The Problem With Calling Cities 'Post-Industrial'

It's time to come up with a new way of thinking and talking about places like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

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Former heavy manufacturing hubs around the Great Lakes like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee often get roped together under the heading of "post-industrial" (when, that is, we're not otherwise identifying them by their prevalence of rust). The term poses at least two problems, though: Industry still exists in many of these places, and the very notion of defining them by their relationship to the past can hamstring us from planning more thoughtfully for their future.

“You’ve got the ‘post-war,’ you’ve got ‘post-modern,’ you’ve got ‘post-9/11,’” says Paul Kapp, an associate professor in the school of architecture at the University of Illinois and an editor of the book SynergiCity: Reinventing the Postindustrial City. He was speaking Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Planning Association (hosted in what's often considered the post-industrial city of Chicago). "You get to a point," Kapp says, "where you’ve got to say, 'When does post-something end and you do something new?’ I think with ‘post-industrial,’ we’re at that opportunity now. I think it’s now time to come up with a new term."

Three decades into the decline of many of these industries, it’s time to think about what comes after post-industrial. Or, perhaps, to question what we really mean when we use a term first coined by the 1973 Daniel Bell book The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society.

"I don't think we ever have had a 'post-industrial period' – that really is exaggerated," says John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and now the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. As a country, he argues, the U.S. produces more manufactured value than any other country in the world (even if we no longer produce quite the same number of jobs in creating that value). "Cities make a big mistake if they start thinking about the 'post-industrial world' when there’s still a lot of value to be created and jobs in manufacturing."

In all our fixation on the iconic image of rusting smokestacks, we often forget that manufacturing may mean something else entirely in the 21st century. We also forget that those cities known most widely for their idled steel mills and meatpacking plants also possess some inherent strengths that are still relevant today. Donald Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon, ticks off a long list of them: authenticity and heritage, walkable neighborhoods and transit, universities and medical centers, recreational amenities and abundant fresh water.

This last asset will inevitably become even more important. About 20 percent of the world's surface supply of fresh water is located in the Great Lakes region, and this could entirely change how we think about cities there in a future where water comes to be more valuable than oil.

""I think there could be a new terminology," Carter says. "The Sun Belt becomes the Drought Belt, and the Rust Belt becomes the Water Belt."

Top image of Pittsburgh: SeanPavonePhoto/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.