“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.”
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.
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.