Reclaiming the Historic Market Square

The restaurant industry is big, particularly in the growing cities of the Triangle region. Unfortunately, restaurant rents in a city like Raleigh are relatively high compared to a decade ago and continue to rise at a fast pace [1]. This creates a disparity in the types of food entrepreneurs that have the ability to enter the market. Typically, only those who have more prominence at the national level are the ones who have the greater financial means to enter the restaurant market in urban areas. Luckily, another option is emerging. City street markets provide a more affordable opportunity and eliminate or reduce this barrier to entry. As a result, food entrepreneur start-ups are able to sell fresh, unique, and affordable food items. 

On the consumer side, these markets add diversity to the palate of restaurants that people will now be exposed to. They also provide a more economically feasible option for brunching and dining in downtown areas. People have the option to engage with these spaces in a way that they are no longer used to. Contemporary city street markets offer a plethora of food items and build community at the same time. This is an environment similar to that which the historic market square offered, which is why the city street market trend has the potential to re-establish the refreshing public space once provided by historic market squares.

Street food markets are becoming a prominent occurrence all over the United States. One can already find them in Los Angeles, Portland, and Denver, and soon they will be here in the Triangle as well [2]. Two locations are scheduled to open in Raleigh and one in Chapel Hill, both coming in the near future. Consequently, it is natural to explore how street food markets in general, and the ones entering our backyard in particular, have the potential, to evoke the market squares that existed in medieval Europe and historic New England towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Proposed Morgan Street Food and Hall Market, located on 411 West Morgan St., Raleigh, NC. Source: WRAL

On the Vendor Side:

Street Markets allow vendors at various stages of their entrepreneurial careers to enter the food market. These street food market locations will remove several significant barriers to entry of the food industry, some of which are acquiring large-scale kitchen appliances and high rental costs. The Morgan Street Food Hall, which is one of the markets opening in Raleigh, seeks to help food entrepreneurs overcome these barriers. It will provide shared kitchen spaces at a more affordable rate and lease vendor spaces for shorter terms, so that entrepreneurs have more flexibility when it comes to these larger expenditures [1]. These financial incentives are already attracting many vendors to the market space and will ultimately allow the downtown space to meet a greater amount of needs in one place. Similar to a historic market square, contemporary street food markets have the potential to be magnet for vendors and shoppers to come together and enjoy unique food options at a reasonable cost.


On the Consumer Side:

In historic towns, one of the key features of market squares was the great variety of choices that people had access to when they arrived at the market, as well as the lively rustling about to get through all of them. This was a dynamic environment to engage in. Individuals could purchase their meat, grains, and vegetables (much of which was locally sourced) all in one place. Most people needed these necessary items to be close to them and centrally located given that their only option was to walk to the market. Hence, accessibility and centrality were other key elements of the historic market square [4].

In contemporary markets, many of the same elements to hold. People want access to affordable and more centrally located local food, which yields a healthier lifestyle and lower transportation costs. Many people living in cities today hold proximity in high regard, particularly as it relates to interesting and interactive spaces, to food, and to work [5]. Contemporary street food markets can become one more feature that people value and want to be close to. They have the potential to offer people a reduced need to travel outside of the city for groceries or to have a meaningful culinary experience. People living and working in the Raleigh and Chapel Hill will have this kind of space available to them, a space that is very similar to historic market squares, in terms of accessibility and choice availability. For example, the Blue Dogwood Public Market coming to Chapel Hill, will offer a butcher shop, wine and beer, coffee, a bakery, and a community-centric atmosphere.

DeKald Market Hall in downtown Brooklyn which opened in June 2017. Source: Eater

A Community Comes Together  

Historic market squares were a place for people to interact, converse, or catch up on the latest occurrences of the town. Now, people stay up to date through social media, interact via messaging platforms, and interact less and less. Contemporary street food markets are creating spaces for people to come together as a community, both intentionally and through chance encounters. This is why they have the potential to reclaim a small, but public, portion of the city, which once belonged to the historic public market square.


Feature Image: Eataly Boston Market boasts a great variety of produce and other food items. Source: Boston Living on The Cheap

[1] Weigl, Andrea, “Food entrepreneurs have more options with 3 food halls, markets brewing in Triangle.” The News and Observer, (6 October 2016),

[2] Filloon, Whitney, “13 Food Halls That Prove This Trend’s Not Dead Yet.” Eater, (30 August 2017),

[3] Grabar, Henry, “Artisanal Tacos on Paper Plates.” Slate, (7 July 2017)

[4] Tangires, Helen, “Public Markets and the City: A Historical Perspective.” Project For Public Spaces, (30 October 2005)

[5] Myers, Dowell and Gearin, Elizabeth, “Current preferences and future demand for denser residential environments.” Housing Policy Debate, (31 March 2010)

Author: Kathia Toledo is a candidate for the master’s in City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, she is pursuing the Land Use and Environmental Planning Specialization. Kathia is particularly interested in the dynamic between varying urban landscapes, sustainability, and planning. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a Bachelors of Arts in Geography and Environmental Studies and a minor in Urban Planning. Her hobbies include creative endeavors like urban sketching and photography, biking on the American Tobacco Trail, and exploring new cities and towns.