The public market is an important part of Sri Lanka’s built food environment. From fresh fruits and vegetables to apparel, public markets may sell a wide range of both perishable and/or non-perishable goods. While the supermarket has become a popular choice in the contemporary food retail context for many consumers in Sri Lanka, people still rely on traditional public markets, especially for their fresh produce needs.
The city of Colombo has in recent years undergone a rapid transformation due to state-led gentrification projects. Late urban researcher and activist Nirmani Liyanage once said that ‘Colombo is becoming a bad copy of Singapore because we don’t know who we are’, in response to development plans that were not contextualised to suit local needs. Her research on local markets, known in the vernacular as the pola and the state’s attempt to shift vendors into ‘blue roofed’ structures that bear no resemblance to its previous form, highlights the struggles vendors face, as well as the spatial, economic and cultural incompatibility of such structures with the activities that take place in the pola. Liyanage (2016) argues that lived spaces, such as the pola, are far from the abstract space imagined by planners.
The Old Manning Market in Pettah, was a historically important public space located in the heart of Colombo. Its move to Peliyagoda at the height of the pandemic in 2020, altered the economic, social and cultural lives of many of its vendors and consumers. The New Manning Market is spread over 13.5 acres of land in Peliyagoda, in contrast to its previous 2 acres in Pettah and features 1192 stores and parking space for about 600 trucks. While the rationale for the move was to reduce traffic congestion in Colombo and provide vendors with better infrastructure facilities for their business activities, this state-led gentrification of the New Manning Market has not taken into account the lived experiences of those at the Market.
González and Dawson (2018) perceives markets as frontiers of gentrification. They argue that traditional public markets are affected by state-led gentrification, which often starts with the neglect or abandonment of the market, that later justifies redevelopment. This can displace both vendors and consumers. The shift of the Manning Market from Pettah to Peliyagoda is a similar scenario, where authorities did little to maintain the Manning Market in Pettah (i.e., which was in a severely dilapidated condition well before the time of the shift). This made it easier for justifying a shift of the Market from Pettah to Peliyagoda, and displaced vendors and consumers by charging significantly higher rents and making the market comparatively inaccessible, respectively.
Similar to the pola, the relocation of the Manning Market from Pettah to Peliyagoda too, was a ‘blue roofed’ gentrification effort led by the Urban Development Authority (UDA). As Liyanage (2016) also suggests in her research, planners and policy makers often see derelict spaces (i.e., Old Manning Market) as mere under-utilised spaces, and fail to understand the creativity and resourcefulness of people that often goes into transforming such public spaces into ‘useful’ spaces. This is the same logic used to relocate working class poor communities from the heart of Colombo as the land they occupy is ‘under-utilised’ – not earning income for the State – failing to understand how people in the wattes occupy and transform space.
This article draws from Colombo Urban Lab’s research on the infrastructure – nutrition nexus at the New Manning Market in Peliyagoda, and attempts to highlight some of the spatial, connectivity and economic incompatibilities of the Market as compared with its activities.
The New Manning Market in Peliyagoda has two floors. The ground floor was originally intended for wholesale vegetables, while the first floor was intended for wholesale and some retail activity for fruits and vegetables. Today, there are a significant number of stalls on the first floor that are vacant and under-utilised, as some vendors have moved their operations to the ground floor. The first floor also accommodates fruit stalls outside as well as inside, adjoining the stalls located on the exterior. However, some vendors pointed out that the stalls inside attract less consumers and has resulted in less business activity.
The spatial incompatibility of the New Manning Market can also be seen through the stall space provided for many vendors. Vendors should have been provided better stall spaces through the relocation. However, the reality is that a stall meant for the use of one vendor, is now allocated between two or three vendors. The limited stall spaces have resulted in many of the agricultural produce being kept outside the stall, often spilling over onto the space intended for walking around the Market.
A fruit vendor on the first floor revealed that there is a significant discrepancy between the number of stalls selling bananas and the number of smoke rooms available for ripening the fruit. The same vendor spoke of the inconvenience of the location of toilets on the first floor. He said that ‘It takes a long time to go to and from the toilets, located on either end of the first floor. I can’t leave my stall unmanned for that long, I will lose customers.’
The design of the market has also not taken into account adequate ventilation and maximising natural light, which means that lighting is required to be switched on during the day – an added cost to the vendors. This highlights some of the spatial incompatibilities of the Manning Market, as a public space that has little understanding of the lived realities of vendors at the Market.
The Old Manning Market was located in the midst of two transportation hubs – the Pettah railway station and the central bus stand where most buses begin their journey. Accessing the Old Manning Market via public transport was convenient even without a personal vehicle at one’s disposal. Despite the dilapidated state of the building at the time, the Old Manning Market was full of business activity, as it was the norm for people to stop by on their way home after work to grab a few essentials for the upcoming week. At the New Manning Market, some vendors highlighted that business has reduced significantly in comparison to their previous location in Pettah. Although there may be other factors that have affected demand (i.e., Sri Lanka’s economic crisis) many consumers that frequented the Old Manning Market in Pettah, do not travel to Peliyagoda to get their groceries, as it is inconvenient and frankly, ‘out of the way’. It is not connected by public transport and a private vehicle is required to travel to the New Manning Market. Despite the new and improved state of the premises, business has reduced for some vendors due to the new location of the Market, which has made it comparatively inaccessible or unaffordable for many consumers.
The New Manning Market is significant for the economic opportunities it provides many. From the farmer to the vendor, there are a number of people that benefit from the market and its operations. Markets are undoubtedly about people – and the New Manning Market supports the livelihoods of many. Many of the vendors we interviewed said that they worked with the farmers directly, without a middleman, and this ensures that the suppliers receive the best prices for their produce. Walking through the market, it would be difficult to miss the labourers transporting fresh produce from lorries that have arrived from different parts of the country to designated stalls. The Market also provides economic opportunities for those not working at the Market, such as small retail shops operating in and around Colombo. The location of the New Manning Market has not only made it inconvenient for consumers but also for vendors and other retailers operating in and around Colombo, who must now bear the cost of a personal vehicle (i.e., a motorbike or a three-wheeler) in order to access the market. Interestingly, the move of the market away from the city center has also affected the income of those operating public bathing wells in Colombo.
The introduction of various laws and policies in an attempt to improve and systematise the operations of the Market and its value chain, only exacerbate the disconnect that exists between planners, policy makers and the vendors. In January of this year, Sri Lanka Railways decided to introduce a dedicated train to transport fruits and vegetables to supermarkets and the Manning Market in Colombo. Our research with vendors at New Manning Market revealed that not only is this impractical, it is also not the most economical as the New Manning Market is located a few kilometers away from the Pettah Railway Station. If they rely on train transport, there would be an additional cost of transport (i.e., from the railway station to the market) that vendors will have to bear.
The reconfiguration of Colombo’s built environment and key infrastructure has lasting consequences for the city’s food environment and people’s access to affordable and nutritious fresh produce. Public markets are more than the building in which its activities take place. They are lived spaces for people of different walks of life and facilitate more than mere commercial activities. The conceptualisation and design of these markets must also consider the lived experiences of those that work and engage with the market, in order to make them sustainable in the long run.