By Sonia Elks
LONDON - From Moscow to New York, street markets around the world are finding new fans as urban dwellers look for a deeper connection to their food and local communities, market managers, property developers and tourism bosses said on Thursday.
Shoppers are being drawn in with foodie experiences such as the chance to sample locally foraged mushrooms in the Latvian capital Riga, or chat with the farmer who grew the vegetables on sale in Detroit, heard an international conference in London.
"There are different places, different customs, but at the end of the day everyone wants to eat," said Andrea Rasca, founder of London street food market Mercato Metropolitano.
"Markets reconnect the rural economy to the city: in a market you get in touch with the people who are producing their own stuff."
Street markets have existed for centuries, often offering basic household goods, ingredients and meals at low prices.
In the United States, farmers' markets have almost doubled to some 8,700 in a decade, government data shows, while the turnover of Britain's 1,200-odd markets grew to 3.1 billion pounds last year, industry body Mission for Markets said.
But today's consumers want more than just their next meal, said speakers and attendees at the International Public Markets Conference.
"A grocer's store isn't an interactive experience," said Laura Green Gillis of the Michigan Farmers Market Association, which supports U.S. farmers' markets and promotes local food.
"People are more interested in local food which involves connecting farmers and growers with suburban or urban people," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Markets also help to create a neighbourhood identity, said Richard Upton, chief development officer at British property developer U+I, which focuses on regenerating urban spaces.
Markets "carry memories and associations" for people living around them, he said, unlike supermarkets, which he described as "non-places" where all sense of location is stripped away.
Market leaders said offering traditional local produce that is not available in supermarkets and organising cultural events, like music mini-festivals, helped to reinvigorate formerly neglected market spaces.
However, street market operators said stalls were also under pressure to cut prices as they are still seen as a relatively cheap option, even if they offer a gourmet experience.
"It has to have quality and value for money at its heart - otherwise the danger is it is just a fad," said Stephen Fallows, a tourism expert with Faisca Turismo Consulting firm in Spain.