What ails the Post-Industrial City isn’t its industrial past, but rather an inability to transition from its current state into one in which individuals desire to live and work. In their prime industrial cities were the epitome of inflexibility, often located in close proximity to a natural resource or geographic feature and requiring massive amounts of investment in single-purpose assets. Once these companies or industries were no longer viable a significant void was created.
It’s often remarked that our 21st century “knowledge & services economy” is much more fluid than years past as businesses tend to be less capital-intensive and individuals find it easier to jump from job to job. On the contrary, the reality of the post-industrial city is often sustained structural immobility, be it physical or employment-related. Addressing this lack of mobility, both for current residents as well as for those who seek what the Post-Industrial City offers, is essential for preserving it as its own distinct typology. As long as some faction of current inhabitants feel “trapped” and wish to live in a different environment this typology will remain threatened. The goal in revitalizing the Post-Industrial City is not complete transformation, but that its future be tightly connected to its past. This history and authenticity is what makes it unique and should not be lost. Instead, the goal is to create a better match between the city and those who value what it has to offer.
The two types of immobility affecting individuals, geographical and employment, are related. As jobs become scarce homeowners become tied to their current residence or are forced to abandon it altogether. As a result, a vicious cycle begins in which the deteriorating physical environment breeds crime, home prices decline further, and city services become more expensive to provide1. Much economic waste is created in the process of which there is no reciprocal benefactor. The key to revitalizing the Post-Industrial City, then, is addressing this vicious cycle and its root causes. If done correctly the resulting growth will re-enable the mobility of current and prospective residents, putting the city on a sustainable course.
The most obvious issue to deal with is the city’s financial crisis. Besides cutting waste and renegotiating contracts communities around the country have experimented with approaches to make their operations leaner. Detroit, for example, is exploring ways to consolidate its residents into a smaller geographic footprint to make the provision of essential city services and local commerce more viable2. Others have partnered with neighboring communities to share in the expense of essential city services3. Chicago even went so far as to establish the Chicago Infrastructure Trust which enlists private developers to help finance city services4. While not directly affecting the individual, initiatives like these allow the city to free up resources which can be used elsewhere.
Concurrently, the community itself needs to play a role in and feel ownership of reversing these trends. Formal approaches, such as local land banks Pennsylvania recently approved, aim to manage vacant properties and preserve the value of surrounding properties while private buyers are found5. According to Smart Growth America the Genessee County Land Bank in Flint, MI “raised surrounding property values by $109 million and has spurred $60 million in new private investment”6. While whether this role should be played by the city or private entities is up for debate, its goal is something many of these blighted cities should address. Even informal programs like neighborhood watch programs have been found to be effective – a study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology found that in 78% of the studies these programs reduced crime by at least 9%7. When residents feel safer and physical depreciation slows the city becomes a more desirable place not only for current residents but also prospective ones, improving overall mobility.
While the tactics discussed above apply to any city in an economically precarious position, the Post-Industrial city is unique – it must preserve its heritage, otherwise it risks becoming commodified. Large scale urban preservation projects such as the High Line in New York, Gasworks Park in Seattle, and the BeltLine in Atlanta have all made former industrial relics centerpieces of their cities. Such preservation efforts need not always be large, however. Smaller elements such as individual buildings, sidewalks, and storefronts all add to the diversity, which Jane Jacobs famously celebrated about New York’s Greenwich Village, and contribute to making a physical environment desirable8. Put another way, the Post-Industrial city should not attempt to whitewash its industrial past in an effort to look forward. Instead, it should embrace its history and make it an integral part to its vision for the future.
Large mega-projects such as shopping centers and stadiums, therefore, should be looked at with great suspicion as they completely change the fabric and identity of the city. Commercial “quick-fixes” like these don’t address the deeper issues at stake, and foster a generic suburban environment. Furthermore, they concentrate both private and public investment in an unhealthy way; such concentration was partly to blame for the decline many of these industrial cities originally experienced as there was no other industry to even out growth cycles and declines. When competing for such projects the cash-poor city also runs the risk of bidding away any resulting economic benefits. Instead, investments in industry-agnostic infrastructure, such as internet access and coworking spaces, as well as education and vocational training, should be prioritied.
While it feels unsatisfying to have no solution for addressing the crisis of the Post-Industrial city, the presence of one might actually be antithetical to what makes these cities unique and thus desirable. By embracing their heritage and addressing the many elements that inhibit individual mobility these cities will put themselves on a sustainable path. Where they go from there remains to be seen.
1 National Vacant Properties Campaign, “Vacant Properties: The True Cost to Communities,” Smart Growth America, 2005. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/documents/true-costs.pdf 2 Monica Davey, “The Odd Challenge for Detroit Planners,” The New York Times, 5 April 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/06/us/06detroit.html 3 Editorial Board, “Consolidating, sharing city services just makes good sense,” Detroit Free Press, 12 April 2013. http://www.freep.com/article/20130412/OPINION01/304120012/editorial-melvindale-dearborn-shared-resources 4 Tanveer Ali, “Slowly, Chicago’s Infrastructure Trust Tries to Change the Funding Game,” Next City, 3 January 2013. http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/slowly-chicagos-infrastructure-trust-tries-to-change-the-funding-game 5 Paige Miller, “Fighting blight in Pennsylvania: State House of Representatives passes land bank bill,” Smart Growth America, 22 February 2012. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2012/02/22/fighting-blight-in-pennsylvania-state-house-of-representatives-passes-land-bank-bill-2/ 6 “Land Banking,” Smart Growth Cities. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/issues/revitalization/land-banking/ 7 Trevor Bennett, Katy Holloway, and David P. Farrington, “Does Neighborhood Watch Reduce Crime: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Experimental Criminology (2006), Vol. 2, pp. 437-458. http://www.ncpc.org/resources/files/pdf/neighborhood-safety/does-neighborhood-watch-reduce-crime.pdf 8 Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” Random House. 1961. 223-229