15th May 2012

Street Markets: the forgotten sites of commerce, innovation and connection

There has been a growing interest over several years in street markets as sites of consumption, innovation and sociality. The heterogeneity of markets, in terms of the objects contained within them and their materiality as sites and spaces of trading, produce multiple and heterogeneous publics and social and economic networks across the globe. Though these sites of consumption exist in most cities, in many cases central to their inception and subsequent growth, they remain remarkably under researched and hidden from view. Yet for many more marginalized citizens in the global city they remain a crucial site of consumption, and for many migrants, in particular, they constitute a key site for employment, connection and mutual exchange- both economic and social.

Much of my own research in recent years has focused on street markets as sites of sociality and the making of diverse publics (Watson, 2006, 2009) feeding also into a Department of Communities and Local Government inquiry into the survival of traditional retail street markets where I acted as special adviser. The final report argued for the centrality of markets in British cities as sites of trade, social innovation, urban regeneration, healthy eating, environmental sustainability and social interaction (DCLG, 2009). The government response to the report – to our surprise waxed lyrical, with the then minister claiming markets’ potential as a ‘meeting place and a focal point for local people, a place where different communities can come together for a common purpose. As such, markets have a role to play in helping to build the ‘Big Society’– bringing people and communities together, and acting as a ‘community builder’ that initiates civic pride and somewhere to meet and learn about new cultures. Markets are also centres of enterprise, they can support the local economy; they offer access to cheap and healthy food; they can act as important cultural and tourist attractions; and they can support action that benefits the environment.’ Subsequent government policy has done little since to reinforce these noble sentiments on the ground.

Four Tigers market, Budapest

The research has most recently focused on street markets in Vienna and Budapest as locales of economic activity in migration contexts in a collaboration with colleagues at the Vienna University of Technology (Knierbein, Aigner, and Watson 2012). One of the markets in the study was ‘The Four Tigers Market’ in Budapest which was found to be of huge economic social and cultural significance to one of the largest Chinese communities in Europe. Since the visa requirements between Hungary and China were eased in 1988, Chinese immigrants flocked to Hungary for the following five years. This migration phase was accompanied by cross-border trade in goods such as textile products, initially along the Trans-Siberian railway, and later shipped in containers, changing the trading patterns of Chinese imports into Central and Eastern Europe (Szalai 2010). The market is a vast complex of shipping containers, barracks and warehouses in the 8th District of the city, where hundreds of families are engaged in the daily wholesale and retail business offering consumers cheap goods from clothing to electronics. The Four Tigers Market represents a key place for interaction and the livelihood of many Chinese immigrants, although its popularity has waned over the past five years. In global cities migrants typically rely on existing social and ethnic networks in the country of arrival, and street markets, like the Four Tigers, represent an initial site of economic opportunity, where language and other barriers limit entry into mainstream economic life. There are many such examples in cities across the world.


House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee 2009 “Market Failure? – Can the traditional markets survive?” House of Commons. DCLG.

Knierbein, S, Aigner, J and Watson, S 2012, Street markets in Vienna and Budapest economic (inter)action spheres for migrants (in German: Straßenmärkte in Wien und Budapest als Schauplätze des Wirtschaftens in Migrationskontexten), in Dabringer, M. and Trupp, A. (eds.), Wirtschaften mit Migrationshintergrund. Zur soziokulturellen Bedeutung ethnischer Ökonomien in urbanen Räumen, StudienVerlag 2012

Szalai, Anna. HUNGARY Chinese keep to themselves in Budapest. In: Presseurop April 2010. Online verfügbar unter: http://www.presseurop.eu/en/content/article/243221-chinese-keep-themselves-budapest (Letzter Zugriff am 14.10.2011).‬

Watson, S . 2006 Markets as Sites of Social Interaction: Spaces of Diversity, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Policy Press.

Watson, S. 2009 The Magic of the Market Place: Sociality in a neglected public space Urban Studies, Vol. 46, No. 8, 1577-1591.


Photo by N Stjerna, used under a Creative Commons license.