Design our industrial future

Scott Page's picture
I previously lamented the apparent death of industrial use in our cities by the widespread application of terms like "post-industrial" and "rust-belt."  While semantics is an issue, let's not forget that design matters and, in terms of industrial use, it hasn't seemed to matter enough in recent years.    

In times past, industrial use was often a form of pride.  Many of the hulking, multi-story industrial buildings in older cities are (still) beautiful additions to our cityscapes.  In some cities, those that went vacant have spawned a new form of urban scavenge hunting by those seeking to fuel their appreciation for our industrial past through photography and exploration.  Think as well of the WPA posters, many of which used stylized industrial themes to promote our "American" identity. 

But as the urban industrial sector declined and the suburban distribution and warehousing sector took off, we lost something in translation.  Urban industrial land often became symbols of contamination and blight due in part to the often visible vacancy on the fringes of downtowns or along major rail corridors.  At the same time, massive flat boxes spread across suburban and exurban areas nestled along highways and often removed from where people live.  The boxes are not so much designed as assembled for just-in-time efficiency. 

Rising gas prices and rising transportation costs among other factors have started to question whether the big suburban industrial box makes sense.  Wouldn't it be cheaper to build facilities closer to where other processes and consumers are?  If that's the case, we need to take another look at what an urban industrial development might look like. 

First off, and it's easy to say this now in the wake of a national housing crisis, but we need to re-evaluate our hopes for the future of industrial vacant land.  We all know how tempting that large, formerly industrial site is.  While it may be contaminated, it is also large and under one (maybe a couple) of owners.  Its redevelopment could be the catalyst for new housing and retail.  We tell ourselves, the market has spoken.  Industrial has had its chance and now it's time for something else. 

Don't get me wrong, there are certainly times when formerly industrial land can and should be reclaimed for other uses.  But there are also times when industrial sites can be re-purposed for new industrial uses that fit with the urban context.  As with everything, context matters location matters.  Cities have infrastructure and a diverse workforce that are increasingly recognized as assets to build on.  Let's make the most of them where we can.  Some cities like Chicago, NYC and Portland have gotten out in front of this issue by protecting industrial land from variance requests.  These protection areas are hard to policitally come by but a solid public commitment to support continued industrial use.  

But the equally important issue is design.  How can we advocate for new industrial uses when the general perception is that industrial uses shouldn't be near my house?   Infill Philadelphia, a program of the Community Design Collaborative, organized to "promote workable, innovative design solutions to revitalizing older, urban neighborhoods," will address this very issue when they will soon launch a process to explore new design possibilities for urban industrial uses.  The initiative recognizes that we need to re-learn how to build new industries in the city as well as smooth the relationship between existing industrial areas and other uses.  As designers and planners, we can certainly help. 

Industrial (urban) design certainly needs this kind of attention.  Maybe then we'll start to seriously look at the opportunities for new and existing industrial uses of all stripes.  After all, who wants to plan for where the scrap metal recycling yard should go .or what it should look like?  It's far more enticing to plan for new urban "fabric," the kind that creates all those walkable places that got us interested in cities in the first place.  But in an age when jobs and greening matters, planning for our industrial future should occupy our time and energy more than it has in the recent past. 

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

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