Why cities are the future of manufacturing
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Hackney Wick, London. Transformation of industrial land into commercial and residential.

Under the radar, away from the eyes of those living and office-working in Western cities, things are being

. From design-led bicycles to high-end textiles, cities are humming with industry. Once, cities were synonymous with manufacturing – famously, for example, Manchester, the great ‘Cottonopolis’ of Britain’s industrial revolution. But then a counter-narrative developed that industry was polluting and unsightly, that it sprawled across valuable real estate, and that it could be cheaply sent overseas to boost profit margins and achieve utopian, dematerialised smart cities.

When colleagues at The Bartlett speak with planning officials and policymakers, we often sense an assumption that manufacturing isn’t an important part of the economy – especially in financial-services-oriented London. It is undervalued, so less space is allocated to it, which leads, inevitably, to less manufacturing. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But now, for a host of reasons, manufacturing in cities should be welcomed and fostered more than ever. And global development goals and the Covid-19 pandemic have shown the urgency of doing so. Many of the old negative perceptions linking manufacturing to pollution and congestion are outdated. Technologies are cleaner, flexible, scalable and permit on-demand production. 

But it’s the positive arguments for manufacturing in cities that really can’t be ignored. Urban manufacturing doesn’t just help sustain a thriving economy, both locally and nationally, but also contributes to creating and shaping the city by providing opportunities for entrepreneurship, and developing new products that match the needs of an increasingly urbanised population. It also fosters economic and social inclusion, by providing low-barrier jobs and a diversity of work conditions – because not everyone in a city is looking for office employment.

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Aerial view of the industrial area in Royal Victoria Docks, London;

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Manufacturing of signage in Wood Green, Haringey, North London.

In this sense, urban manufacturing is intrinsically connected to innovation. Cities provide a unique environment in terms of skills, networks, culture and infrastructures, which shake things up, producing new ideas and perspectives, and turning knowledge, skill and ideas into prototypes and product ranges. There has been a trend for retaining a design base in the UK while manufacturing abroad, but keeping the two close together nurtures the connection between designing and doing. Manufacturing close by means immediately being able to see how a design is working and taking shape in a two-way dialogue with the design process.

It also means being able to monitor your supply chain to ensure conditions are suitable: no use of child labour, no pollution, ethical resource extraction, fair pay and more. And it means that consumers are more able to see the true cost of creating the products they use and acquire.

City manufacturing can be an essential vehicle for addressing the climate crisis and environmental impacts. Globally, 60% of natural resources are used in cities, which are huge hubs of consumption and waste creation. But a manufacturing base close to the site of urban waste production will see opportunities to use that waste as a resource. For example, London is home to a company making buildings insulation from food waste. Transforming waste back into a resource that can be used closes the loop, creating a ‘circular economy’ that seeks to keep resources in use and at their highest value for as long as possible. 

In 2017, London made a policy commitment with the launch of its Circular Economy Route Map. In the city, around 84 million tonnes of materials are consumed every year, of which just a third is added to the stock of buildings, infrastructure and machinery, while two-thirds will become emissions or waste. Our field-work evidence has shown that for circularity to be achieved, an urban productive base must be maintained – and promoted.

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Fashion manufacturing in Haringey/Enfield industrial area, North London

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Upcycling and furniture small scale manufacturing, Park Royal industrial estate, London

This year’s Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted other benefits to promoting urban manufacturing. Cities that don’t have the productive space to generate and produce the goods they require are dependent on supply chains that may be complex and extremely long. We saw many European manufacturers having to stop production because they were embedded in supply chains with production centres in China, which meant that they were unable to access a component essential to their process. The same challenge applied to those companies that design in the UK but manufacture abroad, chiefly in China. When China shut down during the early stages of the pandemic, they were left with no product to sell. 

And as we saw globally with the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), when cities don’t have the capacity to manufacture locally, they may find their supply impeded if distant suppliers prioritise those who pay most. The pandemic revealed how hospitals were reliant on supply chains they had little control over. But it also generated innovative solutions as businesses responding by repurposing their production, for example: converting alcohol production to hand sanitiser, or developing new designs for clinical care equipment such as mechanical suction pumps and ventilators. 

The pandemic has only highlighted the need for ‘cities of making’. We look forward to the growth of diverse, resilient and sustainable urban manufacturing in a post-Covid-19 world, centred around innovation and circularity. If done right, it won’t only drive global recovery from the pandemic, it could lead to a whole new paradigm of industrial production that benefits all our lives.

Teresa Domenech headshot
Dr Teresa Domenech Aparisi

Lecturer in Industrial Ecology and the Circular Economy, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy & Resources. Co-author of 

Foundries of the Future: A Guide for 21st Century Cities of Making

Ben Croxford headshot
Professor Ben Croxford

Professor of Environmental Design and Engineering, UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering,

The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy & Resources 

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