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The social functions of Leeds Kirkgate Market: a community psychology project

February 20, 2015

Dr. Ellen Duff and Dr. Anjula Gupta

Leeds University


I have lived in Leeds for nearly four years, and have shopped at Kirkgate Market (LKM) most weeks since I arrived. It was a place where I could buy my groceries, stop for a bite to eat and get a feel for the history and culture of the city that is now my home. A walk around LKM tells a tale of Leeds, past and present – the lavish (but poorly maintained) 1904 hall with its proud tribute to the origins of M&S, established family businesses passed down through the generations, later expansions of the market to meet increased demand as the city’s population grew, stalls reflecting immigration from all over the world and a number of vacant stalls. As well as my personal connection to LKM, I am a Clinical Psychologist who is interested in how communities operate to support those within them. I conducted a project in 2013 for a Community Psychology placement as part of my Clinical Psychology training. My aim was to explore ways that belonging to market community may impact on psychological wellbeing.


Research on markets like LKM shows that they:

  • meet the practical needs of local communities – i.e. provide healthy food and other goods at low cost
  • offer opportunities for people to start small businesses so they can support themselves and their families
  • provide a welcoming environment for people who might feel excluded from other places due to their age, cultural background, financial means or mental health (Morales, 2009; 2011; Watson, 2009).

Recently though, there has been a nationwide move towards gentrification of markets – making them more attractive to more affluent and middle class customers – which may jeopardize their important social role (Gonzalez and Waley, 2012). I wanted to consider the impact that these changes could have on a market like LKM. The project involved spending time at LKM: observing and talking to customers, traders and market management about their engagement with the market. The findings discussed here derive from conversations with people and my reflections as a community psychologist using available literature on the social functions of markets and community psychology.

Community Values

I saw countless examples of social inclusion, social support, caring, compassion and community spirit in action at LKM. It is a place where people from diverse backgrounds and otherwise marginalised groups can share the same space, challenging prejudice and nurturing tolerance (Watson, 2009). This was evident in watching people’s interactions, however fleeting, and hearing traders saying that people ‘won’t be judged’ and that ‘everybody is treated the same’* whether they are homeless or a celebrity. Traders and customers alike described a ‘sense of community’*.

I have seen a man, perhaps in his 60’s, in shabby clothing, walking the streets near where I live and in the city centre. He talks to himself, doesn’t respond when I say hello and stops to point at something I can’t see in the sky or pulls up his trousers to examine his socks for a minute. I don’t know who he is, if he has a home, if he accesses any social or health services. All I know is that I have only ever seen him walking the streets alone in all weathers, except for the time when I saw him sitting in a cafe in LKM, tucking into a large slice of chocolate cake. It is a place where he can rest, nourish himself and be part of social life.

Ken**, a widower and war veteran in his 90’s described to me his daily routine. He goes to LKM for breakfast at a cafe where he sits until the pub opens where he goes for his lunch, spends the afternoon then takes the bus home for dinner, cooked by his neighbour. This informal care network literally sustains him. I saw him sit, nursing an empty cup of coffee, exchanging greetings with people as they passed and having a long conversation with a barmaid from the pub in which she enquired after his family and his health. I got the sense of him as a proud man – he told me that he lived off his savings rather than receiving benefits – and I wondered if he was able to accept this level of support from others due to its informality, without the stigma and cost potentially attached to professional care services.

A trader told me about a homeless man who used to come to the market daily. He did not buy anything from her stall, but they would greet each other and exchange some words. One day the man looked very jaundiced and extremely unwell. The trader urged him to go to hospital, then did not see him for some time. When she saw him again he told her he had indeed been seriously ill and had gone to hospital where he had spent three weeks in intensive care.

Threats to Community Values

The market is managed by LCC, and whilst I saw strong community values amongst traders and customers, this was less evident between traders and management. Established traders and a former member of the LCC market management team told me that until around 20 years ago managers were a constant presence on the market floor. They were well known by traders, had ‘friendly banter’* and disputes were generally settled quickly, face to face. Since then management was described as increasingly ‘arms-length’* and seen as corporate and distant, not an active part of the market any more. Walking around LKM with one of the current LCC management team, a couple of hellos were exchanged, but on the whole traders did not acknowledge the manager with familiarity. Some traders feel increasingly excluded from negotiations regarding the future of the market over the years and evidenced this in LCC’s refusal to recognise the (now disbanded) Leeds branch of the National Market Traders Federation (NMTF) as representative of traders’ views.

The management representative I met said that they had as much presence on the market floor as ever, collecting rent in person from the outdoor stallholders and ‘patrolling’ on a regular basis. They also said LCC as had gone to great lengths to include customers and traders (including Friends of Leeds Kirkgate Market and NMTF) in consultation exercises regarding the future of LKM, but said that they had been poorly attended. When asked why, they speculated that this may have been due to ‘mistrust’.

Traders spoke about the sense of loss when well established businesses were bankrupted and had to leave the market, and the fear that they would meet the same fate as they struggled to pay their rent and rates. Whilst I saw plenty of evidence of traders supporting and caring about their customers, this also appeared to be threatened by financial concerns, with one trader telling me that when customers try to barter with her, she feels like telling them ‘you don’t understand the pressure we’re under just to pay the rent’*.


LCC’s Equality and Diversity Policy states that “The council is committed to … advancing equality of opportunity; and fostering good relations within and between our communities with a view to building good community relations,” (LCC, 2011). LKM provides a welcoming space that fosters the social inclusion of low-income and marginalised groups in Leeds in a way that is informal and non-stigmatising. The sense of community among traders and users of the market seems to be remarkably resilient. However, financial worries of current traders and plans for a ‘day market’ of transient traders risk undermining these values. Users, traders and management were all aware of the impact of gentrification of LKM. Although many of the values outlined above are shown to exist in gentrified markets (Watson, 2009), it is feared it will lead to higher costs for traders and customers and would exclude those who arguably need the market the most, threatening the social inclusion and social care approach so valued by users, traders and LCC.


Gonzalez, S. & Waley, P. (2012). Traditional retail markets: The new gentrification frontier? Antipode, 45 (4), 965-983.

Leeds City Council (2011). Equality and Diversity Policy 2011-2015.

Morales, A. (2009). Public markets as community development tools. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 28 (4), 426-440.

Watson, S. (2009). The magic of the marketplace: Sociality in a neglected public space. Urban Studies, 46 (8), 1577-1591.


*I made notes, but no recordings of conversations at LKM so quotes are from memory and not necessarily verbatim.

**names were changed for the purpose of anonymity.

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