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INSIST - Toward Sustainable Communities

A Case Study of the Eastern Market in Detroit

Objectives of the INSIST working group

INSIST, a working group of the Swiss Academic Society for Environmental Research and Ecology (saguf), examines «the links between sustainability, innovation, and transformation in theoretical, empirical, and practical respects» (Bornemann et al. 2022: 184). The group explores «successful cases that significantly contribute to a sustainability transformation «on the ground», as judged by a variety of implicated actors in a specific environment» (ibid.). The case study of the Eastern Market in Detroit presented here is exemplary of case studies that illustrate real-world transitions toward sustainability.

What is the Eastern Market and how does it connect to sustainability transformations?

In the early 1880’s, the Eastern Market started as an informal gathering of immigrants and farmers trading goods on the corner of Russel Street and High Street in Detroit. Over the years, the market has grown into six expansive warehouses that stretch across more than 20 acres (about 8100 m²), hosting over 200 wholesale and retail vendors that specialize in a large variety of products, including fresh farm produce, meats, poultry, fish, baked goods, honey, flowers, and local arts and crafts products. The wholesale market provides bulk produce to local food businesses, including the hospitality industry, restaurants, shops, and special events, while the retail market sells directly to the community. Before the pandemic, the Saturday retail market regularly drew more than 45 000 visitors. While the size and success of this farmers market already exemplifies the significant role the Easter Market plays within the community, it is its serendipitous contributions to community building and urban renewal as an agent of sustainability transformation that drew our attention to this study.

Eastern Market in Detroit
Eastern Market in DetroitImage : Zinette Bergman

Research focus and methods

Community development and urban regeneration initiatives tend to be designed and implemented either as large-scale, government-funded transformations or as small-scale, grassroot initiatives. This division pose various challenges toward achieving a sustainability transition, which is particularly evident in the US, where financial resources, existing infrastructure, and broad-based civic support to implement large-scale community transformations are frequently lacking, and niche initiatives, while locally successful, tend to be limited in scope. Accordingly, many top-down, large-scale community development programs either do not go beyond an ideational stage, or they falter after an initial seeding phase. With this case study, the authors examined the space in between – the potential of an institution to bring about large-scale change from the bottom up. Accordingly, they studied (1) how the Eastern Market engages in sustainable community and urban development, and (2) what about the constellation of institutions, actors, and arrangements between them made this farmers market as impactful on so many levels, well beyond buying and selling fruits and vegetables.

In this qualitative case study, the authors drew from a variety of audio, visual, and written materials, including policy and strategy documents, annual reports, academic publications, websites, blogs, vlogs, social media outlets, newspapers, podcasts, interviews, as well as field visits and nonparticipant observations. They employed Content Configuration Analysis to identify and study relations between system-relevant actors, motivations, relations, interventions, and outcomes. The analysis focused on three lines of inquiry: What is the market doing?, Who are the major actors (individuals, groups, institutions)?, and how are the actors able to achieve what they do?.

Transformative research or transformation research?

We consider this case as transformation research because

  • it aims at understanding the conditions for local initiatives to contribute to larger- scale community development from the bottom up
  • the study is descriptive-analytical
  • contributes systemic knowledge about transformation processes by documenting the interplay of actors, networks initiatives and visions

Research findings: A combination of bottom-up and top-down processes as key success factors

Based on the research, the authors divided the Eastern Market’s contribution toward sustainable transition into three areas:

  • activities within the market (for example, financial assistance programs that support low-income community members to access fresh and nutritious food, entrepreneurial programs that help women and minority groups to start their own food business, or the Food Box Program, which enabled community members to obtain boxes of affordable and fresh produce from the Eastern Market during the worst times of the pandemic);
  • bridging programs that expand the foodprint of the market (for example, Pop-up Farm Stands that increase accessibility to fresh food in under-served, low-income neighborhoods, or the Food Box Program, which created a minimum income for food producers during the worst part of the pandemic);
  • and beyond the market (for example, how the Eastern Market collaborates with the City of Detroit to develop policies and infrastructure that promote the environmental, social, and economic future of the community, city, and region).

The research team found further characteristics that enable the market’s contribution toward a sustainability transition. These include:

  • a community-oriented history of the market and actors associated with it;
  • an innovative business model – a public-private collaboration between the city and local businesses and an excellent example of stakeholder capitalism – that connects several industry, city, state, and community nodes and programs (see Figure from former Estern Market program coordinator Fiona Ruddy below);
Eastern Market’s hub-and-spoke business model
Eastern Market’s hub-and-spoke business modelImage : Fiona Ruddy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2017
  • an extensive stakeholder network, including customers, vendors, retail merchants, food distributors, and processing partners, the arts and hospitality industry, property owners and developers, residents, nearby SMEs, community and public sector partners, city and state policy makers, funders, investors and, increasingly, the corporate sector; and
  • the vision and courage of long-term leaders, including the Eastern Market Corporation’s CEO (a non-profit), Dan Carmody, to use as an opportunity a city landscape eroded by decades of economic decline, population flight, and lack of investment.

These characteristics allow the Eastern Market not only to serve diverse groups, communities, and institutions, but to collectively reimagine and rebuild the community and city in which it is embedded. The case of the Eastern Market provides an example of one of the researchers’ core interests, something they term «Proof of Transition Concepts» (proTract), because it is a positive, real-world example of a sustainability transition that brings together diverse stakeholders to cooperate toward positive, often serendipitous, outcomes, which, in this case, build a more sustainable community and urban landscape in the City of Detroit.

Manfred Max Bergman
Zinette Bergman
Social Transitions Research Group, UniBas

The working group of the Swiss Academic Society for Environmental Research and Ecology (saguf) explores successful cases of sustainability transformations.

Bergman, Z., M. M. Bergman. 2022. Toward sustainable communities: A case study of the Eastern Market in Detroit. Sustainability 14/7: 4187.

Bornemann, Basil, Bergman Max, Ejderyan, Olivier, Fritz, Livia, Kläy, Andreas, Wäger, Patrick, 2022, Innovations for the sustainability transformation. Conceptual cornerstones of the saguf working group INSIST, GAIA 31 (3): 182 – 184

W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Eastern Market: A Celebration of Community, Local Farming and Good Food; Detroit, MI, USA, 2017. Available online: https://www.wkkf.org/what-we-do/featured-work/eastern-market-a-celebration-of-community-local-farmingand-good-food (accessed on 22 March 2022)