Where Industry Meets Innovation

  • Contact Us
  • sign in Sign In
  • Sign in with certificate
mit campus


Search News

  • View All
  • ILP News
  • MIT Research News
  • MIT Sloan Management Review
  • Technology Review
  • Startup Exchange

ILP Institute Insider

May 2, 2016

Reimagining the Industrial City

Brent Ryan envisions revitalized industrial cities with a focus on practicality and resilience.

Steve Calechman

Unlike Carthage or Pompeii, cities don’t tend to vanish anymore. Instead, they shrink. Industrial economies weaken, residents leave, and what remains is a compromised infrastructure. As an associate professor of urban design and public policy, and an architect, Brent Ryan figures out how to revitalize these places, work that requires a deft balance of ideal and practical solutions.

Brent D. Ryan
MIT Associate Professor
of Urban Design and Public Policy
Ultimately, Ryan’s aim is to build cities that draw people back and are resilient to disruptions, whether an economic downturn, or, in another area of his work, climate change. The latter issue is easily overlooked, but Ryan says that it’s a looming concern that requires policymakers’ attention to handle stresses like population relocation and needs like new forms of housing.

A shared investment
Why even try to save a depressed city? For public officials, the answer is apparent. Neighborhoods and residents are at stake, and mayors want projects that both spur and highlight a turnaround. But, Ryan says, the private sector also has a vested interest. An improved economy helps all businesses, and, more specifically, many companies own idle buildings. If they can’t be fully reused or sold, companies at least want to repurpose them.

Ryan has done such strategizing with ExxonMobil over its obsolete properties around the world. Ryan, together with his students, has highlighted the potential for the company’s old oil refineries in St. Louis and Baltimore to become hubs of new energy production, recycling, environmental resilience, and innovative education, such as new schools and workforce training centers. All of these solutions benefit landowners, maximizing the incentive for partnerships to improve the city, he says.

Revitalization brings certain challenges. Elected officials often want “perfect” solutions, Ryan says. That’s usually some version of Chicago’s Millennium Park. The problem is that Millennium Park cost several hundred million dollars, much of it borne by taxpayers, and city budgets tend to never have spare money. Parks also don’t fuel renewal. Millennium Park works, because Chicago is thriving, densely populated, and open space is a commodity. In cities like St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, or Flint, open space is not only in abundance, but it’s also underused. “A city that’s filled with open spaces and no people doesn’t serve much purpose,” Ryan says.

Ryan says that he tries to find the pragmatic “sweet spot” between a vacant place and the dream development, something that provides public use, solves landowner problems, and ideally generates revenue. That solution can seem unattainable, but, “Even the most difficult property has an alternative future beyond simply being abandoned,” he says.

The common thread to any plan is that there’s no one solution. Convention centers, sports stadiums and loft apartment buildings are perennial “silver bullets,” but, along with being costly, stand-alone projects aren’t comprehensive enough. Ryan says that de-industrialized cities need a mix of restaurants, cafes, bars, and stores to reactivate the downtown and get people living there.

New housing is a necessity, since about 70 percent of a typical city’s land is residential. The advantage is de-industrialized city stock often was built quickly, cheaply and meant for workers. Along with being inadequate for contemporary needs, it holds little historical significance, Ryan says.

In his 2012 book Design After Decline: How America Rebuilds Shrinking Cities, Ryan notes that as city land empties out, city leaders have the opportunity to create a new urban neighborhood. There’s the freedom to shape housing that is more varied, with alternative formats for single people, young couples without children, and older residents. Addressing their lifestyle aspirations within the limited footprint of typical city parcels is also important. As an example, where private parking is scarce, like in Philadelphia, building houses with attached garages or a space is an amenity that’s doable and could increase a neighborhood’s desirability, he says.

Even demolition can bring economic benefits. In St. Louis, Ryan’s students looked at the reuse of bricks that are the city’s chief building material. The created debris is trucked miles out of town. Not all of it can be utilized, but Ryan’s team found that it could be “land banked” in hills, saving energy and creating recreational amenities, natural habitats, and a refuge for future emergencies. The bricks also can be cleaned and re-introduced into the residential market, providing both service and always-desired revenue, he says.

Redeveloping Eastern Europe
Ryan increasingly works internationally with cities that developed under different political and social circumstances, such as those in the former Soviet Union. Ryan says that Ukraine has similarities to the United States – a vanished industrial economy, abandoned factories and unemployed workers. The region’s history, though, provides additional hurdles. While European, Ukraine is not part of the European Union. Its Soviet past has created a skepticism of government and a weak rule of law. The combination makes it hard to get sincere opinions and buy-in from residents and it creates a difficult system to navigate for developers and investors.

Ryan says that Ukraine, and post-Soviet nations in general, holds certain opportunities. Whereas America tends to demolish buildings, Ukraine’s factories, formerly owned by the government, are surprisingly intact and could transform into housing, retail, or cultural centers. Ukraine’s workers lack the mobility of Americans, so most cities have a trained workforce in place. Unlike the U.S.’s cheaply-built industrial era housing, Ukraine has massive apartment blocks built in the 1980s, which remain fully occupied. The answer here, Ryan says, is rehabilitation, not redevelopment, in tandem with economic revitalization.

Creating a healthier climate
An emerging area of Ryan’s research involves climate change. If current trends continue, he says, issues like coastal flooding and erosion will likely require residents to move to less vulnerable places. Using the Boston area as a pilot project, Ryan and his students are looking at the opportunities presented by the region’s diverse topography. Along the South Shore, for example, people might relocate to higher elevations, perhaps on a hill, or to less settled areas, such as a state forest. Ryan says that he is especially interested in how to generate neighborhoods and even towns with the most sustainable and walkable density levels, along with new land use and design concepts.

While an urban designer, Ryan says that suburbs may suffer the most: climate change is most intense in cities, but the East Coast is mostly rural. With its political stability and low densities, suburbia is ideal for innovation, particularly for ideas that require space. The question becomes what areas would look like with solar fields, vertical farms and low-slung factories, and what else would be needed to make them operate.

There’s a practicality to Ryan’s work. There’s also speculation. Ryan says that this is where having the MIT connection pays off. He can experiment with ideas and improve them with the interdisciplinary collaboration that is routine on campus. Additionally, MIT students of all levels research problems and end up generating solutions. The result is that by the time he talks in a public meeting or with an executive, the proposals have been scrutinized.

Ryan says that his work on cities embodies the Institute’s overall mindset in tackling big issues. “We like to step back a little bit and look at not what we want to do in five years, but what we may want to do in 20, 30 or 50,” he says. “I think that projecting the future, and especially projecting futures that may be a little difficult to acknowledge today, is the business we’re in.”