And look for workarounds: MacGyvered solutions that address a symptom of a broken tool, a sloppy system or a fractured relationship.

Design research, unlike market research, operates under the theory that if you design for the edge cases, for extreme users and extreme circumstances, you’ll capture everyone in between. Market research leaves those people out of the equation and designs for an average.

With a quick introduction to observational research and man-on-the street style interviews, we hit the streets of Fells Point to begin our rapid-fire weekend design project to address the question, “How might we achieve critical mass at the Broadway Market so that all the players show up and play their part?”

Design research in application

In a very fast 48 hours, our process looked like this: We conducted a series of rapid man-on-the street interviews, transferred our notes to sticky notes and built an affinity diagram, labeling our themes with active phrases that began with gerunds (I had no idea either…). With each of those themes we included imagery taken at the market and gathered from the internet to remind us of the meaning and context.

From our now organized research, we formed carefully constructed insights. These were crafted to be pithy, poignant, probably a bit corny, but definitely meant to inspire an ‘ah hah’. And from there, we brainstormed ‘How might we…’ statements that acted as fodder for a rapid fire brainstorm session at the end of the first day.

Earlier in the day we had broken into teams to conduct our research, but after presenting the results, we conducted a group brainstorming activity, a technique that we’ve since applied to more projects. The goal is to get as many ideas out on the table, unhindered by pragmatism. Each ‘How might we…’ is given 3-5 minutes of time. Each participant is given a stack of paper and a sharpie marker. The rules are: there are no bad ideas, draw your idea, label your idea, hold up for the group to see, say what it is and repeat. The time constraint and the blunt markers creates a space that rewards quick whit and half formed ideas and dismisses criticism. More is better, for now.

The results

The result was hundreds of ideas for a market that might satisfy more of the needs of more types of people that circulate through and around the market. After dot voting to identify the most powerful ideas, we broke back into our irginal teams. We had only a few hours to realize those ideas into low fidelity prototypes. While we were working directly with the manager and executive director of the Baltimore Public Markets, there was no budget or official commitment to implementing these ideas, so we dreamed up blue sky visions for a more inclusive, community centered market.

These ideas included public spaces to encourage engagement from the community, structures that invite people to see what’s going on inside and participate from the outside, a seed to soil urban garden system that evolves in purpose as you move from block to block and season to season and participatory sculptural elements that honor the geography and history of the markets location.

My team took on the idea of creating a market for tourists and locals while addressing issues of housing instability. The roof overhang of the current market structure serves as shelter for people experiencing homelessness. This is seen as a concern by some, but is clearly serving as a workaround for people that don’t have a better option. Our concept experimented with developing a micro hotel on an envisioned second floor of a currently empty second building. We imagined rooms that were kept as small as possible to keep costs very low. These rooms might appeal to night-away Baltimore residents, bar-goers, or the housing unstable. Each room would have the bare minimum in furniture and would share restroom facilities. The main amenity would be access to the market and the community, directly below the hotel.

In this space, we design a community kitchen that would reserve access for hotel patrons and would focus on hosting community events and renting to community members. On the other side of the building, we envision a market stationed with separate vendors that cover the gamut of typical grocery store resources.

The current building would be reconfigured to optimize space and make room for more vendors, with vendors space now facing outwards toward retractible glass walls that invite walkers-by to engage with what is currently seen as a bunker.