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The Geographic Legacy Costs of the Manufacturing Economy

The evolution of how we consume will re-structure where we reside.

By Jim Russell


An overgrown parking lot lies empty in front of the closed Packard Electric complex on October 29, 2012, in Warren, Ohio. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

As a region, the “Rust Belt” is dead. As for political or economic shorthand, the term invokes vivid images of despair and dislocation. Considering historic low coal production, I declare: Coal is the Rust Belt of the energy industry. “Rust Belt” means the decline of something once great and important. Concerning geography, almost all of the industrial wasteland has moved on from the dominance of manufacturing employment. Green shoots are ubiquitous. Yesterday was smoke and steel, the arsenal of democracy. Tomorrow will be bots and bytes, the artificial intelligence of anarchy.

That shift from one economic paradigm to another takes time. This emerging reality trickles down into discourse. How we look at the future is rooted in the past. Smoke and steel cloud our view of bots and bytes.

To be urban used to delineate proximity to manufacturing jobs and distance from farm work.

Manufacturing, with its celebratory suburban sprawl, sets the benchmark for life going forward. How are we doing, middle [white] class? We don’t live up to the 1950s. Nowhere in the world lives up to the Rust Belt in the 1950s, the pinnacle of prosperity without peer.

This pinnacle of prosperity without peer defines the economic geography of our times. The entire world is measured against the United States baby boom of post-World War II. The Rust Belt in particular encumbers this albatross, its population peak. How did your community stand up to the arsenal of democracy? Exceptional haunts Rust Belt cities. It haunts all U.S. cities. No place can live up to an unreasonable standard:

Distance is related to both density and scale. Business owners know that the minimum retail shop size to turn a profit is linked to the population density within a given radius. A 6,000- to 8,000-square-foot Apple store, for example, requires a population of roughly 2 million within its trade radius to reach target profitability. The industrial revolution created similar dynamics 200 years ago for manufacturers and other large employers, concentrating workforces to support large-scale production. Now, advanced economies are primarily service-based, but living patterns are still highly concentrated and ripe for disruption.

Advanced economies are primarily service-based. The living patterns are Rust Belt, primarily manufacturing-based. Today’s cities are more yesterday than today, lagging the demands of employment. This dissonance commands reconciliation.

The evolution of how we consume will re-structure where we reside. To be urban used to delineate proximity to manufacturing jobs and distance from farm work. In 2016, like 1816, one toils where one sleeps.

Untethered from big city, where will Millennials go? The exurbs are as possible as the cheap and impoverished inner ring suburbs. Have salary, will travel. No longer will manufacturing determine our zip code.