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Old July 11th, 2009, 11:42 PM
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Lightbulb Street Vendors and Traditional Markets: An International Perspective

By Debra Efroymson
Regional Director, HealthBridge ,

In its attempt to fashion itself as a modern, clean city, planners in Hanoi believe that vendors and markets need to be eliminated and replaced with supermarkets and other shops. While the attempt to improve Hanoi’s image is appreciated, the means to do so are sometimes less appropriate than would otherwise be desired and could lead to far more problems than they will solve. This paper attempts briefly to present some key arguments for allowing the continuance of vendors and traditional markets, as well as a reminder that thoroughly modern cities throughout the world continue to allow, and even encourage, both sidewalk vendors and open markets in an effort to increase their popularity, friendliness, and liveability.

Why is it so important to save them? Sidewalk vendors and open or traditional markets offer a range of advantages, including making available at low cost a wide range of goods and services, providing a feast for the eyes and safety on the street, and ensuring employment opportunities for those who would otherwise suffer from extreme poverty and deprivation.

Consider the goods and services made available through vendors and markets. Often a wide array of products and services, including many not found elsewhere, are available on the streets and in markets. These can include traditional foods unavailable in restaurants and fast food outlets, and repair services for bicycles, motorbikes, household equipment, and so on.

These goods and services are available at low cost, as there is little or no overhead. The availability of such items at lower cost than can be found in stores is crucial for lower income groups. The fact that vendors work throughout the city lessens the need for travel and thus reduces congestion, pollution and expense. The convenience of buying goods close to homes and workplaces, and without having to park one’s motorbike to enter a shop, also means that consumers can save precious time, which they can then spend on more important matters such as family. As one customer of sidewalk vendors noted in Hanoi, the presence of vendors means that “consumers have even more opportunity to buy to their satisfaction but at reasonable prices.”

Further, sidewalk vendors can provide a feast for the eyes. Walking is far more interesting when there is something to look at; informal shops and vendors selling colourful fruits, vegetables, flower, pottery and other items reward those moving slowly, and walking and cycling are the most efficient methods of transport in terms of cost, pollution and space required. It can be agonizing to walk on sidewalks with nothing to look at; it can be a pleasurable experience when there is plenty of street life, and particularly something of interest to buy or eat.

As the foremost authority on urban planning, Jane Jacobs, has observed, “The city area, rich or poor or in between, harmed by an interesting sidewalk life and plentiful sidewalk contacts has yet to be found.” Such words would help explain the continuance of sidewalk vendors in cities, rich and poor, throughout the world, and the fact that many cities, in trying to make themselves more liveable and attractive, are encouraging outdoor markets and informal shops rather than seeking to ban them. In many cases, the sidewalk with no vendors also has few or no pedestrians, who naturally congregate to the busier and hence more attractive sidewalks.
Sidewalk vendors also increase safety by providing eyes on the street. While it can be intimidating—for good reason—to walk on an empty street, the presence of vendors means that the street is safe. While it can be difficult to appreciate this point when living in a safe city, those who are used to cities with high crime rates will quickly appreciate the difference made by vendors, whose very presence serves as an effective deterrent to much street crime.

Finally, the informal economy, in the shape of vendors and markets, plays a vital role in generating employment. Where no other safety net, in the form of universal pensions and unemployment insurance, exists, the informal economy is vital. No society can thrive that does not provide, either actively or passively, for its more vulnerable members. Deprivation and desperation are socially harmful. Trying to prevent the flow of the needy from the countryside from seeking employment in the city is fruitless and inhuman, when people have no other hope for survival.

Unemployment leads not only to poverty but also to loss of self-esteem, which makes it that much more difficult for the unemployed ever to resume a full life. For many, working in a market or selling goods or services on the streets is the only means of survival, for themselves and their families. As one sidewalk vendor in Hanoi explained, “If I couldn’t do this job, I don’t know how I would manage. My children wouldn’t have food or money for school. I have no other source of income.”

Whatever problems, real or imagined, posed by sidewalk vendors and by traditional markets can be resolved in a better way than by simply banning them. In terms of walking, the real problem in Hanoi is with motorbike and to a lesser extent car parking, not vendors. Empty and characterless sidewalks are not going to attract people, and can be as effective a deterrent to walking as a sidewalk completely cluttered with informal shops. What does work is to provide licenses for people to operate informal businesses on a limited portion of the sidewalk; the same method could be used to allow motorcycle parking without having it take up the entire sidewalk. Such measures allow the advantages of vendors to continue while also making walking far more viable. This would also be far more humanitarian a measure than the current policy of police harassment of vendors, at a high economic and psychological price to those relying on their work to earn even a minimal income.

The possibility that banning markets and vendors is meant to ensure that people shop in stores instead of on the street cannot be ignored. If this is indeed the motivation, it is wrong on several counts. It amounts to punishing the lower and middle classes, who depend on the informal economy for work and for affordable goods. It violates the basic rules of the market economy and fair competition; after all, if nobody wished to shop in markets or avail themselves of the services of sidewalk vendors and informal shops, the informal economy would shut down on its own. The fact that a strong demand exists for markets and vendors should be respected, not ignored. As it is, in the market economy the rich have far more votes than the middle class or poor; much of Hanoi is already being redesigned to suit those with money, at the expense of those with little or none. Equity cannot be wholly disregarded without significant negative consequences, many of which will affect the wealthy as well as everyone else.

There are many reasons to allow, and few to prevent, traditional markets and sidewalk vendors. The benefits are many, the problems few. It is high time to look again at the policies for making Hanoi a clean and modern city, and ensure that such policies will actually bring about positive change rather than impoverishing the city, both literally and in terms of its soul.
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