The aim of this project is to draw on local and international expertise to develop and disseminate new models and planning guidelines for 21st century municipal markets in Victoria.

  • Project dates: 2020 (ongoing)

This project has three key objectives:

  • To showcase the range of innovative approaches to embedding contemporary municipal markets within planning processes, including challenges, opportunities and lessons learnt
  • To provide the evidence base, design principles and technical guidance required to support municipal markets as part of the planning process for retail hierarchies and food distribution systems in Victoria
  • To identify and promulgate successful business models for municipal markets, covering both the relationship between market management and the administering authority, and that between market management and stall holders.


Municipal markets are an essential element of the food distribution network of established and greenfield communities. Publicly owned markets administered by local councils or not for profit trusts were once seen as essential economic and community infrastructure in the city building process. 

These municipal markets were an indispensable component of the food distribution systems of established and new communities alike.  Moreover, they were treated as a defining element in urbanism, alongside the civic precinct (town hall and courts), places of worship, and the network of ceremonial and recreational parks.  

While we treasure a handful of publicly owned markets as a legacy from past phases of city building, they have disappeared from our standard practices for planning new urban development. 

The prospective demise of municipal markets may be attributable to:

  • The loss of expertise in municipal administrations; the small pool of remaining markets means there is limited capacity to develop successful business models for these enterprises (which are challenging as they straddle the commercial and social policy domains)
  • A similar loss of expertise in the planning profession regarding how, when and where municipal markets might be justified (and viable) in the city building process 
  • The concurrent rise of corporatised food retailing (with two supermarket chains – Coles and Woolworths – holding two thirds of market share between them), ironically aided and abetted by the conventional town planning practice.


Diversity and resilience in urban development warrants greater attention to independent retailing and municipal markets in the planning process. To advance this agenda, better data is required on municipal market business models, to better inform how they can prosper in new urban developments.

We also need to better understand the wider economic, social and environmental benefits of markets, including their contributions to social capital, business formation and enhancement of the public domain. This will frame expectations for the commercial returns that might be expected from market operators. Given the value of collateral benefits generated by this infrastructure, it should not be expected to perform to the benchmarks that might apply to supermarket units.

Recognising that the planning system inevitably favours certain asset owners as a by-product of hierarchy-based activity centre strategies, it is also important to explore how some of this ‘planning gain’ can be tapped to support markets and independent retailing.

Research and Scope

The research will be based on extensive local and international case studies, but with an emphasis on distillation of principles applicable in the Australian planning and retail context. The research will also involve analysis of retail spending and turnover densities to define the viable role for markets across retail hierarchies. Specifically, the research will 

  • Define ‘municipal markets’ and their current and potential role in modern retail networks, in sustainable food systems, and as key elements of liveable communities
  • Identify a range of ownership and management models that can be applied to municipal markets
  • Generate criteria and tests by which the owners of municipal markets might identify the business model best suited to them
  • Produce practical guidelines to enable town planners in both the public and private sectors to identify and provide for the appropriate quantity and distribution of municipal market stall space at the regional, district and local levels
  • Produce foundation principles for architectural and urban design to support successful municipal markets of various types.

Outputs and Impact

The research will produce a principles and guidelines ‘manual’ pitched at practitioners in local government and their specialist advisers. The research content would also be amenable to publications pitched at a broader readership, to help build the constituency for municipal markets. The research will contribute to filling a significant knowledge gap in the academic literature on planning, managing and evaluating local community infrastructure. The project will advocate for the important role of 21st municipal markets driven by the following four principles:

  1. Municipal markets can counteract obesogenic and environmentally unsustainable food distribution systems. They expand the availability of fresh, local food, and provide opportunities to reduce food waste through adopting circular economy principles.
  2. The demotion of independent retailing and municipal markets in retail planning models implies foregone community value. Independent retailers and markets are generators of social capital. They foster interpersonal relationships and community networks in ways that supermarkets cannot emulate, notwithstanding their importation of the motifs of traditional markets.
  3. Independent retailers and municipal markets perform a vital business incubation function that cannot be replicated within corporatized big box retailing. Markets, for example, offer a low entry barrier for the testing of new retail concepts and services.
  4. Independent retailers and municipal markets contribute to the public realm in ways that are beyond the reach of corporatised forms of retailing. This is because they are of the public domain, relying on infrastructure and assets that are owned and operated by community institutions.

Project Funding

The project has been initiated through a partnership between RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research and SGS Economics and Planning Pty Ltd. We invite other organisations to join the project consortium. The project will initially be funded through partner contributions, with a view to securing additional funding through application to the Australian Research Council’s Linkage scheme.

Key People

Associate Director & Deputies

Ian McShane

Ian McShane

Associate Professor

Wendy Steele

Wendy Steele

Convener of Critical Urban Governance Program

Planning for the 21st Century Municipal Markets in Victoria

Fiona Whitworth

Independent Consultant working in partnership with SGS Economics & Planning

Planning for the 21st Century Municipal Markets in Victoria

Dr Marcus Spiller

Director, SGS Economics and Planning, PIA Life member