Ruminations on Post-industrial Cities – Re purposing to Make the Old New Again (Part One)

By Peiwen Yu

why post-industrial cities? And how do we renew the dynamism of modern urbanity in the postindustrial era?

This photo essay is my attempt to demonstrate the benefits of adaptive reuse design thinking for urban development, the community, and the environment. After having experienced those post-industrial places photographed, and personally directed a number of designs for re-purposing development, I came to the belief that cohesive blend of old and new has a unique capacity to create culturally-enriched and memorable places for the future cities.

Always fascinated with the abandoned places and the stories behind them, I start this photo journey from a magic place I visited during my last trip to Bolivia – the train cemetery. It is now a popular tourist spot and a memorial to the railway industry that used to play a huge part in a community that has since collapsed.

The cities I lived, traveled and worked in the US have amazing postindustrial heritages and can be categorized with different post-industrial economic typologies. For centuries, cities have been centers of commerce, culture and innovation, and the birthplace for some of humankind’s greatest ideas. Consider that just two centuries ago, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. At the dawn of the 20th century, it was just 14 percent. Today, it’s exploded to more than half the world’s population. And by the year 2030, more than five billion people (six out of every ten human beings) will live in cities and urban centers. At this critical crossroads in time, we need the ideas that cities can create more than ever.

I believe that a better global future lies in urban innovation and action. As cities around the world transition to postindustrial era, redevelopment/repurposing of existing, disused industrial buildings and sites is gaining significant momentum on the real estate development market, creating a trend in major cities. Compared to new green filed developments, adaptive reuse and brownfield redevelopments generate greater value from the environmental, economic and social point of views.

Never before has adaptive reuse been so prevalent in both urban and suburban areas than it is today. In many neighborhoods, service stations are being transformed into fast-food establishments and vacated elementary schools into condos or hotels. As land becomes scarce and as towns and cities age, creative developers are stepping in to meet growing demand and are repurposing older, outmoded buildings into much needed residential, office, and retail spaces (By Avison Young Topical Report). As long as sound underwriting and proper planning are taken seriously, the outcome of a renovation and adaptive-reuse project is often better than new development.

With a mix of international appeal and Southern charm, Houston is the fourth most populous city in the United States and a post-industrial city on the “sunbelt”. Compared to those de-industrializing cities such as Detroit, St Louis, and Philadelphia, Houston’s population and employment growth have been astonishing. Started from comparatively low bases of manufacturing employment (Houston registered between 24-28 percent), Houston has more developed service sectors and a postindustrial economy.

the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest waterways in the United States, achieved its earliest significance as a link between interior Texas and the sea. Houston doesn’t often get mentioned alongside the great American cities, but the Houston Ship Channel suggests it should. Its story is the quintessential American epic of work and family, of immigrants and businessmen, of wealth and poverty, a tale of ingenuity, of great ideas and questionable ones. When the ship channel meanders further inland, fewer big vessels can reach the terminals and some industrial warehouses are no longer in active uses in recent years, due to alternative shipping means and the dynamics of waterway and water depth conditions. Dredging is a year-round necessity affected by federal funding shortfalls, Port authority said, no more than 10 percent of the Houston Ship Channel is at its authorized depth and width at any given time, making catastrophes like Hurricane Harvey especially damaging.

Houston’s real estate market is demonstrating remarkable strength in the Inner Loop as the city becomes denser. Property that has been used for warehouses or light Industry face great opportunities to be adapted for development as residential or commercial projects.

Away from Houston my home city, I have traveled and worked in a number of global cities that have quite sophisticated urban postindustrial redevelopment scene – Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles, Shenzhen, Paris, and Beijing. With robust and diversified postindustrial economic foundation, these cities have achieved some of the best visions of re-purposing urban projects, creating remarkable postindustrial urban places for communities.

End of Part One, to be continued.

Photographs by Peiwen Yu, unless noted otherwise

Project graphics courtesy SWA and Peiwen Yu

1 thought on “Ruminations on Post-industrial Cities – Re purposing to Make the Old New Again (Part One)”

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