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Toward Sustainable Communities: A Case Study of the Eastern Market in Detroit

Zinette Bergman
1,2 and
Manfred Max Bergman
Department of Social Sciences, University of Basel, 4001 Basel, Switzerland
Mixed Methods Program, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(7), 4187;
Submission received: 29 January 2022 / Revised: 19 March 2022 / Accepted: 23 March 2022 / Published: 1 April 2022


Community development tends to focus on large-scale, government-funded transformations or on small-scale, grassroot initiatives. In the US, the financial resources, available infrastructure, and broad-based civic support to implement large-scale community transformations are frequently lacking. In contrast, niche interventions, while often locally successful, tend to be unscalable. Accordingly, many community development programs either do not go beyond an ideational stage, or they are unscalable or unsustainable in the long run. In this qualitative case study, we analyze the Eastern Market in Detroit, Michigan, a local institution that contributes considerably and in several ways to the sustainability of multiple communities. Using Content Configuration Analysis (CCA), we conduct a bottom-up exploratory analysis of fieldwork notes, nonparticipant observations, as well as audio, visual, and written materials including policy and strategy documents from the City of Detroit, Wayne County, and the State of Michigan, academic publications, strategy and annual reports, websites, blogs, vlogs, social media outlets, newspapers, podcasts, and interviews along two lines of inquiry: first, to examine how the market contributes to sustainable community development and, second, to explore the systemic underpinnings that facilitate such development. Specifically, we focus on the Eastern Market to identify system-relevant actors, interests, relations, interventions, and outcomes that illustrate an institution which operates well beyond the ideational confines of a conventional farmers market. In the process of exploring the adaptive nature of the Eastern Market within its financial and infrastructural constraints, we also exemplify with this case that a well-established institution, a farmers market, can reinvent itself to serve multiple needs of larger, heterogeneous communities, and that the successful adaptations associated with this reinvention reimagine the community in which it is embedded.

1. Introduction

Throughout the world, people want the same things: access to clean air and water; economic opportunities; a safe and healthy place to raise their kids; shelter; lifelong learning; a sense of community; and the ability to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
Economic, social, and environmental community aspirations tend to mutually enable and reinforce, but sometimes also stand in conflict with, each other. The complexity of creating and maintaining a sustainable community is exacerbated by an inertia introduced by its unique historical roots, political constellations, economic foundations, and governance processes. Two approaches dominate attempts to transform communities toward greater sustainability: large-scale and top-down transformations, usually associated with government involvement, or small-scale, grassroots interventions, the latter targeting local issues or concerns of small interest and stakeholder groups.

1.1. Large-Scale, Top-Down Approaches to Sustainable Community Transformation

Studies on top-down community transformations usually focus on community resilience [2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14]. In this vein, scholars have applied systems logic [15] to develop assessment models for the identification, measurement, and monitoring of some aspect of sustainability [12,16,17,18]. Others assist city planners and policy makers in developing and managing sustainable communities [19,20,21,22,23,24,25]. For example, a 2014 study conducted for the Puget Sound Regional Council advised the city of Seattle’s regional food program to develop appropriate land management, communication and coordination, and financial support structures to foster local farmers markets as part of a sustainable community development program [26].

1.2. Small-Scale, Bottom-Up Approaches to Sustainable Community Transformation

Small-scale, grassroots initiatives, in contrast, tend to focus on specific issues or small interest groups. Here, various targets of SDG 11 (making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable) [27] are associated with a flourishing ecosystem of niche studies [28,29,30,31]. For example, resilient and inclusive communities are associated with securing access to healthy food, which gives rise to case studies on food security through specific urban, peri-urban, or rural farming projects [32,33,34,35], explorations of alternative food networks [36,37], and the potential of agro and food tourism, business incubators, or entrepreneurial activities by social groups [38,39,40,41,42,43,44]. Evidence from community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives have consistently underscored profitability for smaller farms [45,46] and rural community development [46,47].
Both approaches aim to make cities and communities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. They furthermore contribute in different ways to the study of, and development toward, sustainable communities, although two main challenges are usually ignored. Most large and heterogeneous communities lack the financial resources, infrastructure, and broad-based support to implement large-scale sustainability-focused projects or programs. Consequently, most top-down sustainability-relevant initiatives do not leave the drawing board, or they become financially unviable in the long run. In contrast, the context-specificity and uniqueness of small-scale projects prevent scalability and transferability of most grassroots initiatives.
The purpose this study is to explore a case that reveals interesting top-down and bottom-up elements associated with sustainable community building. Specifically, we examine the role and self-interests of local businesses as ingredients for a sustainable community, and a community’s self-interest in sustaining the commercial and socio-commercial activities associated with a farmers market. Our qualitative case study focuses on business–society relations of the Eastern Market in Detroit, Michigan to identify system-relevant actors, interests, relations, interventions, and outcomes that culminate in an institution well beyond the ideational confines of a conventional farmers market. In studying various adaptive strategies within its financial and infrastructural constraints, we illustrate how a well-established institution, a farmers market, adapts over time to serve multiple communities, and how the successes of this institution reimagines the community and region in which it is embedded. Before presenting our case in more detail, we provide a short overview of the benefits and risks associated with farmers markets.

1.3. The Potential Benefits and Risks Associated with Farmers Markets in the United States

Farmers markets are places where “consumers buy from multiple local producers at a central location on a regular basis, and often include value-added products, samples, crafts, and entertainment” [47] (p. 3). Based on a simplified definition of a farmers market, i.e., “markets that feature two or more farm vendors selling agricultural products directly to customers at a common, recurrent physical location”, the US Department of Agriculture has tracked market activity nationally since 1994 [48]. Until 2020, the number of markets in the US increased by more than 350%, from 1755 in 1994 to 8140 [49,50]. Warsaw and colleagues [51] recently reviewed more than 150 studies to develop a typology of the benefits of farmers markets (Table 1, left column).
Farmers markets are considered fiscal multipliers [51], where financial benefits associated with them often outweigh their costs. Beyond generating revenues for local farmers, benefits include the development of the local agri-food system, revenue for surrounding businesses, and opportunities for local entrepreneurs [52,53,54,55,56,57,58,59]. Economic benefits also extend to consumers through enhanced access to affordable food [60,61,62,63,64]. Studies identified “measurable improvements in economic access to and increased consumption of fresh produce” [51] (p. 6), especially in underserved communities. Extending the reach of food assistance programs, farmers markets are able to increase food security among vulnerable populations [51,54,56,57,58,59,65,66]. As sites of agro-leisure—a combination of recreation, leisure, tourism, culinary, and cultural activities within a socio-agricultural setting—farmers markets contribute to social networks and social cohesion by fostering the development of relationships between neighbors, consumers, producers, and community groups [51,67,68]. Such relations may foster an awareness of sustainable consumption and production in that encounters between farmers and consumers make farmers markets vital “in the social construction of discourses about food, consumption, and spaces that sell locally grown and organic food” [50] (p. 2). This increases consumer demand for organic or locally grown products delivered through local supply chains [51,69,70], which in turn incentivizes farmers to farm organically and for a nearby community [51]. The multifaceted benefits promote social justice because farmers markets participate in broader community objectives, such as public health, regeneration, inclusion, and resilience [51,67].
Despite their contributions to the sustainability of communities, farmers markets may also pose certain risks (Table 1, right column). Instead of contributing to the revenue of farmers and economic development of communities, they may displace and diffuse existing resources. New farmers markets compete against existing local food retailers [51], and, as Stephenson [71] argues, the popularity of farmers markets may be unsustainable because there are too few suitable farms to service adequately the increasing number of markets. Furthermore, although farmers markets could play an important role in providing access to affordable, fresh produce to underserved and vulnerable communities, some studies find that the majority of customers at local markets tend to be white and affluent [51,54,56,59,72,73,74,75,76]. As vendors align with the values and tastes of consumers, farmers markets are often dominated by specialized and costly niche products that further diversify the consumption of a relatively healthy and wealthy target group, thus excluding members from lower income brackets [54,77]. When farmers markets cater predominantly to privilege and conspicuous consumption, they become sites of social exclusion because agro-leisure rarely aligns with the tastes and incomes of less affluent groups [54,75,78,79]. The attractiveness of established agro-leisure-based farmers markets also spurs urban gentrification by increasing property values in surrounding areas, thus often displacing low-income households [77,80,81].
Some farmers markets are sites of sustainable community building, promoting economic upliftment and public health, while others become microsites of privilege and social exclusion. This study explores the form and function of a specific famers market, the Eastern Market in Detroit. Specifically, we are interested in, first, how the Eastern Market contributes to sustainable community development and, second, the actors, institutions, and motivations that make community development possible.

2. Materials and Methods

This qualitative case study pursues an exploratory, intrinsic focus [82,83,84]: the investigation of unique and particular characteristics of the Eastern Market, specifically in relation to sustainable community development in a historical, economic, and political context. Our data collection and analyses were based on two substantive lines of inquiry: to examine how the Eastern Market contributes to sustainable community development, and to explore the systemic characteristics facilitating such development. Using these lines of inquiry as data selection criteria, we collected relevant data pertaining to the Eastern Market. Data sources included fieldwork and nonparticipant observations, as well as audio, visual, and written materials such as policy and strategy documents from the City of Detroit, Wayne County, and the State of Michigan, academic publications, strategy and annual reports, websites, blogs, vlogs, social media outlets, newspapers, podcasts, and interviews. We analyzed the data using Content Configuration Analysis (CCA) [85,86,87]. CCA is a qualitative analysis method related to thematic and content analyses that can be used for all non-numeric data, including written, audio, and visual data. Previous research has illustrated the effectiveness of using this method in case study research (e.g., [88,89,90,91,92,93]). The strength of this method lies in its flexibility. It can be adapted to fit different purposes, research foci, or researcher needs. In this case study, we used CCA to conduct a three-step analysis. First, CCA was used to identify in the documents, recordings, and interviews direct and indirect contributions to community development associated with the Eastern Market. Based on a systematic analysis of this data, we developed a typology of the Eastern Market’s community development initiatives based on activities (1) directly linked to the market, (2) that bridge the market with its surrounding communities, and (3) that transcend the market and its immediate neighborhoods. Our second set of analyses explored systematically the characteristics facilitating the community development activities identified in the first step. In this second step, we identified four underlying characteristics that enable sustainable community development. To further contextualize our findings, a third analysis step aimed to identify potential risks associated with the successes of the Eastern Market. Here, a CCA analysis revealed three challenges that could undermine the long-term success of the market and its contribution to sustainable community development.
In case study research, triangulation—understood as the process of searching for additional interpretations to support findings [82,94]—enhances the quality of research findings (c.f. [82,95,96]). In this study, we used four protocols of triangulation: data source triangulation, investigator triangulation, methodological triangulation, and theoretical triangulation. Data source triangulation pertains to the extent to which what is observed and reported carries the same meaning under different circumstances when comparing and contrasting different sources of data [82]. This was achieved in our study by combining direct observations during field visits to the Eastern Market and surrounding areas with various written, audio, and visual data as outlined above. Investigator triangulation aims to enhance research quality by employing multiple researchers in the same study. For this case study, two researchers participated in the fieldwork, data collection, and analyses. Third, methodological triangulation enhances quality by combining different methods throughout the research process. This was achieved by combining nonparticipant observations and fieldwork with the analysis of audio, visual, and written data using Content Configuration Analysis (CCA) [85,86,87]. Finally, because the Eastern Market occupies an interesting position between a large-scale, top-down intervention and a small-scale, bottom-up, grassroots initiatives, we embedded our findings within the existing literature to explore and advance the development of knowledge. This is known as theoretical triangulation.

3. Results

3.1. The Case: The Eastern Market in Detroit, Michigan

The exact geographic boundaries of the Eastern Market, founded in 1891, are difficult to pinpoint. It takes about 30 min to walk from downtown Detroit to the center of the Eastern Market, although this localization does not do justice to its reach and expanse. The market includes six warehouses, and its infrastructure currently covers more than 20 acres. Formally, the Eastern Market is a wholesale and retail market. Well over 200 vendors sell a large array of products, including fresh farm produce, meats, fish, poultry, baked goods, flowers, and local art and crafts. The wholesale market operates Monday through Saturday, providing bulk produce to local food businesses including the hospitality industry, restaurants, stores, and special events [97]. The retail market is open to the public on Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Before the pandemic, the Saturday market drew more than 45,000 visitors.

3.2. What Does the Market Do to Contribute to Sustainable Community Building?

For empirical clarity and to provide an overview of community development associated with the Eastern Market, we have divided relevant activities into three types: initiatives within the market, bridging programs that connect the market to the broader Detroit Metro area, and relevant projects that transcend the immediate neighborhoods of the market.
Within the market: Programs housed inside the market include the Food Box Program, the Double Up Food Bucks Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Bridge Card, and the Detroit Kitchen Connect Program. Some programs, such as the Food Box Program, act as economic drivers to facilitate exchanges between customers, merchants, and farmers. Others, such as the Double Up Food Bucks Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or the Bridge Card, offer food-related financial assistance to mainly low-income residents. Finally, programs such as the Detroit Kitchen Connect Program foster economic growth in the local food industry. As an incubation program, the Detroit Kitchen Connect Program supports young food entrepreneurs to start their own food business. It provides education and training, support, access to start-up grants, access to commercial kitchen space, and integration into the local food supply chain [98,99].
Bridging programs: Bridging programs use local farmers markets, farm stands, food trucks, and food box programs [100] to increase the foodprint of the Eastern Market, especially in underserved neighborhoods of the city. Some examples include the Detroit Community Markets, Fresh Food Share, the Detroit School Garden Collaborative, and the Eastern Market Farm Stands, also known as Pop-up Farm Stands [101,102]. The Pop-up Farm Stands program, established in 2009, collaborates with community development organizations, the private sector, and healthcare systems. Pop-up stands address the scarcity of food in underserved areas by increasing access to fresh food and other affordable pantry items in low-income neighborhoods. The Eastern Market operates more than 20 pop-ups weekly between June and September [102].
Beyond the market: The ambitiousness and vision of the Eastern Market beyond its immediate business model and location is impressively illustrated by two expansive projects: the Eastern Market Strategy 2025 and the Eastern Market Neighborhood Framework and Stormwater Management Network Plan. The latter is a district redevelopment plan created in collaboration with the City of Detroit in 2019. It is a strategic policy framework that “intentionally integrates new development, nature, stormwater management, and interconnected greenways” [103] (p. 1) to improve the quality of life for residents in economic, social, and environmental terms. It is a vast project that restricts heavy industry, promotes food production, retail, and locally-owned restaurants, and prioritizes the development of mixed-use and mixed-income housing [103]. The flagship initiative of this plan is the redevelopment of vacant land [103]. Large sections of vacant land or disused railway lines are transformed into greenways, such as the Dequindre Cut, a two-mile greenway completed in 2009 that connects several residential areas and the East Riverfront with the Eastern Market through pedestrian and bicycle lanes. Built on the old Grand Trunk Railroad line, this multipurpose greenway offers multiple recreation and leisure opportunities, such as walking, cycling, exercising, and access to fine and performance art. It furthermore serves as an ecological buffer and natural drainage system for the district [103,104].
The Dequindre Cut is illustrative of the Eastern Market’s embeddedness in the surrounding communities and the city policy landscape. The Eastern Market has directly influenced city planning, infrastructure development, protection or development of affordable and inclusive housing, and the expansion of green spaces well beyond the immediate boundaries of the market. Taken together, these programs illustrate how the Eastern Market engages in several initiatives that contribute systemically and structurally to the development of communities in Detroit.

3.3. How Does the Eastern Market Accomplish Its Multifaceted Contributions toward Sustainable Communities?

Considering the multifaceted successes toward economic, social, and environmental community development, we now focus our analysis on how the Eastern Market achieves such considerable impact. Our analyses reveal four characteristics that drive its main contributions: the historic roots of the market, the unique canvas provided by the socioeconomic reality of the City of Detroit, an innovative business model, and the role of key stakeholders.
The Eastern Market’s historical roots: Community development is part of the DNA of the Eastern Market. According to Fogelman and Rush [105], immigrants and farmers in the Detroit region started an informal market on the corner of Russell Street and High Street in 1882. It became such an important gathering place for the community that, when the city sought to expand its markets in 1891, it used this very site to formally establish the Eastern Market. In 1918, the management of the market was transferred to the Department of Public Welfare, a significant move that placed merchants and farmers at the heart of city policy and that injected public welfare into the market’s business model. Under the stewardship of the newly appointed director, George V. Branch, the market expanded rapidly, and various city ordinances were introduced to protect farmers, merchants, and their customers. Examples of such policies include ending price speculation and the introduction of a final Saturday market with discounts on perishable goods, which simultaneously supported customers, especially low-income residents, as well as farmers and merchants. These community-oriented beginnings would remain embedded in the Eastern Market, and many of the ordinances introduced to foster and protect public welfare are still in place today.
The Detroit city canvas: Like many other so-called rust belt cities, Detroit endured decades of slow and painful socioeconomic decline. While the causes are complex and multifaceted, it is widely accepted that the main drivers were the collapse of Detroit’s manufacturing base and the outsourcing of industry [106,107]. Increased poverty and unemployment led to a decline in tax revenues and public spending, large-scale outmigration, and rapid suburbanization [107]. The population declined from a peak of 1.85 million in the 1950s to less than 700,000 in 2013 [108]. These developments led to significant blight, and, after declaring bankruptcy in 2013, the city prioritized interventions to address further urban decline. Between 2014 and 2018, Detroit demolished 18,000 vacant houses in a first wave. In a second wave, another 18,000 houses are earmarked for demolition until 2024 [109,110].
Extensive blight removal projects have brought Detroit to an important turning point as increasingly affordable, vacant land and pressure to do something with it—not least to protect remaining residents and institutions from further decline—offered city representatives, residents, and investors a rare opportunity to reimagine their city. The district redevelopment plan is a good example of this. It illustrates not only how vacant land is repurposed toward resilient, green spaces and urban farming but, more profoundly, how city planning and urban development imagine a sustainable community at the center of a long-term redevelopment agenda.
An innovative business model: The economic platform of the Eastern Market is rather unconventional. It is managed by a nonprofit organization, the Eastern Market Partnership, which is a public–private collaboration between the city and local businesses. While it primarily coordinates rental or leasing spaces at the market, its success largely depends on the positive, long-term relationships between farmers, merchants, and customers. A former Eastern Market program coordinator, Fiona Ruddy, described the Eastern Market as a hub that connects vital community spokes, ranging from growing, processing, education, retail, wholesale, distribution, and incubation (see Figure 1, [111]). The stronger these ties, and the more integrated and successful the communities that develop within and around the market, the more prosperous and institutionalized the market becomes. In a sense, this is an unusual example of stakeholder capitalism [112,113], where the core institution is a nonprofit organization that primarily fosters the economic and socioeconomic interests of its for-profit business partners. The core business model emphasizes a strategic and adaptive development of local and regional partners and partnerships.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides a rare illustration of the remarkable potential of such an approach. As noted above, the Saturday market regularly drew more than 45,000 visitors before the pandemic. Despite several safety measures to limit face-to-face interactions and to meet social distance requirements, visitor numbers plummeted to about 400 by the time Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer introduced the “Stay Home. Stay Safe. Save Lives.” order [114,115,116,117]. Not only did visitor numbers plunge dramatically but, according to Eastern Market President Dan Carmody, vendor numbers dropped from 175 to 30 [116]. In a matter of weeks, the Eastern Market hub and all its associated spokes were in an economic freefall.
In response, the Eastern Market relied on its unique business model as the central node in a network of stakeholders by pivoting to a digital market place, developing an online platform to connect local farmers, merchants, and customers. The Food Box Program, for example, offered Eastern Market customers the opportunity to pre-order boxes of fresh produce for $20 with the option to add additional items. Boxes were prepacked at the Eastern Market and delivered via a contactless drive-thru to the trunks of cars. Selling only 50 boxes in the first week, the box program quickly turned into an important regional food service, averaging more than 450 boxes per week [115,116,118]. To support their wholesale network, the Eastern Market arranged for a Tuesday wholesale market, where customers were able to purchase bulk produce, meats, and baked goods [117] (p. 1).
Reconfiguring the links between farmers, merchants, and customers, the Eastern Market hub provided an essential service that not only kept small businesses and farmers afloat but also provided Detroit residents with fresh and nutritious food during a national health crisis. According to Dan Carmody, this rapid reconfiguration is likely to have a lasting impact on the Eastern Markets business model because “wholesalers and retailers saw they could get slightly better margins, get a more diverse customer base, and be more sustainable” [117] (p. 1).
Key stakeholders: The positive contributions made by the Eastern Market toward sustainable communities is driven by stakeholders within and beyond the geographic boundaries of the market. Under the leadership of Dan Carmody, the Eastern Market has extended its reach to strengthen local and regional partners. Building a vast network that makes the market successful, stakeholders now include customers, vendors, retail merchants, food distribution and processing partners, the arts and hospitality industry, property owners and developers, residents, nearby businesses, community and public sector partners, city policy makers, funders, investors, and, increasingly, the corporate sector. Long-term commitments and professional management have created a strong, organizational culture based on interdependence and trust. In concert, many of the stakeholders developed the Eastern Market Strategy 2025, which was released in 2016 [119]. It outlined the future ambitions of the Eastern Market, district, city, region, and state. The vision includes expansions of food businesses that would secure inclusive economic growth and position Detroit in the center of the Great Lakes food economy [119], connecting neighboring states as well as parts of Canada. This strategy document laid the foundation for subsequent collaborations between the Eastern Market and the Detroit City Council, specifically the development of the Neighborhood Framework and Stormwater Management Network Plan.

3.4. Risks for the Eastern Market’s Contributions toward Sustainable Communities

The successes of the Eastern Market are due in part to the vision, networks, and trust developed over years by key personalities. While the farmers market has benefited from their skills, professionalism, and long-term commitment, it also highlights the risk associated with losing the social capital individual personalities have accumulated. This risk is exacerbated by the pandemic and its consequences; reduced revenue streams and changes in supply chains, labor market dynamics, and reassessments of personal priorities introduce instability from which the Eastern Market will not be spared.
Over-commercialization is another source of risk. While the Eastern Market prides itself on maintaining strong relationships with its surrounding communities, farmers, vendors, and associated entrepreneurs, pressure is mounting for large-scale commercialization of the market in order to maintain or increase income streams to cover running costs and innovative programs. Narrow cost–benefit analyses could potentially prioritize more profitable ventures over more costly, social engagements, which might translate into further diversification and market segmentation, including outsourcing or a further spatial and conceptual separation of the retail from the wholesale market. The retail end may be tempted to focus on more economically viable products and services at the historical market location, valued by an increasingly wealthy or corporate clientele.
Finally, sharp increases in property values in Detroit and especially the areas around the Eastern Market pose a third source of existential threat to the current model. Associated with gentrification, realtors on Zillow and Trulia regularly promote properties by advertising proximity to the Eastern Market. As presented in Table 1 at the beginning of this article, the literature highlights how farmers markets risk becoming sites of exclusion and inequality. They may transform into places of leisure for elites, dynamics that are already detectable in many activities of the Eastern Market today. From a business and urban development perspective, the image and successes of the Eastern Market make this institution vulnerable to enterprising investors who, at the time of this writing, are flush with cash and on the lookout for new investment opportunities.
Once more, the Eastern Market’s success is very much due to its creative adaptation of its business model. It has overcome long-term hardship through a unique combination of entrepreneurial spirit and public welfare commitment. While the Eastern Market has, from its beginnings well over a century ago, brought along different communities by addressing needs and interests of its many stakeholders, it remains to be seen how these efforts can be sustained once regional and corporate agendas present their offers in a climate of uncertainty and change.

4. Discussion and Conclusions

Funding limitations, consumer preferences, and business practices constrain most top-down, large-scale community development interventions, while the specificity of context and culture prevent the scalability and transferability of most bottom-up, small-scale initiatives. Examining a successful case that occupies the space in between—where grassroot activities deliver large-scale change—provides new perspectives into community development toward sustainability. The purpose of this case study was to explore the business–society nexus of an existing institution to better understand the potential for local initiative—here a farmers market—to contribute to large-scale, sustainable community development. Of particular interest for us in studying the Eastern Market as an exemplar of positive, nongovernment initiatives is the serendipitous effects various components or programs of this institution have on the wider context of sustainable community development. Other successful cases exist that illustrate the considerable creativity with which individuals, groups, and institutions invent or reinvent themselves and, thus, their communities. Such cases include public health programs, churches, libraries, and museums. Some of them have an extraordinary impact on their communities and, in the process, are reinventing their core purpose.
With regard to the Eastern Market in Detroit, activities associated with the market not only serve farmers, vendors, or consumers, but they also form an expansive network that connects stakeholders well beyond the geographic confines of the market. Beyond geographic space, the market also participates actively in creating a shared economic, social, and environmental future for its communities. The success of the Eastern Market ultimately depends on the strength of ties, commitment to collaborate, and trust between the diverse stakeholders, who are often driven by different and sometimes conflicting interests and motives. The unique business model in which the Eastern Market positions itself as the nexus between public welfare and business interests provides an interesting alternative to traditional dichotomies that emphasize either community welfare or business prosperity.
There are several lessons we can glean from this case study. First, local and regional business interests and community welfare are compatible, and business interest does not need to veer from profit orientations to contribute to large-scale and long-term sustainable community development. On the contrary, prosperity is one of the fundamental pillars of the Eastern Market’s successes. In this sense, our case illustrates how, in line with UN SDG 11, a set of coordinated activities of the Eastern Market contributes to “safe and affordable housing…inclusive and sustainable urbanization, protect[ing]…cultural and natural heritage, reduc[ing] the adverse effects of natural disasters, reduc[ing] the environmental impact of cities, provid[ing] access to safe and inclusive green and public spaces, a strong national and regional development planning [and] implement[ing] policies for inclusion, resource efficiency and disaster risk reduction” [27].
Second, the Eastern Market’s business model offers a promising alternative to community development within business–society relations. The Eastern Market is neither philanthropic in nature nor is it a government initiative limited in time and funding. Its core revolves around building a strong and resilient community, which in turn secures the success of the market. Implementing this vision has had positive, long-term consequences on communities beyond Detroit’s city limits.
Third, the socioeconomic vision and underlying values of the Eastern Market are central to its organizational culture. As such, social and community values have considerable potential for businesses to engage in and foster sustainable community development, something that is particularly evident in the recent socioeconomic achievements of Detroit. This is especially important because we are observing a shift of power from government to business, or from the civic to the private sector, across the globe.
Businesses have emerged as the most powerful societal actors, which raises important questions about the role they could occupy in building sustainable communities, not least to secure their long-term business interests. At a time of shortening and diversifying supply chains, rapidly changing market conditions, and declining social, ecological, and economic conditions, it is indeed essential for the private sector to reflect on current practices. This case study illustrates how commercial interests and local businesses are an integral part of the development of sustainable communities. It furthermore provides a promising, real-world alternative to abstract theories, models, and untested policy proposals.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, Z.B. & M.M.B.; methodology, Z.B. & M.M.B.; validation, Z.B. & M.M.B.; formal analysis, Z.B. & M.M.B.; investigation, Z.B. & M.M.B.; writing—original draft preparation, Z.B. & M.M.B.; writing—review and editing, Z.B. & M.M.B. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was partially funded by a scientific exchange grant (SNSF IZSEZ0_201351).

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


We thank Basil Bornemann for his comments on a previous version of this paper.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Eastern Market hub-and-spoke business model (adapted from [111]).
Figure 1. Eastern Market hub-and-spoke business model (adapted from [111]).
Sustainability 14 04187 g001
Table 1. Overview of potential benefits and risks associated with farmers markets in the US.
Table 1. Overview of potential benefits and risks associated with farmers markets in the US.
Farmers Markets in the US
Potential BenefitsPotential Risks
Economic developmentDisplaced and diffused economic development
Food access and affordabilityExpensive niche products
Social cohesionSocial exclusion
Citizen awarenessElite leisure activity
Contribution to social justiceExacerbation of social injustice
Opportunity costs
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Bergman, Z.; Bergman, M.M. Toward Sustainable Communities: A Case Study of the Eastern Market in Detroit. Sustainability 2022, 14, 4187.

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Bergman Z, Bergman MM. Toward Sustainable Communities: A Case Study of the Eastern Market in Detroit. Sustainability. 2022; 14(7):4187.

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Bergman, Zinette, and Manfred Max Bergman. 2022. "Toward Sustainable Communities: A Case Study of the Eastern Market in Detroit" Sustainability 14, no. 7: 4187.

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