American cities have been on the rebound for about two decades now, with once moribund residential and commercial neighborhoods springing back to life. But despite this urban revival, industrial sites are as dead as ever. U.S. industrial output has been steadily rising for the last few decades, but it has come about entirely through increased productivity as opposed to increased employment. Manufacturers have been decamping to more suburban and rural areas for a century now, leaving holes in the urban fabric along waterfronts and railroad lines.
Deindustrialization is common throughout the developed world, and the traditional way of dealing with it has been to rezone industrial sites to allow residential and commercial development. But recently, especially in the wake of the recession and increased calls for “green jobs,” planners have been reconsidering urban deindustrialization. Vancouver, ever at the forefront of North American urbanism, seems to have soured on industrial rezonings, and other cities are following suit. Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities describes some efforts in U.S. cities to preserve their industrial land, arguing that “when we raze and remediate old 19th and 20th century industrial sites, maybe we should consider keeping a lot of them zoned that way.”
The trouble is, it’s hard to see why we should keep vacant industrial land industrial other than that it’s always been that way. Emily describes the sites as “near rivers, railways, or residential neighborhoods that once supplied workers and could do the same again,” though I doubt that, in the 21st century, urban rivers and railways will provide much benefit to industry. River and coastal transportation was displaced over a century ago by railroads, which have in turn now ceded urban shipping to truckers. Freight rail is still going strong outside of cities, but small urban shippers can’t fill enough cars to make it worthwhile, and therefore nearly always ship by truck.
But while urban rivers and railways have long since ceased to be useful to industry, they have grown in importance to residential developers. Waterfront property is prized by apartment- and condo-dwellers for the guaranteed views (well, almost guaranteed), and though freight has largely disappeared from the rails, the rights-of-way are still useful for passenger rail. Washington, D.C.’s Red Line, for example, follows an old railroad alignment north of Union Station, but the land to the east of the New York Ave. Metro station is woefully underdeveloped as a result of its non-residential zoning designation. The properties that haven’t been turned into parking lots and self-storage facilities are home to auto-oriented food wholesalers and mechanics, none of which take advantage of either the freight or passenger rail connections.While urbanists surely pine for an “artisanal woodworker who makes specialty wine racks out of salvaged debris” (you can’t make this stuff up!) to set up shop, none of them seem to be taking advantage of the land.
In the Atlantic piece one Philadelphia planner is quoted as saying that residents “would rarely look at us and say, ‘Can’t they be condos?’,” but this ignores the fact that if there is demand for new condos, then there will be demand for the older houses in the neighborhood, too. In the case of D.C.’s New York Ave. station, the gentrification has simply skipped over the blighted industrial land and is now bidding up housing prices in the surrounding neighborhoods which otherwise might have remained affordable. Put another way, rich people moving into your neighborhood beats rich people replacing your neighborhood, which will eventually happen if supply isn’t allowed in more desirable locations and your city doesn’t have strict rent controls.
Industrial zoning was invented in the beginning of the 20th century to keep manufacturing and industry out of residential and commercial neighborhoods, so it seems odd that, a century later, planners believe that the zones are still necessary in the exact same places, this time to keep industry in the neighborhoods. To a cynic, urban industrial zoning looks like a simple case of status quo bias, with ideas about “green jobs” and employment being little more than post hoc justifications for incumbent land use policies.