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Could this market design be the future of social-distance food shopping?

A proposed design for outdoor markets in Rotterdam would keep people apart while they buy their groceries.

Could this market design be the future of social-distance food shopping?
[Image: courtesy Shift Architecture Urbanism]

Food shopping in the age of social distancing can be difficult. Even with restrictions on the number of customers allowed in at once, narrow grocery stores aisles can get crowded quickly. Outdoor produce markets have been considered even harder to regulate, so some municipalities have shuttered those altogether, pushing even more customers into stores. Dutch design firm Shift Architecture Urbanism has a solution with its design for hyperlocal micromarkets that make food shopping quick, accessible, and safe within the confines of social distancing.

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Shift architect Harm Timmermans says the idea came to him on the first day of the Dutch lockdown, when he noticed people weren’t able to keep 1.5 meters (just under 5 feet) apart while grocery shopping—the mandate from Netherlands officials during the coronavirus crisis. “At the same time the open-air markets in our city, Rotterdam, were shut down,” he says over email. “For me it was only logical that the open-air markets, which have much more potential to adapt to the new condition than the supermarkets, should stay open in a new, dispersed form.”

[Image: courtesy Shift Architecture Urbanism]

Shift’s design constructs a market as a 16-square grid, which is outlined onto pavement with tape and fenced off by barriers. On the sides of the grid are three market stalls, each selling different kinds of groceries, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products, or meat—sold as packages, rather than individual products, to make the shopping process faster. Each square within the grid is only meant to hold one person; to allow movement around the market, Shift says there shouldn’t be more than six people inside the grid at once. The market has one entrance but two exits, and a waiting line to get into the market is sectioned off with social-distance markers on which customers can stand 1.5 meters apart.

[Image: courtesy Shift Architecture Urbanism]
Currently, the city of Rotterdam is only allowing indoor markets to operate during the COVID-19 crisis, Timmermans says, “but [the municipality] doesn’t realize fully that confined spaces are not always designed to ensure 1.5 meter distancing.” Weekly or semiweekly outdoor markets, which sell both food and other goods, are a crucial part of the city, and the architects think they can also offer more space between customers. These markets can be pretty big, such as Rotterdam’s Binnenrotte Market—one of the largest outdoor markets in the Netherlands—which stretches 2.5 kilometers, with nearly 500 stalls.

By switching to smaller, hyperlocal markets such as Shift’s design, the firm hopes to make this food accessible to more people in need in a safer way. “Closing down the markets will put even more pressure on the supermarkets and will further disadvantage people with lower incomes,” Timmermans says. “Many households depend on the open-air market for their basic food needs. Closing the markets forces them to switch to the more expensive supermarkets, putting further financial pressure on these more vulnerable groups.” Shift proposes that these micromarkets be open five days a week, to further reduce crowds and reach more people.

[Image: courtesy Shift Architecture Urbanism]

This plan is a self-initiated research-by-design project. Timmermans says they wanted to get the idea out in public as quickly as possible to spark a conversation around food distribution during the coronavirus crisis and the role these open markets could play. “It seemed only natural to us that architects do get involved since the corona crises, and the ‘1.5-meter-society’ it results in, has such a huge spatial dimension,” he says.

Since they’ve publicized their design, the Shift team has heard “enthusiastic responses” from individual market traders and CVAH, the National Federation of Market Traders in the Netherlands, which endorsed the micromarket project on its website. “Their enthusiasm has proven to us that not only the typology of the market is very flexible, also the people that make them happen, the market traders, are,” Timmermans says. Unfortunately, policy-makers in charge of the markets, and public space in general, have been less flexible. “In Rotterdam for instance they stick with shutting down the municipal markets in any form,” he says. Shift is in touch with local politicians, he adds, and the proposal was mentioned during a recent City Council meeting.

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[Image: courtesy Shift Architecture Urbanism]

The current Netherlands COVID-19 response calls for a complete ban on gatherings in public spaces, which these markets would fall under, but Shift is still hopeful that this concept could benefit the public— even after the public gathering ban is lifted. “We hope our proposal for dispersing the market both in space and in time will get realized in one way or another in order to make the distribution of food during the corona crisis smarter. Whether it is exactly in the form of the micromarkets that we have proposed is not that important,” Timmermans says. “We also hope that our project helps, after the shutdown, to rethink the city and its public space in a 1.5 meter society in which most likely the notion of ‘local’ will play an important role.”

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