A Tale of Two Cities? Reflections on Food Sources and the Friction of the Urban Experience

by Robert Kinlocke

Figure 1: Coronation Market

I have always preferred shopping at supermarkets for various reasons. They are more accessible because they are located in areas I traversed for most of my adult life. They also offer extensive selections of commodities, including many of the items I had seen advertised on cable television. Most importantly, they offer a comfortable shopping experience in a protected space, insulated from the perceived unpredictability of the urban environment in areas where supermarkets are not located. These are Figure 1: Location of supermarkets and produce markets in relation to poverty levels in Kingston, Jamaica

areas in the southern sections of the city of Kingston, Jamaica, where poverty and underdevelopment are rife. The conditions represent a stark contrast to the lifestyles of the urban middle class and elite who more commonly reside in Uptown, Kingston. Although the uptown-downtown dichotomy, may be an oversimplification of the socio-geographic structure of the city, it aptly captures the contrast in lifestyle and culture which ultimately has an effect on the spatial practices in the city. The preference for supermarkets amongst a large proportion of residents residing in Uptown Kingston, is one expression of the ways in which the geography of food access may be conditioned by multiple factors.

Figure 2: A typical supermarket located on the outskirts several middle and middle income neighbourhoods in Kingston

Although produce markets generally have a reputation of stocking cheaper goods including better quality produce with more negotiable pricing, the lure of cost savings was hardly enough to counter my concerns about the shopping experience in many of the produce markets, and especially the Coronation Market in Downtown, Kingston. The Coronation Market is the oldest and largest produce market in the English- speaking Caribbean and is an extremely important node in the rural and urban food system. The market was built over a century ago and is a hub where the formal and informal sectors converge through precariously organised relationships which have been sustained for decades. These relations are the primary engines driving value and commodity chains in the urban food system. But while most of the produce on plates in Kingston, may have at some point passed through the Coronation Market, many residents opt to source food in alternative spaces. Like many other urban residents, I have avoided the Coronation Market and other produce markets because of my heightened sensitivity to what I perceive to be an unpredictable urban space.

A 2014 report on The Guardian website identified the city of Kingston as one of the most violent cities on earth (Van Mead and Blason, 2014). There were 1,616 murders in Jamaica 2017 and many of these crimes occurred in Kingston. These high numbers, along with the pervasiveness of other forms of violent crime, consolidated the reputation of crime as an embedded feature of urban identity. Stories of crime in Downtown Kingston are common features of news reports and everyday discourse. Despite the fact, that I have never been victimised in this area, my perception of the potential risk has conditioned my avoidance behaviour. During a data collection exercise with the Hungry Cities Partnership in 2017, many of these fears were partially allayed as I became more comfortable navigating the space after repeated visits. I have however continued to shop in areas outside of Downtown Kingston essentially trading potential shopping benefits for what I perceive to be the more predictable and protected urban spaces of Uptown Kingston.

Beyond the fear of crime, my decision not to shop at Coronation Market is also influenced by the perceived difficulties associated with navigating narrow, congested streets and finding adequate parking in public parking lots or along streets. Informal parking attendants often assist potential shoppers for a small fee but on a crowded day, this is still very difficult and I am often discouraged thinking about the distance I would need to walk to access my desired spaces. Poor street signage also makes deciphering traffic direction very difficult and it very easy to get caught driving in the wrong direction.

The friction of the urban experience in and around the Coronation Market effectively discourages patronage from a potentially significant proportion of urban residents. It essentially embodies the expression of a critical nexus between the psychological frame, social conditions and economy of food in the city. The convergence of these issues yields distinctive geographies defined by differentiated food sources and this represents a potentially challenging issue for municipal planning and governance. Introspection of my experiences and behaviour as an urban shopper, has instigated reflection on some of the potential paradoxes of the supermarket revolution proposed by Reardon et al (2008). The persistence of social inequality in the city may fuel expansion of supermarkets in upscale areas but counter the expansion in areas characterised by more pervasive poverty. Reducing the friction of the urban experience is likely to create a larger customer base for produce markets which are usually located in sections of the city characterised by significant urban blight. This reduction may create a less differentiated market as consideration of factors such as crime may be eclipsed by economic rationality and social freedom.

 

References

Reardon, T. and Gulati, A. (2008) The Supermarket Revolution in Developing Countries: Policies for “Competitiveness with Inclusiveness” International Food Policy Research Institute. Washington, D.C.

Van Mead, N. and Blason, J. (2014) The 10 world cities with the highest murder rates – in pictures. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2014/jun/24/10-world-cities-highest-murder-rates-homicides-in-pictures