The second in our Loeb Lab series takes on the nature of work in the urban center and may surprise with its optimistic view of the future of manufacturing in America. Writer Rob Lane (LF 2009) is senior fellow for urban design at the Regional Plan Association in N.Y. He has been a pioneer in participatory design practices and how they inform urban design decisions.
Recent reports by Brookings and others herald the resuscitation of manufacturing in metropolitan regions. These places benefit from the coincidence of wealth, innovation, diversification, clustering and concentrations of existing manufacturing. Surprisingly, the places with an established manufacturing legacy – places like the Northeast which were formerly written off as "rust belts” – are expected to do better than the Southwest and other regions associated with lower costs for doing business. Almost 80% of U.S. manufacturing jobs is in metro areas, and it’s not just software: employment is expected to increase in fabricated metals, plastic and rubber products, wood and furniture products. Output is expected to continue to increase in computer and electronic equipment, machinery, and pharmaceuticals. The revival of American manufacturing is also being driven in part by the "re-shoring” of jobs that had previously been shipped abroad - a phenomenon driven by rising transportation costs, rising labor costs abroad and the need to protect the intellectual capital embedded in the products: you lose control of what you don’t make.
Good news for regions, but what does this mean for cities? Presumably, the cities have a very special role to play as the places where research, technology, marketing and prototyping – the essential ingredients for successful urban manufacturing - are most tightly agglomerated. The latest buzz word for this phenomenon is "innovation district” which seem to be springing up everywhere – in Boston, Oakland, Portland and elsewhere – even in the suburbs.
The question is, will urban manufacturing be more than luxury goods, software development and boutique-scale prototyping, because according to a recent study of low-income entrepreneurship in N.Y. by the Center for an Urban Future not everyone is getting into that game. Using data from low-income neighborhoods and housing projects, CUF found that while "entrepreneurship offers an increasingly promising pathway out of poverty… few low-income New Yorkers are currently taking this route to economic self-sufficiency.” These populations have limited exposure to entrepreneurial role models, financial literacy and access to family and friends with the resources to help jump-start the business.
At one time, manufacturing jobs created a path to better wages and career advancement for immigrants and others who did not have access to the middle class. As regions like N.Y.C. become more polarized than ever, can manufacturing once again help level that playing field? The smoke stacks aren’t coming back, but is there more than "tech” and artisanal chocolate? Advocates say yes: In New York City alone, beyond printing and garment manufacturing, there are thousands of jobs in metal fabrication, chemicals, electronics and electrical equipment. These are still good jobs – higher wages ($5,000/year higher than the mean) benefits (63% have health insurance), opportunities for advancement – with deep linkages to the economy, the so called "multiplier effect.” In NYC, 78% are people of color and 64% are immigrants.
If this future exists, there will be challenges to building the new City of Production. Some of these are design challenges - new kinds of work and live-work spaces must be calibrated to new mixes of activities at different scales; new ways of moving goods through neighborhoods will be tested.
But the biggest challenge may well be a management challenge. When discussing the complex networks among producers, designers, marketers and others that give urban manufacturers their edge, advocates often refer to the "ecology of urban manufacturing”. If urban manufacturing relies on the close agglomeration of disparate activities including living - if the Neighborhood is the Factory – how do we "curate” its special ecology? Conventional zoning practices fix activities by creating lists of permitted and prohibited land uses that are largely static. How do we regulate the dynamic nature of urban production when it’s not even clear what manufacturing is?
One strategy for balancing predictability and flexibility is performance-based zoning: as long as you don’t make too much noise and dust, as long is it doesn’t smell bad, and as long as you don’t have deliveries at odd hours, you can do whatever you want. But unless we imagine a completely self-regulating system, a performance-based approach will require more capacity for management and enforcement. Places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Greenpoint Manufacturing Center successfully curate their special mix of activities because they are under one ownership. Can we scale this model up to the scale of the manufacturing neighborhood? And if we do, will it be agile and "just-in-time” or, as one city planner put it, will it just be the "world’s biggest co-op board,” notoriously obstructionist?
Recently, advocates for urban manufacturing have started to look to the models of affordable housing advocacy and production - a complex toolbox of techniques to bridge the gap between what the market wants and what people can pay for. Of course, affordable housing is considered a social good – essential for the welfare and prosperity of the city even though it may not be the "highest and best use.” Can we re-value the Working City in the same way?