The Sustainable Model for Tomorrow’s City Starts with the Post Industrial City
Over the past half century, our western cities that emerged from the industrial revolution have grown into dense nodes of interconnections. The premise of spatial connectivity that inspired these cities has facilitated a consolidation of old urban cores into larger ecologies of interaction that provide reciprocal benefit to their participants.
Whereas the western metropolis has evolved through the idea of a larger city, it could be our smaller, post industrial cities that will serve as candidates for the next iteration of the cityscape. Armed with new mechanisms for access and mobility, our current technological reality brings opportunities to reconnect to a class of smaller, under-utilized cities and activate existing landscapes that were previously deemed inaccessible. The adaptive reuse and re-programming of these existing and largely-forgotten downtowns will offer the ability to unlock a new sustainable city model in a return to the idea of dispersed urbanity.
From their beginnings, cities have revolved around the element of connectivity. The birth and growth of many of the large cities we have today was predicated on the physical connections that allowed for access to transit corridors and raw materials. The prevalence of transporting people and goods by ship lead to the siting of cities on the maps of coasts and rivers to utilize waterways as the connective tissue for exchange and communication. Thus, the utility of spatial adjacency became the determining factor to create our business hubs as ports with proximity to a concentration of commodities.
Just as the rise of America’s industrial age breathed life into urban areas across the country, its demise left a vacuum around a series of cities that were built for the purpose of making things. A combination of advances in manufacturing technology, the prospect of cheaper labor abroad and new opportunities for transport and distribution helped to decouple cities from their intended, and often singular, uses. The absence of industrial anchors brought the market to reassess the value of the cartographic adjacencies that historically made their locations so attractive and had served as the foundations of their connections to the world beyond.
Today, these historic cities sit as complex, vacant landscapes with an array of beautiful containers rooted in a network of infrastructural systems. Many have spent decades sitting idle, awaiting the adaptive evolution required to allow them to reconnect to their surrounding environs. More than any time since our country’s migration away from the role of an industrial leader, we now have the capacity to plug these cities back into a broader network and unlock their potential for a new urban experience.
While the buildings of post industrial cities have languished waiting for new supply chains to refill factory floors, the world has developed a different network of exchange that can reboot our ideas of utilizing these artifacts. Technology continues to create ways to increase the amount of information we can access and the speed with which we do it. Adjacencies drawn on a map can be circumvented by fiber-optic bridges of communication. Vast expanses of cubicles over sprawling production floors can be replaced by remote server farms; employees can be a handful of seats within a cooperative work space rather than floor plates of desks for a single entity.
New modes for how we live and work offer a chance to reprogram the functional organization of spaces built for an outmoded use. According to a survey conducted by Gallup, 43% of employed Americans spent at least some time working remotely last year. Where telecommuting may have historically started in tech-based industries, the range of companies allowing, if not embracing, remote employees is on the rise. The advent of broader access to goods, generic drugs, driverless vehicles and distributed power generation all challenge traditional parameters of determining prime urban location. This new age of technology erases the need for spatial adjacency predicated on the outdated understanding of connectivity.
For cities formerly viewed as “detached,” these forces provide a way for new urban populations to benefit from affordable environments built around a pedestrian scale while still plugging into the network of living and business outside of their city limits.
A new generation of programming for these sites could constitute the greatest comprehensive recycling of resources in American history–a life cycle extension without equal. Like palettes of construction materials, our supply of unused industrial buildings are vast caches of latent energy stored in structures built for longevity. Any realistic, sustainable solution for our urban future will need to include the existing built environment.
Not only does the demolition of our historic fabric constitute one of our largest waste streams, but its replacement with new construction deepens the tax of our planet’s resources. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the country produced 534 million tons of construction and demolition waste in 2014, more than twice the amount of all generated municipal solid waste. Over 90% of this waste stream came from demolition. In addition, as the publication of PlaNYC in 2007 aptly pointed out, “by 2030 at least 85% of our energy and carbon usage will come from buildings that already exist today.” Even if every new structure utilized the bleeding edge of best practices, their collective influence would only amount to a small portion of our total building stock. We will not build our way out of our consumption with disparate examples of new efficient buildings.
A solution could include focusing on existing square-footage that bears unused capacity–an increasingly rare commodity for our larger urban icons. Now armed with new generations of buildings systems and enclosure technologies, we can re-enter a former industrial node to give a second life to those resources, a life that is more efficient and costs less to operate than their original incarnation. Even outside names like Boston, San Francisco or New York that are familiar to overcrowding and high demand, a growing list of cities report less than 1% of housing stock for sale. Filling empty floors and vacant lots in cities built to fit 30-40% more than their current populations could be a valuable alternative to adding expensive space to environments nearing capacity.
Contrary to some new development experiments that try to create urban conditions on greenfield sites, our class of smaller, reactivated cities offers the unique ability to link the present not only to the future, but also to the past. Though their generation of survival has not been en vogue, the grids and structures of these industrial enclaves are rooted in a community lineage built on foundations that have often existed for over a century. The scars of their histories speak to an authenticity rather than the appliques of contemporary trends. The pasts that they have not been able to part from also leave them with a irreplaceable built environment outside the reach of fast fashion or overnight development.
Beyond the tacit benefits of so many physical resources, the stories and records of these aged landscapes connect us to lifetimes of wisdom that provide a benchmark against where we have been and how that can inform where we are going. The same aspects of these buildings that have dissuaded development efforts in the end of the last millennium also make them more pliable and agile to a new generation of building standards, policy fabrics, and infrastructural networks.
The concept of reuse is a difficult one in modern times where an increasing number of items are made for an increasingly short lifespan. As technology continues its swift pace of evolution, generations of products are rendered inert. Yet unlike our computers and cellphones, our post industrial fabric is full of assets that have retained their value, needing only to be plugged back in. The same advance in technology that evolved its way out of their city limits has now circled around with the ability to reconnect with new means and methods. The result could be a new generation of unique urban archetypes prompting the incubation of connection methods we can only begin to imagine.