I’m reminded that sometimes life dishes up just the lesson we need – right when we need it – as an unplanned trip finds me in Adelaide Central Market on a hot early-summer afternoon.

From where I’m standing in this thriving retail ecosystem, without turning my head or making an effort, I can see stalls of Asian gourmet take away, organic fruit and veg, a chocolatier, specialist cheese, fish and seafood, and The Corner Deli with a sign that reads:
The Corner Deli: Hamcoffeebaconolivesdipssmokedsalmonvinegarscoffeehamcheesebreadoilseggs

The way the sign compresses its words together and establishes a rhythm with its intermittently bold text captures the energy of the place. It’s busy; people of all ages, origins and types are bustling with boxes and bags of produce, moving simultaneously all directions. As cities go, Adelaide is pretty low density, but in here density is amplified, in the way markets have intensified the human experience for centuries.

My unexpected visit comes at an appropriate time. In the last month I’ve spoken at two urban design conferences, one in Melbourne and one in Brisbane. My talk’s been about the kind of cities we’re making:  the culture, authenticity, identity and sense of place we create in our urban environments.

Here in Adelaide I’ve stumbled into a perfect example that grounds that subject matter in a local place and context. Decades of history accumulated from the market’s opening in 1869 give rise to character that creates authentic identity.

Wandering from stall to stall it strikes me that there’s artistry here in the simple arrangement of produce. A pyramid of fine local cheeses that wouldn’t seem out of place in a showcase, a skillfully composed hang of cured meats, piles of coloured sweets.

Retail here requires real skill – it’s a craft. And its artisanal nature is a reminder of the value of local retailers in our urban environments – place-based traders who truly understand their customers, produce and supply chain.

This market hall is entirely made up of such retailers. That makes it something of an anomaly in our modern urban environments where corporate retail dominates – chains of same-same stores offering generic products irrespective of locality and its influence. Result – just as I’ve been saying at my urban design conferences: a homogeneity and sterility of our built environments that leads to cultural impoverishment.

There’s no sterility here in the market hall, rather the rich texture of cultural layers accreted over decades, though it does have what might readily be perceived as other problems. The lighting is dim, the floor uneven­– its unmatched surfaces slippery with dropped food. Steps vary in size. Obstacles leak out of every stall onto the ground plane, trip hazards abound. Injurious metal trolleys stand in the aisles waiting to be loaded.

It’s surprising to see. We live in a time and place in which the dominant paradigm urges us to straighten these places out. Make them safe and compliant. Then reinterpret them in an imagined fantasy of how we think they should be. So we level and remake the floor with tasteful but generic pavers. Standardise the signage with an olde-worlde script and a palette of heritage colours. Dress the staff in uniforms and introduce a tidy modular layout.

Adelaide’s Central Market is a living reminder of the cultural value of leaving the simple things around us as they are. It’s a gift that these markets have been left alone without the intervention of our over-active imaginations reinterpreting them. It behooves us to remember that for all the brilliance of our imaginations, when we deploy them on places like this more often than not the result is an ironic homogenisation of the glorious diversity that existed in the first place. This happens over and over again in the development of our built environments – what we’re great at is making places of sterility.

Where I’m standing observing the tide of human life around me is a place where, to quote my friend Sydney artist Gary Deirmendjian, culture has festered. We’ve talked a lot about that word and its implication that cultures require time to develop, a period where things bubble away before revealing the glorious diversity of life – in all its messiness and majesty. These markets embody that principle.

And they work. Through the chaos step immaculately dressed women in their twenties, made up and high heeled, as sweaty, middle aged men of expanded girth tromp about in singlets and workboots. Young parents watch their children running ahead, losing themselves around stall corners where elderly shopkeepers with leather aprons and watchful eyes rub shoulders in their work with T-shirted youngsters who might be university students but seem as integrated into the market ecosystem as anyone else. And everyone working here, young and old, seems to talk with their customers in ways that entirely transcend the transactional.

These markets are a meeting place, a place of encounter, an exemplar of local economy. A place that concentrates the energy of a sometimes torpid city. Central Market is Adelaide at its most self – its best self. A place where contemporary cosmopolitan Adelaide exists on a framework built of the city’s cultural bones. And for all their lack of gloss and pretension, Central Market is Adelaide’s biggest attraction with a whopping eight million visitors a year.

So what’s the lesson? It’s that people come here because this is what we crave – true authenticity that is utterly of its place. In my work I develop contemporary ways to create cultural capital in new-build urban environments. We need to do that work to create beneficial cultural ecosystems in our future urban landscapes. But there are occasions when what we most need is already here, right in front of our eyes. When that is the case, our task is not to make something new but to leave well enough alone. What’s here in Adelaide couldn’t be manufactured and it can’t be replaced.

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