Post Industrial?

Scott Page's picture

I never put much thought into the term "post-industrial."  In my college and grad years, the phrase seemed to be used like candy – a ubiquitous summary of the current state of cities in the US.  The phrase implies a kind of death in our cities, an inability to retain the industries that spurred their very growth. 

The term, first promoted by Daniel Bell in the early 1970s, is based on the trends that we have all come to know too well.  In the golden years of our industrial age, smokestacks and factories sat cheek by jowl with nearby homes.  Over time, industrial geography dispersed.  Some moved to suburban or exurban areas, others overseas.  Many "new" industrial uses (particularly those occupying space in exurban locations) occupied more space and resulted in bigger and flatter boxes.  The large box trend left cities with little bargaining power as larger urban sites for redevelopment are hard to come by.  In some cities, urban renewal programs in the 50s and 60s were able to carve out industrial space but today, space in cities is often limited compared to what's available further afield.  

As industry dispersed, each city was impacted differently.  Detroit's decline was markedly swifter than that in Philadelphia which had a more diverse base of industries.  But the end result is the same.  The often highly visible, vacant and obsolete industrial land has spurred the use of short-hand monikers like "rust-belt" city for added insult. 

But the term "post-industrial" isn't really accurate.  True, there have been changes and cities are not the powerhouses of industrial manufacturing in the ways they once were, but many cities also retain a healthy base of industrial use, even quite a few of those "rust-belt" ones.  Philadelphia, for instance, still has a diverse industrial base and only about an 11% vacancy rate in its industrial stock.  Now, coming into Philadelphia via Amtrak would have you believe that percentage should be a lot higher.  But despite these moments, there is a significant amount of production remaining in the city and local employment is very much tied to what's made, packaged, distributed and ultimately sold locally.  That's not to say we should cling to formerly industrial land in hopes that "formerly" will be replaced by "new," but industrial uses deserve consideration and discussion.  

Some of the issue is inevitably wrapped in the perception of what industry is.  Smokestacks, loud machinery, toxins hairnets - these are the words that spring to mind.  But a broader view today includes a whole range of production including research, artisanal and, depending on how we define it, green jobs.  Combined with the smaller distributers, wholesalers and other old school, but micro-industries, there is a rich economic sector that benefits from the density, activity and available workforce in urban areas.  And many of these uses can, and frequently do, sit comfortably next to homes, stores and parks. 

"Post industrial" feels like we've just given up.  But what is made locally is so important to a city's identity and vibe.  A colleague suggested "older industrial."  More accurate but in an age of political correctness and tact, maybe we should consider "experienced industrial" or "established industrial."  I'm open to suggestions. 

Scott Page is the founder of Interface Studio, a collaborative design office based in Philadelphia.

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