Creating Great Places: How Borough Market Became London’s Center of Food Culture

A VIEW FROM THE TOP

In the first of a two-part series, we look at the history of Borough Market, transforming from a neighborhood in decline in the 1980s to the tourist food haven it is today. Many factors have helped create the market’s success, including, significantly, the importance of individual action in placemaking.

Borough Market today is known as one of the most thriving and active markets in London, attracting millions of visitors each year. With more than 100 shops, stalls and restaurants offering a diverse variety of traditional British foods and delicacies from around the world, the sprawling market is the gateway to south London, a confluence of the city’s past and present.

The horrific terror attack that took place there on June 3, 2017, shuttering the market for 11 days, left residents and traders shaken, but more resolved than ever to return.

An entrepreneurial mindset and a placemaking vision for its expansion transformed the market.

“In the general spirit of how Borough Market works,” people came together in the aftermath of the attack, said Iqbal Wahhab, owner of Roast, one of the most popular restaurants at the market. When the market reopened on June 14, Donald Hyslop, chair of Borough Market Trustees, announced, “London is open. Borough Market is open.”

Despite the market’s current standing as a foodie haven that hosts thousands of tourists and locals each day, it hasn’t always been that way. In the not-too-distant past, the market was under threat of extinction from supermarket competition and local economic decline. But an entrepreneurial mindset and a placemaking vision for its expansion transformed the market, as well as the surrounding area.

George Nicholson has been a key figure in the story of the market’s turnaround. A trustee for 30 years until 2006, Nicholson helped shape the market’s expansion, providing valuable insight into planning and development. With his insight, commitment and a remarkable sense of what the area could become, Nicholson helped Borough Market become one of London’s great food places.

Borough Market has existed in various forms since 1014. It's…
Before it became the foodie haven it is today, Borough…
During the 1980s, the area surrounding Borough Market experienced a…
As London emerged as the center of global finance in…

The Market Over Time, and Decline

Borough Market has existed in various forms since as far back as 1014, and it remains the oldest market to be still trading in its original site. Through the centuries, its form has ranged from a stopping point for travelers, to a wholesale market. Its current incarnation as host to a range of artisan, high-quality food retailers has only taken place in very recent years, largely under the guidance of Nicholson, its former chairman.

In the 1980s, the surrounding area of Borough Market had undergone severe decline. The market’s days as a wholesale hub were threatened by the growth of supermarket retailers and the nearby development of the New Covent Garden market in Vauxhall in the 1970s. By 1994, the market had as few as nine traders and an income of less than £400k per year. Vermin control (or the lack thereof) was a key problem, which, coupled with the requirements to comply with new European food regulations, prompted Southwark Council (where Borough Market is located) to ask the Trustees to put a program of improvements in place—with the implied threat that without them the market would have to close.

With declining income, a backlog of repairs, no cash reserves and a set of market structures badly in need of investment, the market faced a stark choice—change or die. At that time, according to Nicholson, it was not at all obvious what that change could be: “Food seemed like the problem, not the potential solution.”

The Bigger Picture

In many ways, the development of Borough Market has moved in parallel with that of London as a global city.

In many ways, the development of Borough Market has moved in parallel with that of London as a global city. The same currents that have propelled London’s economic and social activity have shaped the evolution of the market.

In the 1990s, London was a very different place. After sustaining a massive recession, unemployment was high, and confidence in economic prospects low. In the early part of the decade, office and retail yields spiked at record high levels as capital values declined, and remained there until 1993, when the “green shoots” of economic recovery started to be seen.

Through the 2000s, as London emerged at the apex of global finance, the affluence of the inner London areas steadily improved.

The immediate vicinity of Borough Market, as one of London’s historic dockland areas, was in particular decline, characterized by disused warehousing units and former industrial sites. With the first phase of Canary Wharf area, begun in 1988 and completed in 1991, and later the extension of the Jubilee Line, the focus of London’s economic activity shifted further east, reducing still further cyclical demand for office space by City firms, south of the river, including in Southwark. This allowed residential developers to gain a foothold, increasing the density of the local population, the size of the market’s catchment and paving the way for its eventual rejuvenation.

Through the 2000s, as London emerged at the apex of global finance, the affluence of the inner London areas steadily improved. Luxury eating and shopping boomed. Eating out became more common, and this included a greater propensity to enjoy luxury street food.

The reinvention of Borough Market as a nucleus of artisan street food vendors has been driven by these trends.

Part 2 takes a look at Borough Market’s renewal, from the first “new” cheese, fruit and vegetable vendors in the late 1990s to its current status as a high-quality, specialty retailer stimulated by some quite remarkable individual placemaking initiatives. 

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