Thursday, May 29, 2014

Farmers Markets As Social Spaces

The first farmers markets of the season are just around the corner! The Wednesday Downtown Farmers and Artisans Market is opening in less than a week, with the Crescent City Farmers Market opening a few days later. It's time to get your veggies on! 

It's also time to dust off your market basket and visit with old friends because farmers markets are great "third places" in many communities, including ours. The concept of third places -- social spaces that are not work and not home -- was popularized by Ray Oldenburg in his book, The Great Good Place, in the late 1980s. Third places allow people to socialize with a cross-section of community in ways that are not bound by neighborhood or profession.

Farmers markets highlight many of the features of a classic third place:

  • They are neutral ground. Nobody is required to be there (except the vendors) and it is free to enter.
  • All members of a community can participate; third places often act as levelers, minimizing class barriers.
  • Conversation is a major activity. If you look around a farmers market, you'll see conversations everywhere. People who rarely see each other or see each other only in formal settings, are able to chat, share recipes, catch up on grown children, or make plans for seeing each other again.
  • They are accessible and accommodating. Farmers markets are often centrally located so that people can reach them easily and even walk or bike to them. 
  • There are regulars and anyone can become a regular. If you are yourself a regular at the farmers market, you know that there are people you can count on seeing. Some of them are the vendors, but others are people you see at the market week in and week out.
  • Third places are typically low key. They are wholesome and welcoming to all walks of life. You see young families, single adults, older couples...everyone can come to the market.
  • Farmers markets are cheerful or playful, like other third places. Even though business is being transacted, it feels happier and less stressful than other errands and shopping trips. Vendors and customers build relationships.
  • Third places become a home away from home. People look forward to returning and feel a sense of belonging and ownership. 
Third places are important centers for community life. At home, you see your family and immediate neighbors. At work, you interact with colleagues. In third places, you might see people from both home and work, but you also see parents of your children's friends, or their teachers; you see people from a job you left three years ago; you see friends from church or synagogue; you see the actors from the most recent local play; and you see people you recognize as your restaurant servers, supermarket checker, bank teller, and more.

Third places let us mingle and see our commonalities, while our immediate neighborhoods and work settings often divide us by economic class, race or ethnicity, and history.

I am definitely looking forward to buying fresh, local produce when the markets open next week. But I am equally excited to see the vendors again, to share recipes with people buying the same things I am buying, and to have a few minutes with a lot of great people I rarely see in my day to day life.


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