Logistical Ecologies of the North American Operational Landscape

December 7, 2015

Essay by Conor O’Shea, Luke Hegeman, and Chris Bennett.


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Wind turbines, like the one seen here in Rochelle, IL, are among the recent transformations of Illinois soybean and corn croplands, 2015. © Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective.

“Even for those of us who may be focused on the cities as zones of intervention, we can’t understand what is going on within them unless we look outside them, far outside them.”
—Neil Brenner1


The UN has declared the twenty-first century to be an urban century2 and across the United States the popular press and scholars alike herald a “return to the city” and an “urban renaissance”;3 accordingly, the design disciplines are now preoccupied by high-profile design projects in dense urban centers. These projects—outmoded infrastructure or buildings transformed into parks, retail, office space, or museums, for example—have become almost compulsory tools for municipal governments seeking to attract investment from jobs, tourism, and recreation in lieu of an eroded manufacturing tax base and amidst increasingly neoliberal policies.

With a practical financial interest in these new urban projects and with formal training rooted in twentieth-century urban theory hindering the prospect of alternative viewpoints, much of design myopically focuses on “the city” as a site of intervention.4 Possibility for density, walkability, social interaction, and creative exchange are frequently cited as reasons for an interest in designing in cities. However, when reframed in a regional, continental, or even planetary context, the situation is quickly complicated as the global systems of waste, energy, food, and mobility needed to sustain any settlement, dense or otherwise, emerge into view.

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Millennium Park, Maggie Daley Park, and the Lakeshore East development pictured here in downtown Chicago typify the type of landscape architectural projects used to lure investment dollars back into the historic cores of American cities, 2015. © Chris Bennett.

Logistics Landscapes

Among these systems, the movement of containerized freight by train and truck along railways and highways is an illuminating lens through which to decipher twenty-first century urbanization processes. Considering the urban as a process, rather than an aggregation of discrete areas, underscores the fact that the aforementioned zones of downtown reinvestment are but one moment of capital accumulation. Virtually all the goods consumed in North America arrive by containership at North American coastal ports, mostly from newly industrialized Asian countries, where they move to market by train and by truck. Since the early 2000s, mounting spatial, economic, and labor pressures on coastal United States ports coupled with a rise in online commerce and an increasingly fragmented global supply chain have caused activities historically associated with coastal ports to spill over into the interior of the continent. This interiorization of port activities has produced vast logistics landscapes in former rangeland, cropland, and pasture areas.

These logistics landscapes, where third-party logistics providers, warehousing and distribution facilities for online retailers, and manufacturing plants cluster around massive inland ports, are more than the just the inverse of America’s centers of tourism and commerce: they are distinct urban environments, critical junctions in the global circuitry of twenty-first century capital.

Like the shipping container itself, these environments are hyper-engineered for efficiency and economy, and are done so in an effort to transcend existing local ecological and hydrological dynamics. Standard rail turning radii, warehousing dimensions, and road widths are deployed across the country in an effort to maintain a physical uniformity that keeps the specifics of place at bay, thereby sustaining the high standard of living across the continent that so many Americans enjoy. However, if these logistics landscapes, like the sites of reinvestment so popular with today’s designers, are categorized based upon form alone, much is overlooked. The infrastructure and development needed to deliver goods to market collides with existing local economies and ecologies to produce regionally-specific logistics landscapes.

As a first step towards classifying these variations, or logistical ecologies, distinct adjacencies (of land uses, infrastructure, development, and ecologies, to name a few) of Northern Illinois and Alliance, Texas are documented in the accompanying photo essay.

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Located at the crossroads of the North American rail system where six of the Class I railroads meet, Chicago’s older intermodal freight facilities, like the Burlington Northern Santa Fe one seen here, are hemmed in by nineteenth-century fabric, with little room for expansion or the clustering of twenty-first-century logistics related facilities, 2015. © Chris Bennett.

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Completed in 2002, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Logistics Park seen here is part of the CenterPoint Intermodal Center in Joliet / Elwood, IL, North America’s largest inland port, where more containers move through annually than all coastal ports except for the Port of Long Beach, Port of Los Angeles, and Port of New York and New Jersey, 2015. © Chris Bennett.

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Completed in 2010, this Union Pacific Global IV intermodal freight facility seen is part of the CenterPoint Intermodal Center, which abuts the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, now the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and site of a 2015 American Bison Bison bison herd reintroduction, 2015. © Chris Bennett.

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Facilities like this Menards distribution facility in Plano, IL collide with existing croplands and agricultural communities to produce a logistics landscape unique to the region, 2015. © Chris Bennett.

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The Union Pacific Global III intermodal freight facility pictured here was constructed in 2003 outside of Rochelle, IL atop some of the nation’s most productive soils, 2015. © Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective.

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Dating back to the 1980s, Alliance, Texas is the nation’s most mature logistics landscape; anchored by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe intermodal freight facility seen here that was expanded from 2001 onwards, this 18,000-acre master-planned logistics community was constructed on the natural gas field known as the Barnett Shale and includes industrial, residential, office, and retail space, 2016. © Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective.

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In the Alliance Gateway section of Alliance warehousing and distribution facilities, like the DSC Logistics and Martin Brower facilities seen here, leverage their proximity to the BNSF intermodal facility in order to decrease shipping times and costs, 2016. © Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective.

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Due to union contract negotiations at the General Electric facility in Erie, Pennsylvania, jobs have moved to the General Electric Forth Worth Locomotive Plant in Alliance, Texas, pictured here, which opened in 2012 and employs over 500 people, 2016. © Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective.

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Infrastructure, including the Alliance Highway seen here, continues to expand into adjacent rangelands and near low-density single-family housing developments to accommodate rising levels of imported containerized goods, 2016. © Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective.

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Overlapping rail, highway, rangeland, and access roads to oil and gas drilling sites characterize the logistics landscapes of Northern Texas, 2016. © Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective.

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The infrastructure connecting Alliance, Texas to the North American rail system is built atop the Barnett Shale, a natural gas field, where surface wells and their associated infrastructure sit within rangelands, 2016. © Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective.

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Expanded rail corridors, like the one seen here near Alliance, Texas, are built to accommodate longer container trains delivering goods to downtown retailers and low-density big-box stores alike, thereby transforming the hinterlands they cut through in into regionally specific logistics landscapes, 2016. © Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective.

1 Neil Brenner, “Wildly Civilized: Ecological + Extreme + Planetary Urbanism… What’s Next? (moderated panel, Harvard Graduate School of Design, September 13, 2014).
2 A range of publications, from major world newspapers to graduate student thesis projects, now reference the UN’s claim that “over half of the world’s population now lives in cities.” For a critique of this claim see: Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38:3 (2014), 731-755; also: Neil Brenner, ed, Implosions / Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Berlin: Jovis, 2014).
3 See for example, Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011). I attribute these observations on twenty-first-century urbanization to my participation as a researcher during the spring of 2013 in the Urban Theory Lab at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. More information on their ongoing research can be found here:
4 Within much of design discourse, the urban is still synonymous with “the city” and vice versa, a term wrought with ideology. For a discussion on the widespread use of the term city as an analytical category, see: Hillary Angelow and David Wachsmith, “Urbanizing Political Ecology: A Critique of Methodological Cityism,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39, no. 1 (2015): 16-27.