Think U.S. Cities Have No Place for Industry? Think Again.

Why the City of the Future Will Still Need Manufacturing Districts

January 16, 2014

Principal, NBBJ

As we imagine the future city, few would imagine smokestacks continuing to spew toxins in the air, as they did in the heyday of the industrial revolution. Just think of Pittsburgh today, a well-scrubbed modern metropolis with nary a smokestack in sight — unless they’ve been preserved to cleverly brand an outlet mall. But the city of the future cannot simply be a place for the endless consumption of goods or the production of bits and bytes.  People in this country — about 12% of the labor force — still produce things large and small, and to imagine that all this production should be shipped to lower-wage countries is neither practical nor advantageous to our economy.

As our “legacy cities” and once-gritty urban industrial areas proceed on a path to well-scrubbed gentrification, the remaining industrial jobs, those that weren’t shipped overseas, are increasingly forced to peripheral locations far from the blue-collar neighborhoods with the industrial skills to support manufacturing.  Likewise, tech-centric startups born in research universities that wish to translate their inventions into production are forced to relocate to new flex spaces in far-flung greenfield sites, forcing their formerly urban workforce into long commutes or forced decampment to suburban towns on the periphery.

Manufacturing needs larger pieces of land, land that is often too expensive in urban centers. This inherently separates the production process from the innovative circles that initially spawned the new technology, likely slowing the process of further innovation. The city of tomorrow needs to be a place that generates plenty of new ideas, certainly, but it also needs to be a place where these ideas are tested, prototyped and in many cases physically produced, at least in some quantity.

Artisanal production has found beachheads in places like Brooklyn, but what about not-so-artisanal production?  There are still places where full-scale production should continue in urban settings, to preserve proximity to the skilled workers that once fed the furnaces and production lines of our now mostly lost industrial past.  Think of the working-class neighborhoods in Philadelphia or Cleveland, neighborhoods still full of people who are skilled in actually making things.  Combine them with the research universities and medical centers that are also embedded in the cores of those cities: these are the same institutions that generate new ideas and drive innovation.  While these two populations may never share the same bars, they are nevertheless two ends of the same innovation cycle.  And bringing them together in the production of new goods may be the quickest way to spur the innovation cycle further.

Of course, we are wary of bringing back the smokestacks, semi-truck parking lots and heavy rail infrastructure that make these types of industrial districts work.  They fail to fit into our post-modern notions of pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, live-work-learn-play neighborhood design.  Yet the city at-large is the unit of “live-work-learn-play”:  and the “work” part sometimes means big spaces that are not easily mixed with living.

In a future post, I’ll look at some types of manufacturing that are ideally suited to urban environments, and the ways in which to accommodate them. Regardless, we as urban designers and planners need to figure out what it really means to be a post-industrial city: to really fulfill its promise as a hub of innovation, we can’t go too far with the “post-“ without including a little “industrial.”

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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