The Post-Industrial City

Douglas V Shaw. Handbook of Urban Studies. Editor: Ronan Paddison. Sage Publications. 2001.

The ’post-industrial’ city is an emerging set of urban forms and functions that appears to be sufficiently different from the industrial city of the past two centuries to warrant a separate definition. At the same time, it is not yet sufficiently articulated to justify a name and nomenclature of its own that defines it in a manner other than as a reaction to the cities of the recent past. The use of ‘post-industrial,’ then, represents both a sense on the part of observers that we have crossed a significant development boundary, and that the precise nature of the terrain on the other side is still largely unknown.

Industrial Origins, Post-Industrial Outcomes

As the post-industrial city is in many ways a continuation of the industrial city, it is appropriate to begin with a brief review of those aspects of prior urban development that shed light on the transitions now in progress. Much of the context of the post-industrial city may be discovered in its predecessors, in what Harvey S. Perloff has aptly called ‘the inheritance component of the future’ (Perloff, 1980: 279).

Cities are usually classified by their major purpose, and throughout the past 6,000 years of human settlement commerce and exchange have formed the dominant functions of most cities, most of the time. Cities located at strategic points gathered the goods of their hinterlands and organized them for transfer to other places, usually other cities, which functioned as distribution points for the goods of distant places. Cities were the focal points in trade systems that varied in their extent from regional to trans-continental. In the ancient world, cities such as Tyre, Rhodes, and Byzantium served as crucial nexus points for the expanding water-borne trade of the Mediterranean basin. Later, medieval cities like Venice, Genoa, Barcelona and Constantinople carved out similar roles, while Damascus became a staging area for the great caravans that crossed the mountains and deserts of central Asia, tenuously linking Europe and the Middle East to China and India (Hohenberg and Lees, 1985: 59-73, 106-36; Mumford, 1961: esp 321-8, 410-20).

During the later Middle Ages and Early Modern era production methods slowly improved in many areas of manufacture, with consequent improvements in both the quantity and quality of goods available. Much basic production, fine craft work excepted, took place outside of cities, with cities serving their traditional commercial roles, often enhanced by greater production and a general quickening of economic activity. In the late eighteenth century the rate of change in production methods increased markedly, and with the application of power sources such as coal and steam, the nature of manufacturing labour changed as well. Requiring relatively large and coordinated labour forces, the new factories became the engines of unprecedented urban growth and of changes in the basic functions of both existing and newly formed cities. The most successful of these ‘post-commercial’ cities grew with unprecedented speed, providing the means for the creation of wealth through control of industrial development at a pace that astonished contemporary observers, while at the same time, to the dismay of many of those same observers, adding new accretions of social and economic ills (Chudacoff and Smith, 1994: 78-107; Cowen, 1998: 3-31; Hohenberg and Lees, 1985: 179-214).

As social historian E.P. Thompson has observed, ‘There is no such thing as economic growth which is not, at the same time, growth or change of a culture’ (Thompson, 1967: 97). The dynamic of the Industrial Revolution challenged the moral, cultural, organizational and hierarchical structures of every society it touched. The ethics of capitalism, the time-discipline of the factory and the unprecedented economic and political power accruing to those who controlled productive resources all worked to undermine long-standing assumptions, habits and relationships. The intrusion of industrialism altered the structure and sources of economic rewards, and hence created new sets of socio-economic beneficiaries and victims (Gutman, 1976: 19-76).

Large-scale manufacturing depended on the distribution of production through cheap and efficient transport. Perfected in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the steam railroad met that need, and the revolution in production advanced in tandem with an equally profound revolution in distribution. Railroads also worked as centralizing forces, gathering activity in dense settlements around their terminals and way stations. As rail-based transport lessened the historical cost advantage of water-borne transport, industrial cities became almost by definition railroad cities as well. In the second half of the nineteenth century improvements in internal movement inside cities, both horizontal (street railways) and vertical (elevators), allowed a level of concentration of people and activity unknown in earlier times. Innovation after innovation worked to create or accommodate concentration and density (Chudacoff and Smith, 1994: 78-89; Taylor, 1951: 74-103).

The thrust of innovation in systems affecting cities in the twentieth century, however, worked primarily in the opposite direction, as the telephone, internal combustion engine and the use of electricity as a factory motive force allowed some activities to move outside of high-density settings while retaining commercial competitiveness. The scale of activity made possible by ‘modern’ industrial methods led to management and commercial innovations and to large increases in non-production personnel. In twentieth century industrial economies, in contrast to those of the previous century, managerial and clerical workforces grew at much faster rates than factory labour (Chandler, 1990: 31-46; Hohenberg and Lees, 1985: 248-74).

The scale of urban population growth during the industrial era was astonishing. Manchester, England, the shock city of the English Industrial Revolution, doubled in population between 1801 and 1831, from slightly above 70,000 to 142,000 (Briggs, 1965: 88-9). In the rapidly growing United States, Chicago exploded from 30,000 in 1850 to 1.1 million in 1890. Detroit, the citadel of ‘Fordist’ production, grew from 80,000 in 1870 to 465,000 forty years later, and then between 1910 and 1920, the first decade of mass automobile production, more than doubled again, to 994,000 (Philpott, 1991: 6; Sugrue, 1996: 23). Cities tended to grow faster physically than institutionally, frequently overwhelming their lagging infrastructures and policy-making processes. Much of the built environment reflected the need to house and serve thousands upon thousands of hopeful migrants quickly rather than well, and the resulting construction deficiencies formed much of the physical landscape in these cities until well beyond the industrial era. Conversely, cities outside industrial mainstreams or lacking good transport connections languished. Industrialization remade urban hierarchies, thrusting industrial cities toward the forefront (Chudacoff and Smith, 1994: 111 46, 177-201; Hohenberg and Lees, 1985: 248-330).

From their earliest incarnations, cities functioned as cultural repositories of learning and civilization, as places where accumulated knowledge was nurtured, preserved and passed from generation to generation through means both formal and informal. Ancient temples, medieval monasteries and early modern universities served similar purposes in their respective times. Preservation and transmission, particularly of religious lore, took precedence over seeking new truth: Galileo’s forced recantation in the 1630s exemplified the alarm aroused by non-traditional views. In the twentieth century the conscious search for new secular knowledge through funded research and development accelerated the pace of innovation and enhanced the ability to solve specific problems through focused empirical research. The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City, founded in 1901, provided an early model of a ‘pure research’ institution, an organizational form subsequently extended by others into virtually every discipline (Chernow, 1998: 467-79). Indeed, the institutionalized production of knowledge and invention as commodities are two hallmark innovations of the twentieth century, and are among the more important bridges linking the industrial to the post-industrial city.

In the final third of the twentieth century the engine of economic growth—heavy industry built around the twin symbols of industrial might, iron and steel—began to decline in the economies of developed countries in both absolute and relative importance. Various types of services replaced heavy industry as growth centres, from highly specialized producer services such as corporate law, banking and accounting, to low-paying consumer services. The proto-typical post-industrial city, then, is a city in which traditional industry maintains a significant but decreasing share of economic activity, replaced as an engine of economic growth by the production of various types of services, from producer services, to medical, educational and governmental services, to consumer services. None of these service areas was new, but as primary beneficiaries of the twentieth-century knowledge revolution, they all expanded and became more specialized. When traditional industry began to decline, however, growth in these areas not only continued but accelerated, and they rapidly increased both their relative and absolute shares in evolving urban economies (Bluestone and Harrison, 1982; Drennan, 1991; Hall, 1996: 402-22).

The Term ‘Post-Industrial’

First used in 1919 by Indian cultural reformer A.K. Coomaraswamy (Gappert, 1979: 31), the label ‘post-industrial’ did not become a term of everyday use until popularized by Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell in his influential The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (1973). According to Bell,

The concept of the post-industrial society is a large generalization. Its meaning can be more easily understood if one specifies five dimensions, or components, of the term:

  • Economic sector: the change from a goods-producing to a service economy.
  • Occupational distribution: the pre-eminence of the professional and technical class.
  • Axial principle: the centrality of theoretical knowledge as the source of innovation and of policy formulation for the society.
  • Future orientation: the control of technology and technological assessment.
  • Decision making: the creation of a new ‘intellectual technology.’ (Bell, 1973: 14)

For Bell, the United States’s labour force reached a critical juncture in 1956 when, ‘for the first time in the history of industrial civilization,’ the number of white-collar workers exceeded the number of blue-collar workers. He also noted that in the 1950s and 1960s the greatest growth in white-collar workers was in the professional and technical categories, areas demanding at least some post-secondary education, and that the fastest growing sub-groups were those of scientists and engineers. The result, he posited, would be a future society structured around the kind of knowledge created by these technocrats. To emphasize his point, Bell drew a sharp distinction between industrial and post-industrial societies:

Industrial society is the coordination of machines and men for the production of goods. Post-industrial society is organized around knowledge, for the purpose of social control and the directing of innovation and change; and this in turn gives rise to new social relationships and new structures, which have to be managed politically. (Bell, 1973:20)

Although Bell’s conceptualization has hardly been accepted uncritically (see Gappert, 1979: 31-7), the entry of ‘post-industrial’ into the common language of social and economic discourse, and its continued use over three decades basically as Bell defined it, seems to confirm his 1973 forecast of emerging fundamental structural changes in the nature of economic organizations and social relations.

Global Cities

At the same time that most older industrial societies began to experience the impact of industrial levelling off or decline and the growth of post-industrial service sectors, a series of changes in the world economy began to reshape urban networks and to hasten the development of a small number of world cities that possessed the resources to exploit and benefit from a new, more internationalized economic order. Just as the Industrial Revolution strengthened the prospects of some cities at the expense of others, the dynamic changes that shaped the global, post-industrial economic order also led to differential outcomes for different places (Kantor, 1987: 506-7).

The key components of late-twentieth-century economic globalism included the continued elaboration and growth of multinational corporations with worldwide interests; the weakening of national restraints on the free flow of capital between countries and regions, and the development of new types of investment instruments to accommodate those flows; and the movement of manufacturing away from the older core of industrial nations to Third World countries in the early stages of industrial development. An important consequence was a reduction in the effectiveness of strictly national barriers to investment and trade, and an expansion of markets for the transfer of capital and goods. More than ever, markets seemed to transcend the borders and interests of nation states, and the ability of individual countries to direct their internal economies and shape the manner in which they interacted with external structures and forces declined accordingly.

These changes have affected the dynamics of urban networks worldwide. While cities tied firmly to smokestacks and factories frequently suffered social and economic distress after 1970, those cities positioned to provide the services required by the new global order grew in affluence, commercial importance and economic power. Decisions made in these centres of post-industrial growth and change, frequently termed global cities, disproportionately affected the course of economic and technological developments in distant parts of the world. This emerging transnational economy, described by Saskia Sassen as ‘spatially dispersed, yet globally integrated,’ (1991:3) required a number of highly specialized producer services in such areas as law, banking, finance and accounting. These services, while hardly new in kind, were in form more advanced, specialized and innovative than their more traditional antecedents. Sassen posited four enhanced roles for cities at the centre of post-industrial international trade and finance. Global cities would function, she wrote:

first, as highly concentrated command points in the organization of the world economy; second, as key locations for finance and for specialized service firms, which have replaced manufacturing as the leading economic sectors; third, as sites of production, including the production of innovations, in these leading industries; and fourth, as markets for the products and innovations produced. (Sassen, 1991: 3-4)

Those able to provide these service products required a highly specialized international clientele, and that clientele had to be available in sufficient numbers to provide a flow of work capable of supporting a critical mass of highly trained, highly paid, providers. Thus service producers and service consumers found each other in abundance only in a relatively small number of places. As the global economy expanded, and the demand for these services increased, such post-industrial ‘command points’ as New York City, London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong, and to a greater or lesser extent their surrounding metropolitan areas, experienced expansion both in corporate headquarters employment and in the services multinational corporations required as adjuncts to their global business development (Sassen, 1991: 19-34, 90-125).

In a major study of New York City, London and Tokyo, Sassen theorized that global cities constituted a new type of urban development, and that cities at the centre of post-industrial change would develop in similar, parallel ways as they responded to the demands of a new age; and that the interests of these cities and their business elites had the potential to run in directions counter to the internal and external interests of the nations in which they were situated. The financial industry in particular, a key to multinational corporate growth, had become increasingly concentrated in these three cities. Sassen contended that as the global economy became ever more integrated, the position and economic power of these three financial centres would correspondingly be enhanced as demand for their specialized producer services grew. A spatially dispersed global economy, driven by large corporations exercising control over worldwide production and distribution systems by means of modern telecommunications, would at the same time experience additional concentration in the cities best equipped to provide the specialized services required by those corporations (Sassen, 1991: 3-167).

The decline of manufacturing in the industrial West and the growth in producer services has tended to rearrange the distribution of opportunity and income in cities affected by these changes, regardless of their degree of participation in the global economy. Factory jobs that paid middle-class wages have been a primary casualty of the transition to a post-industrial economy, with industrial workers frequently pushed into lower paying service jobs or out of the labour force entirely. Meanwhile, managers and the new professionals on whom they depend receive, year by year, increasingly lucrative salaries, bonuses and benefits. Thus the broad middle of urban societies may be shrinking, while the income gap between the well paid and the working poor widens. The post-industrial city, then, is also likely to be a dual city, in which rich and poor draw further away from each other spatially within the urban region, as well as in terms of differential access to economic resources. While the extent of this dichotomy and its meaning is a subject of continuing scholarly debate, few observers deny that troubling social consequences are to a greater or lesser extent a constituent accompaniment of the post-industrial urban order (Davis, 1992b; Marcuse, 1997; White, 1998).

The extent to which this perceived dualism will prove to be a temporary or permanent condition is as yet unknown. White (1998) notes that the decline of manufacturing in the West is directly responsible for economic growth and personal opportunities in those parts of the world where industry has relocated, and in some places economic change has also increased distributive equity. It is possible that the dualism currently experienced by older industrial societies is transitional, with the dislocations created by industrial decline likely to lessen as a replacement order takes form. It was Benjamin Disraeli, after all, who portrayed the social and economic upheavals of mid-nineteenth-century industrializing England in equally stark dualistic terms in his classic novel of social criticism, Sybil, or The Two Nations (Disraeli, [1845] 1995).

Certainly the relative stability and predictability that characterized the industrial decades seem to have come to a close. Peck and Tickell (1994) pick up on the theme of transition in a provocative essay that argues that the present era represents not a new era of stability, but a time of instability between an ordered, regulated industrial system and a social and economic order of a new type, its full shape and direction as yet unknown. The present global economy, they hold, constitutes a disordered interregnum that possesses neither adequate regulation nor the basis for a new coherence. Renewed stability can only come from ‘a new institutional fix … at the global scale.’ This global fix, however, will likely rely on the enduring assertive might of the traditional nation state. ‘The global financial institutions in particular must be harnessed and reformed,’ they write, ‘a process which will doubtless require concerted action through nation states. It is consequently important that the nation state is not written off as a key site in this regulatory struggle, for this is likely to remain the principal scale at which democratic control and political power can be (re)coupled’ (Peck and Tickell, 1994: 311). Nation states, then, might seek to recreate stability, perhaps collectively, by attempting to impose a new trans-national order on the global services economy. National assertiveness in these arenas may have the potential to harness and restrain trans-national economic activity, and by extension, to reduce the independent influence of the global cities that facilitate its development.

Post-Industrial Urban Networks

It is an over simplification to think of cities as either ‘global’ or ‘non-global.’ The degree to which cities have become providers of the specialized services that have become the moving force in post-industrial urban economic development moves along a continuum. Some cities, such as New York, London and Paris, have retained their positions as global financial centres, adapting their institutional structures to changing markets, methods and opportunities. Other cities, most notably Tokyo, have emerged as leading financial centres during the transition to a post-industrial urban order.

Tokyo, as a financial and global services centre, has grown in importance as Japan has advanced to the status of an industrial power and technological leader in the decades following the Second World War. Tokyo has become the most important centre in a trading region often referred to as the Pacific Rim, which includes the Asian and North American nations and city-states of the Pacific basin. After Japan developed its modern industrial capacity at home, its corporations began to invest in production and distribution facilities in other countries. Japanese banks and corporations became important links in global networks (Tabb, 1995: 86-111).

As a result, Tokyo has increased its hinterland to reach far out into the Pacific basin. The city of Los Angeles in the United States, for example, has become in recent years a major centre in a Pacific-based urban network, and an important port of entry for Asian-based commerce and migration into the United States. Japanese investment in the California economy has proceeded rapidly, and on a sufficient scale to lead one critic to refer to ‘the contemporary “Nipponization” of the Southern California economy,’ and to claim that so much real estate in downtown Los Angeles has passed to Japanese owners as to constitute ‘a tsunami of Japanese capital’ (Davis, 1992: 135). Los Angeles, then, a large industrial centre that experienced a restructuring of its factory economy in the 1980s and 1990s away from heavy industry and toward apparel and electronics, has maintained its prosperity at least in part through increased participation in a Pacific-rim post-industrial urban order (Ong and Bloomenberg, 1996: 311-14; Scott and Soja, 1996: 19-20; Tabb, 1995: 255-84).

Urban networks are forever in a state of flux. Over time, cities have risen and fallen in importance in response to changes in trade patterns, to innovations in communication and transport technology, and to the efforts of urban elites consciously working to develop perceived locational advantages that will ‘boost’ their places over others. New York City in the 1820s supported a canal connecting its port with the inland Great Lakes, and consequently emerged decisively as the principal entrepôt in North America, effectively eliminating several strong rivals (Taylor, 1951: 194-8). That tradition of support for innovation has continued. After 1970, local officials in New York City supported improvements in infrastructure, particularly in telecommunications, and changes in land uses that allowed the construction of additional Manhattan high-rise office towers. These policy responses have aided and encouraged post-industrial development, and that in turn has enhanced New York City’s status as the leading centre for financial and producer services in the Western Hemisphere. Municipal and related institutional structures in such cities as London, Paris and Tokyo have responded in similar fashion, with comparable results (Savitch, 1988: 284-307; Tabb, 1995: 169-97). Savitch (1998) emphasizes the role of urban governments in facilitating developmental growth and change.

Virtually all cities in almost every nation have been reshaped to a greater or lesser degree by post-industrial processes. As the ‘industrial’ world lost much of its factory base, non-industrial countries became locations of industrial growth. Industrial corporations frequently moved factory production to new, lower cost locations, most frequently in Asia and Latin America. In addition, local entrepreneurs in these regions began to enter markets and to export goods to the more prosperous countries of North America and Europe, sometimes to the detriment of industry in those countries. This movement of industry to the world’s economic periphery has been a boon to such nations as Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. It has meant new opportunities, rising standards of living for some if not all, and greater integration into the world economy (Dicken, 1998: esp. 115 43; Haggard, 1990: 223-53; 1995: 46-99). The port of Los Angeles provides a dramatic illustration of these changes. Its most important export by volume in the late 1980s consisted of cargo containers that had carried Asian manufactured goods to the United States and, for want of American exports to Asia, returned home empty (Davis, 1992a: 135).

Industrial outposts in less developed nations are frequently tied to and dependent upon the capital and institutional structures emanating from global centres. They are part of a worldwide restructuring of the location of work and the organization of economic activity. Peter Hall writes of ‘a new division of labour’ taking place globally,

a division based not on product (Lancashire cotton, Sheffield steel) but on process (London and New York global finance, Berkshire and Westchester back offices, Leeds and Omaha direct telephone sales). In so far as an activity can be decentralized to a lower-cost location, it will be; and while manufacturing moves out from the advanced economies to Thailand and China, so services now move out to suburban or provincial locations, limited so far by linguistic and cultural barriers, but doubtless soon overleaping those too. (Hall, 1998: 404)

These changes, then, work to reshape not only urban networks, but also the nature of work and the organization of space within individual cities and urbanized areas as well. Industry moves beyond borders, clerical and data processing tasks move to more remote locations, and command and control functions migrate to global centres. All are held together by air travel and telecommunications. Traditional locational advantages lose their historic value, and the local begins to fade imperceptibly into the global (Amin and Thrift, 1994: 5-16; Kantor, 1987: 506-7, 514-16).

One consequence is that governments at every level have found the new post-industrial order difficult to grasp and hold. Local governments in particular have found the global mobility of capital and jobs disruptive of their traditional relationships with private business interests. The relative ‘placelessness’ of many business and industrial functions has diminished the ability of cities and regions, which are by definition place-specific, to control their economic destinies. According to Savitch,

The immensely decentralized composition and flexibility of global forces stand in marked contrast to hierarchical and fixed behavior of government institutions. Particularly acute are the contrasting modes of operation between markets and governmental institutions. Markets are flexible, prolific, and immensely responsive to mass demands, whereas government institutions are steeped in formalism and routine. (Savitch, 1998: 257)

Savitch, like Amin and Thrift, advocates ‘thickening’ institutional structures, both public and private not-for-profit, by promoting institutional ‘diversity, pluralism, and autonomy,’ particularly at the local level, in order to increase institutional capacities to deal with the consequences of rapid, frequently unpredicted, social and economic changes (Amin and Thrift, 1994; Savitch, 1998: 260-5; see also Swanstrom, 1996).

The role and status of localities in general, and cities in particular, has become more tenuous. Kantor holds that cities in the post-industrial era are increasingly dependent on corporate decisions that generally are not subject to public accountability. ‘In effect,’ he writes, ‘cities have become captives of a highly competitive urban economic environment in which traditional factors—such as geography, physical infrastructure, and transportation—that once tied business to a specific community matter less than ever.’ Thus for executives considering where to locate new corporate functions, or where to relocate existing ones, ‘cities are almost interchangeable,’ to be played off one against another, forced to compete from positions of comparative weakness for the capital investment and accompanying job creation that corporations dispense (Kantor, 1987: 506-7; Warren, 1990: 541-7; Yago, 1983: 124-7).

The transition to robust post-industrial economies for cities lacking strong command and control functions has, therefore, frequently proved difficult. Philadelphia, a former centre of manufacturing in the northeastern United States, has successfully restructured its economy in ways that allow participation in the post-industrial order, but without directly challenging or competing with primary post-industrial global cities such as New York, London and Tokyo. During the 1980s Philadelphia lost about 20 per cent of its manufacturing jobs, but gained 26 per cent in non-manufacturing employment; producers’ services grew by about 50 per cent. Philadelphia’s services, however, were primarily produced for, and consumed in, local and regional markets. The impact and reach of these services did not extend, as in the case of those produced in global cities, to the world at large, and the services available were less specialized. Those seeking the more esoteric specialized services of the modern age had to seek them elsewhere in the global urban network (Stull and Madden, 1990: 45-66, 126-32).

To encourage service-based economic growth, successive Philadelphia administrations after 1950 supported large-scale urban renewal that demolished numerous businesses on the margins of downtown and several neighbourhoods of mostly poor residents. In their place rose the glimmering office towers of the post-industrial service economy, along with upscale retail establishments and luxury housing targeted for the affluent professionals who would inhabit those steel-and-glass skyscrapers by day. As so often in the course of urban renewal in the United States, the poor and the marginal, who dared to live in the path of someone else’s definition of progress, were summarily bulldozed out of the way (Kantor, 1988: 256-8; see also Beauregard, 1989; Guinther, 1996: 204-35).

Difficult Transitions: Detroit USA, Birmingham, UK

Some cities have failed to find a place in the post-industrial order commensurate with their previous positions as industrial centres. These cities have been passed over by the innovations and changes of the last quarter century and have as a consequence frequently experienced considerable economic contraction and social distress.

Detroit, Michigan, in the United States, represents a city that has not made a successful transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economic base. Growing spectacularly during the early decades of the twentieth century when the city was synonymous with the technical innovations that created the automobile boom, Detroit tripled its population from 465,000 to 1.5 million between 1910 and 1930. Population peaked in 1950 at 1.8 million and then began to decline, to 1.2 million in 1980 and to just over a million in 1990. Recent estimates project continued decline into the next century.

Detroit’s robust pre-1960 economy drew first European immigrants and then African Americans from the American south. Like Europeans before them, blacks found physically demanding but comparatively remunerative work on the assembly lines of the automobile factories. Racial geography quickly became a pressing issue. As the African American population expanded into neighbourhoods occupied by whites, residents first resisted black settlement, and when resistance failed, fled to the suburbs. As a result, Detroit from the 1920s onward regularly experienced great racial tensions which occasionally rose to the level of collective violence, while at the same time becoming one of the nation’s most segregated industrial cities. From 1920 until the present, Detroit has had one of the highest segregation indexes in the United States. Racial clashes, most frequently involving conflicts over residential space, exploded in several major riots, culminating in a devastating conflagration in July 1967 in which 43 people died and more than 7,000 were arrested (Sugrue, 1996: 231-68, 273; Thomas, 1997: 127-31).

A recent study contends that Detroit’s industrial economy had already been slowly crumbling for at least two decades. Thomas Sugrue, in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996) argues that post-war automation not only reduced employment in existing automobile factories, but also eliminated independent smaller producers, such as Packard and Hudson, that were unable to raise the vast capital sums automation demanded. Thus the ‘Big Three’ American producers—General Motors, Ford and Chrysler—not only increased their domestic production and sales dominance, but did so in ways that shifted production to capital intensive ‘labour saving’ automated processes that required ever fewer workers. Additionally, Detroit automobile makers chose to reduce their dependence on outside suppliers and began producing components previously produced under contract by local independent vendors. These new functions were often assigned to newly built suburban-type automated plants scattered throughout the Midwest. Thus the post-war restructuring and decentralizing of production further reduced the level of employment in Detroit. As a result of all of these factors, Detroit’s manufacturing employment base fell by 38 per cent between 1947 and 1967 (Sugrue, 1996: 125-44).

The resulting unemployment rippled through the community, affecting neighbourhood retail and service sectors and creating a class of permanently unemployed or underemployed older males. African Americans suffered more severely than whites, with longer bouts of unemployment after layoffs and with sharply lower wages than whites when commencing alternative employment. Sugrue argues that the development of the city’s African American ‘underclass,’ with increasing numbers of adult males outside the workforce, began in the 1950s. By 1980 an astonishing 56 per cent of African American males over the age of 16 were without jobs (Sugrue, 1996: 143-52).

The large-scale African American riot in 1967 intensified the movement of people and capital investment from city to suburbs. Unlike more strategically situated cities, Detroit lost existing functions in addition to production, such as downtown retail and consumer service activities, without attracting those new functions and investments associated with successful post-industrial urban economies. Further, the national, and then global, decentralization of the automobile industry, as well as the increasing success of non-American name plates in the American market, continued to reduce local employment possibilities in the city’s traditional economic mainstay (Sugrue, 1996: 259-71).

The result was a city in chronic fiscal distress, with a large and growing population of minority poor, and a depressed economic base that had lost much of its historic underpinning without developing the means by which to replace those lost functions with a sufficient quantity of activities linked to the innovations of the post-industrial era. As elsewhere, members of minority groups, and African Americans in particular, experienced high levels of distress (Massey and Eggers, 1993). Strategic economic planning efforts involving city officials and members of the business elite produced few results, beyond two new stadiums for the city’s professional sports teams (DiGaetano and Lawless, 1999: 559-63). A 1998 study of urban policy in the United States by urban analyst Robert Waste labelled Detroit a ‘point of no return city,’ a place with a degree of economic and social distress of such immense proportions as to preclude revival within existing policy paradigms (Waste, 1998: 12-16).

Detroit is a conspicuous example of a city that gave up considerable ground in the transition from industrial to post-industrial, losing its former leadership position as a place of technological innovation, and declining in importance in both national and international urban networks. With presumably intended hyperbole, Peter Hall described Detroit’s decline as ‘an astonishing case of industrial dereliction; perhaps, before long, the first major industrial city in history to revert to farmland’ (Hall, 1998: 499).

Like Detroit, Birmingham, UK, was an important centre of manufacturing and technological innovations, with strong ties in the twentieth century to the automobile industry. Differing somewhat from Detroit, its economy never became quite as thoroughly identified with and dependent upon a single industry. Birmingham developed as a centre of iron and steel production, metal work, engineering and specialized manufacturing, with a prosperous, sophisticated, machine-driven economy built around a strong manufacturing core. One of several cities in the English north and midlands that rose as symbols of economic strength and technological prowess during the nineteenth century, Birmingham played an integral role in the British Industrial Revolution. Its perpetual prosperity seemed sufficiently assured in the mid-twentieth century that following the passage of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, planning policy for the city and region acted to discourage additional industrial expansion in order to steer economic development toward areas of the country where prosperity lagged (Briggs, 1965: 184-240; Carter, 1977: 128; Hohenberg and Lees, 1985: 287).

After 1970 Birmingham began to undergo an economic restructuring similar to those of other industrial cities. Its factories began to close, and its industrial jobs began to disappear. The pace of deterioration quickened in the 1980s. Birmingham lost 70,000 manufacturing jobs between 1981 and 1991, and during those years the manufacturing proportion of the labour force dropped from 39 per cent to 27.5 per cent. Unemployment peaked at an astonishing 21 per cent in 1986, then declined gradually to 11 per cent in 1991, still almost twice the national average (DiGaetano and Lawless, 1999: 551-3; DiGaetano and Klemanski, 1993: 68-9).

As in Detroit, unemployment led to social dislocation and distress. Birmingham’s growing non-white population suffered higher levels of unemployment, and, consequently, more extreme distress. ‘British blacks,’ Hall writes, ‘like American blacks, have remained heavily concentrated in the inner and middle rings of the big cities. Relatively few have entered the ranks of the middle class.’ During the 1980s collective violence occasionally erupted in the ghetto-like neighbourhoods of several British cities. Birmingham experienced a riot in 1985, when local unemployment approached its peak. The root causes were similar to those of the Detroit eruption of 1967. Comparing these experiences, Hall concludes that British urban violence in the 1980s involved ‘the same pre-history of mounting, barely controllable tension among the young ghetto blacks as they spar with police; the same small triggering incident of an arrest, followed by the spreading of rumour like wildfire; the same almost immediate conflagration.’ According to an official inquiry into a similar riot in Brixton (London), the cause was not race directly; instead, ‘it was a clash of cultures, exacerbated by the fact that the black subculture was built on deprivation and disadvantage’ (Hall, 1996: 397-8). A report prepared by the Church of England tied collective violence to job loss: ‘ It is the national decline in the number of manual jobs, and the concentration of manual workers in the UPAs [Urban Poverty Areas] that lies at the heart of the problem’ (quoted in Hall, 1996: 399; emphasis in original). Few British cities were as hard hit by the loss of unskilled and semiskilled jobs as was Birmingham.

In response to decline, Birmingham’s political and business leadership came together in the early 1980s to promote diversified non-industrial economic development, and to protect, if possible, the remnants of its former industrial base. Through a series of innovative public-private partnerships, the city and several private developers joined forces to build office space and industrial parks, one of which was devoted to high-technology research. The city added a large convention centre, office space and an upscale retail mall to its downtown (DiGaetano and Klemanski, 1993: 68-73). While Birmingham has hardly recovered its former stature as an engine of economic growth, it seems to have confronted the challenges of the post-industrial age somewhat more successfully than had Detroit.

These two case studies represent something of an extreme. While virtually all industrial cities suffered serious employment loss as they attempted to adapt to post-industrial circumstances, few suffered as long or as hard as Birmingham and Detroit, and the scars left on the landscape and labourers alike will take decades to heal. Other cities, like Philadelphia and Los Angeles, seem to have retooled more effectively and moved on; and a few, such as New York City, London, Paris, Tokyo and Singapore, have successfully ridden the crest of the post-industrial wave.

Cities as Information and Knowledge Centres

Modern global networks depend on rapid, low-cost communication. The ability of large organizations to function effectively across several continents with no physical connection between command and control centres, back office operations, manufacturing, distribution and sales is wholly a product of modern telecommunications. Thus, technological advance has led to rapid organizational evolution, allowing far-flung activities to be closely coordinated, and lessening the importance of location for many types of activity (Fathy, 1991: 1-7, 99-103; Malone and Rockart, 1993: 37-9). In addition, modern air travel has made face-to-face contact—when that is required—a matter of journeys that are likely to be short in time regardless of the distance to be travelled.

From earliest times, communication between two human beings took the form of either unamplified speech or the transport of documents by animal-drawn vehicles or wind-driven ships. Cities served as communication and market centres, providing places in which people could come together and speak to one another, trading such items as information, raw materials and finished products (Mumford, 1961: 70-3). Not until the second quarter of the nineteenth century did this begin to change. The communications revolution began with the application of steam power to land and sea transport in the form of railroads and steamships. These were soon joined by the telegraph, which allowed the transmission of coded information in the form of dits and dots over extensive distance by wire. The opening of the transatlantic cable in 1866 closed the yawning communications gap between North America and Europe, linking local markets into the first semblance of a global network (Taylor, 1951: 73-113, 152).

Advances since have largely elaborated on the telegraph and the cable. The telephone and the radio added transmission of human voices, and the gradual perfection of long-distance telephony increased the convenience and lowered the cost of this form of communication. The recent introduction of personal computers, facsimile transfers, electronic mail networks, high-speed data transmission lines, fibre-optic cable, and cellular telephones has further lowered costs and increased both the range and the speed of communication (Hall, 1998: 460-78). As costs fell and linkages improved, the advantages of gathering and transmitting data over long distances increased, and the communication expenses and hurdles incurred by locating production functions away from command and control dropped sharply (Casson, 1997: 274-97). Thus cities with corporate headquarters have increasingly become centres of information flows (Drennan, 1991: 33-8; Hall, 1996: 402-4).

The use of computers and computer networks to collect and analyse data is at the heart of the information revolution, affecting processes great and small. A study of the apparel industry, for example, found that information gained by retailers in tracking sales and inventory not only increased their responsiveness to consumer-driven market trends, but also gave them newfound leverage in their negotiations with manufacturers, altering long-standing relations within the industry (Hammond, 1993: 185-8). Control of critical information, then, may lead to systems changes beyond those initially envisioned: here, information gained by service sector retailers strengthened their position with industrial sector apparel makers, providing a small yet pertinent example of post-industrial shifts.

From their earliest pre-historic beginnings, cities served as centres of learning and accumulated lore; what Mumford refers to as the city as ‘a storehouse, a conservator and accumulator.’ From this knowledge base, cities developed as centres of creativity and innovation, ‘and by the command of these functions … the city served its ultimate function, that of transformer,’ which Mumford believed approached a zenith in Golden Age Athens (Mumford, 1961: 97, 119-82).

The factors that came together to produce a golden age of intellectual ferment and progress in that particular place and time have defied precise definition. Times of rapid innovation, intellectual, artistic and technological, have occurred periodically in more recent human civilization, and each one has redirected our ways of thinking or doing. Hall devotes a section of Cities in Civilization, titled ‘The Innovative Milieu,’ to the nature of technological innovation across time and space. He looks at textiles in Manchester, ship building in Glasgow, electrical engineering in Berlin, automobiles in Detroit, computers in San Jose, and electronic innovation in Tokyo-Kana-gawa (Hall, 1998: 291-499).

He finds a number of commonalities. The first is ‘the overwhelming strength of the heroic tradition. Most of the innovations were created by individual entrepreneurs in the garret, later garage, tradition’ (Hall, 1998: 493). If individuals lit the spark, however, it was the culture in which they lived that provided the dry tinder. ‘None stumbled on a discovery by pure accident or serendipity,’ Hall writes. Instead, each was part of a local network of ‘competitor-cooperators’ working toward similar goals. Participants steadily expanded their technical knowledge and skills, which then became a kind of ‘shared intellectual property’ on which all could build (Hall, 1998: 493-4). The larger cultures in which they worked tended to be, for their times, relatively egalitarian, non-hierarchical, open, free of strong barriers to innovation, ready to reward talent regardless of origin, and receptive to commerce and money-making (Hall, 1998: 493-7).

In looking at cities that are no longer places of innovation, Hall finds that each past era of ferment led to one of consolidation, followed eventually by ossification and decline (Hall, 1998: 499-500). Kindleberger (1996) posits a similar life cycle for nations that have achieved economic primacy; they grew rapidly through a series of innovations, then successfully consolidated those methods into institutional structures that in time became resistant to further change, only to be overtaken in turn by a nation more open and receptive to further innovation.

How to nurture a culture of continuous innovation is a long-standing goal of economic planners and urban policy-makers. As past innovations seem to have emerged from networks of creative individuals, Hall suggests that metropolitan areas are the places most likely to produce future innovations, and that rare phenomenon, an innovative milieu. Certainly, the conscious development of cities as knowledge centres, as Knight and others have suggested, is a form of economic development that has the potential to renew many obsolescent industrial cities. With the advent of rapid, low-cost, worldwide communication, global economic networks have become the new driving force of economic growth, and in this context, information and knowledge have become critical to the creation of new wealth (Knight, 1987: 196-208; Sassen, 1991).

Cities remain, as they have always been, places where people come together to live in dense settlements. In looking at the technologically creative environments of San Jose, California, and Tokyo-Kanagawa, Japan, Hall writes, ‘They resemble nothing so much as huge and complex ecosystems, which must be constantly nourished if they are not to wither and die; and that is what they are, human ecosystems which contain a disproportionate number of the world’s most creative individuals’ (Hall, 1998: 500). This could also serve as a fairly reliable depiction of a city. It is in cities, where knowledge is most often created, and information traditionally stored, at least in its industrial era paper format, and where networks of inspired individuals have the opportunity to come together to achieve creative synergies, that the majority of future post-industrial innovations, and innovative milieus, are likely to occur (see Fathy, 1991: 81-91).


The ancient world lasted for 3,000 years, the medieval age for less than 1,000 years, and the industrial era for about 100 years. Our post-industrial revolution has occurred in just 25 years, and its pace is quickening. In one great blow, the new revolution has remade the industrial fabric of society, radically altered the behavior of capital, broken down national boundaries and is remodeling government. (Savitch, 1998:249)

In three well-written sentences, Savitch captures both the scope and speed of the process by which the industrial has given way to the post-industrial. Few systems in our society are untouched by the changes unleashed. It is the pace of change, more than the nature of the changes themselves, that sets the transition to the post-industrial apart from earlier transitions. Further, the present changes intrude into almost every corner of the planet inhabited by human beings, leaving few individuals untouched.

Like most transitions, there are differential costs and benefits. Industrial workers in developed countries, who had spent decades building a work culture that gave them entrance to the middle class, witnessed the rapid destruction of their jobs, their cultures and their expectations for safe and secure economic futures. At the same time, the corporate executives who ordered the plants shut, along with the high-level providers of producers’ services to those corporations, managed to extract from the misery they brought to others considerable wealth and comfort for themselves. Whole cities fell from prosperity and industrial leadership to advanced states of decay in less than a generation. Detroit, USA and Birmingham, UK illustrate the drastic impacts of these post-industrial changes on physical environments and human lives alike.

In those parts of the world to which industry has moved, the deindustrialization of the West has provided economic development, employment and entry into the global economy. The prosperity of some newly industrial states has contributed to world migration flows. Some industrializing countries require more workers than their population produces; the availability of work in those places attracts temporary migrants or permanent immigrants from poorer countries. The role and status of migrants in the societies to which they move is a continuing source of cultural and political tension (Massey et al., 1998: 4-7, 275-94).

The problems of migrants are closely related to the problems of distressed urban populations in developed countries, which are frequently disproportionately made up of racial or ethnic minorities. Nightengale raises the possibility of a ‘global inner city’ that has similar characteristics regardless of location. The related problems of racial discrimination and poverty, so apparent in Birmingham and Detroit, are, he suggests, compounded by the nature of the global economy and by ‘[globally linked racial logics’ (Nightengale, 1998: 230-5).

Numerous dislocations and social problems have accompanied the transition to a post-industrial order. In a time of transition, however, it is virtually impossible to know which conditions are temporary social adjustments and which will congeal into a new set of long-lasting inequalities, firmly embedded in a new stability. How the new wealth created by the engines of post-industrial economic processes is ultimately distributed, both within and among societies, is a political and policy issue of great importance. The nature of that distribution will, ultimately, help to shape the health and vitality of a more globalized world and of the post-industrial cities that have become its engines of economic growth and social change.