Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Industrial City

Though the creative cities approach to urban planning has become the rage, and deservedly so—there is still a foundational role to be played by manufacturing, and this article from New Geography looks at that role.

An excerpt.

“Yet to remain both a prosperous and fair society, the United States must remain a manufacturing power. Manufacturing still provides the traditional route to middle class wages for those without college degrees. It also alone employs 25 percent of scientists and related technicians and 40 percent of engineers and engineering technicians.

“Of course, the next wave of manufacturing will differ greatly from the past. Improvements in productivity and global competition mean a bleak future for large scale, low value-added, routinized production. The era where an assembly plant provided thousands of good jobs at good wages is a thing of the past other than for the lucky few. And where there are new factories, they are often in greenfield locations like the new Honda plant in Greensburg, Indiana – halfway between Indianapolis and Cincinnati – not urban centers. Polluting heavy industry like primary metals and refining really are incompatible with neighborhoods. So what is to be done?

“One answer is to build a new industrial city focusing on small scale craft and specialty manufacturing with high value added. We're seeing a precursor to this in the rise of organic farming and artisanal products of all kinds. TV shows featuring hip young carpenters renovating homes or gearheads tricking out cars and motorcycles make these professions seem glamorous. Magazines targeted at the global elite like Monocle scour the world in favor of the finest handcrafted products from old school workshops, building demand for these products. The New York Times Magazine recently did an article making the case for working with your hands, and also noted how digitally oriented designers are rediscovering the use of their hands. Perhaps it is no surprise that sociologist Richard Sennett turned his attention to the idea of the craftsman . In short, making things, craftsmanship, and quality are back in fashion.

“The challenge for urban economies is to develop this and put it on a sound industrial and economic footing. One key might be to inspire people to start these craft oriented businesses by tapping into people's desire to purchase ethical and sustainable products. We increasingly see with foods and other items that people want to understand their provenance, to know who made them, how, with what, and under what conditions. Often today businesses catering to this desire are small scale “Mom and Pop” type operations, but there is no reason they can't be done at greater scale, or expanded into areas like organic food processing, not just organic farming. American Apparel has done just that by manufacturing low cost, stylish clothing “Made in Downtown Los Angeles. Sweatshop Free.” at scale, for example.”