Markets as Social Spaces

This research project from 2006 explores the importance of markets as social spaces in towns and cities in the UK. In particular, the report explores the importance of markets for different groups in society, and the forms of interaction they provoke, using evidence gathered across eight market sites.

Date added 24 September 2021
Last updated 24 September 2021

*This resource is more than 5 years old but has been included as it contains information that is still relevant and useful*

For the purposes of this study, conducted in 2006, markets in six British towns and cities, and two further sites in London, were selected in order to explore the impact of different physical, economic and management factors on them as spaces of diversity and social interaction.

The localities were chosen to reflect potential differences between markets in rural areas, small towns and cities, as well as between different types of market. The sites also varied across socioeconomic and social / demographic indicators. The eight towns selected were as follows:

  • Ludlow
  • Rotherham
  • St Mary’s (St. Helens)
  • Lowestoft
  • Milton Keynes
  • Preston
  • Islington
  • Riley Road (Hackney)

Interviews with shoppers, traders and local officials (including town centre managers and council staff involved in managing local markets) were conducted in these sites, and in-depth observations were carried out (along with photographic records) in order to identify the crucial factors that affect the success of markets as social spaces. This locally based information was supplemented by in-depth interviews with key national informants on markets in Britain, including NABMA, NMTF and the London Farmers Association.


The findings indicated that markets are indeed important sites of social interaction for local communities. Although the markets in the study varied considerably in the level of social interaction, the strength of social ties, the level of social inclusion and the use of the market by different groups, in all the markets some degree of social interaction took place and, in most cases, respondents confirmed the significance of the market as a social space.

The report concluded that, for a market to function well as a social space, various factors were significant to different degrees. Essential attributes were as follows:

  • features to attract visitors to the site – including a diverse range of products that made a good ‘fit’ with local community needs and ‘tastes’, and a sense of surprise or the unexpected to provide interest;
  • opportunities to linger – café(s) or food van(s) on site or close by were key here – informal seating areas could also be important though less critical;
  • good access to the site – public transport was key but opportunities to come by car and access to parking were also important for some visitors;
  • an active and engaged community of traders – both to provide the retail offer but also to provide part of the social life of the site itself.

Other important, but less essential, attributes were as follows:

  • a well laid out site – with thought given to the layout of the stalls, linchpin stalls or features (the café often being one) and particular features such as roomy aisles for people to walk through easily, as well as protection from the weather in more open sites;
  • connection with other retail outlets – to ensure the market was embedded in the local retail offer;
  • effective management of the site – and a leadership role from councils to provide a strategic direction for the market.

The report concludes by underlining the potential role of markets to act as a significant site of social interaction for a community. Given the evident success of farmers’ and other specialist markets, both economically and as social spaces, the report argues that their provision in local areas should be encouraged. Most importantly, market provision in any one locality needs to fit with, and be responsive to, the surrounding community needs, socioeconomic and demographic profile, and local conditions.