Move It and They Will Come

Move It and They Will Come

Could the industries that built Chicago help rescue it from the Great Recession? A manufacturing report recently released by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) makes that case. The city’s unique position as a national hub is its great “built-in advantage,” the CMAP report stated, and its best shot at regional economic growth is investing in freight transportation and manufacturing.

More than one quarter of all jobs in the state are in industries tied directly to freight, according to the report, but the public perception remains that manufacturing and shipping are part of Chicago’s past. Freight lines still lace neighborhoods from Back of The Yards to Goose Island; Underneath the Loop, now-forgotten tunnels used to ferry goods through an underground network.

If it is going to be part of the region’s future, however, now is the time to act. Chicago’s manufacturing sector lost about 85,000 jobs between 2002 and 2012, mirroring a national retreat from manufacturing employment. But during that time manufacturing productivity actually increased. That has left a slew of small businesses (most have 50 or fewer employees), and it signals a need for higher skilled workers—those “advanced manufacturing” jobs touted by the Obama Administration.

It is a growing sector. Manufacturing, freight, and logistics industries were responsible for more than 20 percent of all the jobs created here from 2010 to 2012. To encourage that growth, CMAP asserted that Chicagoland needs to beef up its aging intermodal infrastructure—those points where cargo moves from one form of transportation to another; Great Lakes barges to Union Pacific railcars, or from Long Haul Trucks to airplane holds.

Chicago is uniquely positioned at the juncture of the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, six of the country’s seven major railroads, seven of its interstate highways, and its second busiest airport.

Maybe it is the reverse of “build it, and they will come.” Make it easy to move goods, and they will build it. Unlike other such hubs, no single industry in metropolitan Chicago accounts for more than 19 percent of manufacturing employment. Fabricated metals, medical equipment, electronics—finished goods like these get manufacturers more bang for the buck. If makers of these so-called “globally traded final goods” know they can rely on a transportation network to get their products around the world, they will be more likely to locate and grow in the Chicago region.

Much of this activity is clustered in several corridors. In 2009, the Village of Hoffman Estates helped form the Golden Corridor Manufacturing Group to unite stakeholders in the area around O’Hare and I-90.

One of these corridors is in the city’s South Side. Many community areas on the South Side post unemployment rates more than twice the national average, and poverty rates above 50 percent. The responsibility to alleviate this injustice goes far beyond any one employer or industry. Still the potential benefits of manufacturing growth are significant.

But what impact would such growth have on the region, and the people who call it home? Planners, developers, and urban designers should make sure economic growth is tied to quality of life and sustainability.

Case in point: A massive freight yard expansion in Englewood is poised to bring 400 jobs and $1.6 billion to the region by 2030, according to the company that wants to build it, but could also pump dangerous levels of soot into a neighborhood already suffering from an unusually high rate of asthma.

With tightening budgets at every level of government, it is not as if there are easy options. But even if an advanced manufacturing renaissance could singlehandedly solve the region’s economic woes, which of course it cannot, trading unemployment for pollution is no way to build regional livelihood. As we consider how to build on our transportation and manufacturing assets, let’s look at their negative impacts, too: sprawl and the huge carbon footprint of excessive travel times. Manufacturing is already clustered, so its future may lend itself to smart growth, but only if we design for it.