In a recent blog post, Tarry Hum, a professor of urban studies at Queens College, profiled the failure of the De Blasio administration to preserve prime industrial spaces in the outer boroughs of NYC.
In particular, she noted the failure of the city’s industrial zoning regulations to limit industrial conversion to non-industrial uses. While we often assume the combination of mass deindustrialization and high land costs often preclude industrial employment, many of our major cities and metro areas remain centers of industrial production. Further, as Dr. Hum points out in her blog post, manufacturing remains one of the key pathways for poorer immigrant communities to claim a spot in many urban economies.
But until quite recently the question of industrial land provision and preservation has been largely ignored by economic development researchers and professionals. Generally, both land-use and economic development planners have generally treated industrial land as drags on a city’s tax rolls and near obsolete given an assumption of total domestic de-industrialization. But more critical economic development planners have started to question these assumptions.
Green Leigh and Hoelzel really brought this issue to light for many planners with their 2012 piece, “Smart Growth’s Blind Side” where they found that the Smart Growth manuals that many cities used either did not mention industrial land’s importance or actually framed industrial land as uniformly damaging to cities—both as drains on tax revenues and as sources of pollution. Leigh and Hoelzel go to pains to explain that industrial land is not only useful from a city management standpoint (after all, cities have to be able to store their vehicles and heavy equipment somewhere), but also that gleefully converting industrial land cuts off potential economic and community development opportunities for our cities.
The greater issue here is not a blind faith in the return of manufacturing to cities, but in not foreclosing legitimate economic and community development opportunities for the sake of converting land for its “highest and best use.” Conflicts over industrial land use within our cities are greater conflicts over what kind of economies we want present in our cities and who is able to take advantage of given opportunities.
Deliberately pushing out industrial use is not only shortsighted and inefficient, but limits opportunities for greater social mobility for working class and poor neighborhoods. We need smarter industrial land use planning now, especially in our fastest growing cities.
(Photo credit: By Chad Carpenter via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)