Is a Post-Industrial City Really Sustainable?


Carlos Montana, 62, is the shop foreman for Visionaire Pleating; the company leases space from The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a nonprofit industrial developer in North Brooklyn. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

More than 24 million square feet of industrial space was lost to rezonings in the city between 2001 and 2008 — most significantly in the South Bronx, Long Island City, Midtown’s Garment District and Greenpoint/Williamsburg, according to the New York Industrial Retention Network.

This isn’t news, but a recent trend offers hope to so-called “post-industrial” cities like ours.

While factories conjure images of black smoke and polluted water, an exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum exploring urban manufacturing suggests that we don’t have to make such compromises. Many cities are pursuing a new kind of manufacturing movement that promotes tall, mixed-use factory spaces known as “vertical factories.”

Where: The Skyscraper Museum
Opening: Jan. 12
Closing: July 17
Price: $5

New York City seems to be getting on board with the movement. Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new initiative aimed at expanding and strengthening New York City’s small industrial businesses. The program, valued at $110 million, is a public-private partnership with Goldman Sachs and the City’s Economic Development Corporation that will offer loans, technical assistance and capital to upgrade existing industrial spaces.

In New York City, most industrial businesses are small — more than 80 percent of manufacturing firms employ less than 20 people, according to reports. The city boasts 6,500 small manufacturing companies.

Industrial jobs also pay more — they have a mean wage of $64,000 annually as compared to $55,000, the average earnings for a Tri-State area worker, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But can bike lanes and factories really co-exist? MetroFocus sat down with Nina Rappaport, an architectural historian, critic and the publications director at the Yale School of Architecture, to find out if the manufacturing sector can truly be compatible with the needs of an urban city and its residents.

Rappaport is also the curator of a show at The Skyscraper Museum that examines a greener, more sustainable form of urban manufacturing. You can see a sampling of images from the exhibit below.

We have pushed aside manufacturing in our cities. It has been usurped by high-end residential towers and “gold coast” real estate development.

Q: How did you develop the concept for the “vertical factory?”

A: The idea for the “vertical,” urban factory came from a studio that I co-taught with Mike Tower, an architect who actually grew up in Detroit — his family worked for “Fords” as they called it. We collaborated on a studio at the Parsons School of Design, where we had the graduate students take on the design of new kind of “vertical” urban factory on three different sites — one for the Garment District, one for Long Island City and one for Sunset Park in Brooklyn. The students explored the potential for a new kind of architecture for a factory using new materials, making it visible to the passersby and integrated with city life.

Q: Why do you think it’s important to maintain cities as centers of manufacturing?

A: This project and exhibit of course acknowledges that we have a globalized world and that so much production happens in China, India, Pakistan and even in East Europe, but I think that there has to be a bit of attention focusing on what the Western world can do to encourage manufacturing.

We have pushed aside manufacturing in our cities. It has been usurped by high-end residential towers and “gold coast” real estate development. And as a result, in New York for example, we have sequestered manufacturing to very small districts.

I am interested in investigating this idea that by potentially manufacturing things locally, our cities can be more self-sufficient — we can save energy, we can save fuel costs and we support well-paying jobs, by making things closer to home. We have one of the largest populations so we could feed ourselves, we could clothe ourselves, we could provide our own cars…

Q: What tools can urban planners or politicians use to support manufacturing in New York City?

A: One issue is of course the zoning. How do we perhaps change the zoning so that manufacturing can be built taller? I would be very interested in working with the city to see about creating manufacturing zones that are denser. Instead of the one-story shed structure that you see in the Bronx or Long Island City, manufacturing could be taller — and that would mean changing the zoning regulations.

Victor Lozano, 31, works for an architectural plaster company in one of The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center's re-purposed manufacturing buildings. More than 100 businesses, that together employ about 500 people, occupy their spaces. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Q: How can we live with industry without negative health impacts?

A: There always have been shifts out of cities for manufacturing, but I think that with a new change to cleaner manufacturing it might be easier to live with manufacturing. I think one of the big challenges is not just the economics, but the quality of life.

It might be very much of a dream, but I do feel that there is potential for this just because it’s already happening. For example, the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center has a few sites now where smaller manufactures are working.

The Brooklyn Navy Yards is another example where they actually have over-enrollment, people looking for space. We all know it as the historic ship yard, where numerous ships when off to fight many battles, but right now it has the largest expansion since WWII. It’s a 300-acre site and their planning for addition space focusing on sustainable development and job retention, with over 5,000 people working there.

And perhaps so that it is not a failed economic model, there could be a combination of residential and manufacturing together in one building.

Q: What’s next for your project?

A: As the exhibition travels, I am looking to pair real manufacturers with architects to have them design their visionary factory of the future.

MetroFocus Mutlimedia Editor Sam Lewis conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

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