What Should Cities Make?

What Should Cities Make?
President Trump is gung-ho about the U.S. producing more goods. But what, exactly, should cities be making in the 21st century?
Feb 20 2017

When President Donald Trump announced his Manufacturing Jobs Initiative last month, he was moving forward on a promise he made over and over during his campaign: to make America great at making stuff again.

“America became the world’s dominant economy by becoming the world’s dominant producer,” the then-candidate said during a campaign stop in Monessen, Pennsylvania, in June 2016. Lambasting globalization and trade pacts as “economic surrender,” he pledged to restore the country to the glory days of thrumming assembly lines: “We will make America the best place in the world to start a business, hire workers, and open a factory.”

Whether lost manufacturing jobs can return in an era of increasing automation is a subject of skepticism among many analysts. After all, America is building more than ever; the manufacturing sector just doesn’t employ as many people. But it’s clear that this administration will continue to at least create the impression that it is bringing back goods-producing factory jobs.

So, where do cities fit in with this? With their limited space, dense population, and high costs, modern urban areas are no longer the industrial powerhouses they were a century ago. But they do have still have some key advantages over small towns, rural areas, and spread-out exurbs. CityLab asked experts how American cities can play to their strengths to ramp up production, and learned a few rules of thumb.

Forget commodities

The first is no surprise: Don’t bother wooing widget-makers. With higher land values and thus less room for production facilities than the exurb up the highway, the 21st-century city isn’t the best place to make commodity goods on a vast scale.

“What cities are good at are things that turn out, often, to be shorter-run, more customized, [meet] a particular need, and drive off the innovation-high nature of cities,” says Peter Hirshberg, a co-author of the book Maker City. “That’s very different than, ‘We have a big assembly plant where a bunch of humans are doing the same operation over and over again.’”

Adam Friedman, executive director of the Pratt Center for Community Developmentin New York, agrees. “The dividing line [between appropriate and less appropriate industry for cities] … is less around size and more around value added. It’s the difference between commodity products, like Sweet‘n Low—which just closed in New York—versus high-value-added products, which could be anything from architectural metalworking to all the artisan foods, but also including … furniture and fashion.” So, yes to the artisanal sauerkraut-maker, no to the industrial food factory.

These days, people assume that technology must be the differentiator, Friedman continues, but that’s often not the case. “It can also come from design, or proximity to market, or how well you serve your market.” Friedman’s example of a manufacturer well suited to its urban location is very old school: Steinway & Sons, which employs about 300 people in Queens. Concert-quality pianos are the ultimate “high-touch” product, and proximity to the music schools and arts organizations of a cultural center like New York is a big advantage.

A high-tech example Hirshberg cites is Crye Precision, which designs and produces body armor for the armed forces in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The manufacturer employs designers, engineers, seamstresses, and more—a cross-section of talent that would be tough to find outside of an urban area.



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