What are we to do with the industrial estate? How can we reform the collection of crinkly tin sheds, surrounded by roundabouts, loading bays and car parks that can be found on the edge of every city, town and even many villages? Are these places beyond the reach of the urban designer, governed by function and practicality rather than the frivolities of place making? This article was published in Urban Design Quarterly and draws upon a couple of URBED’s recent projects to argue that there is an older tradition of design for industrial uses that we can learn from when designing modern industrial estates.
Call yourself and urban designer? This probably means that most of your work involves housing, maybe with a smattering of other uses so that your scheme can be called mixed-use, but mostly housing. Towns and cities, of course, are made up of more than just housing and, as urban designers, we do sometimes get to work on retail quarters or business districts. But what we don’t do is work on the other parts of our settlements, the bits that make up the majority of our urban fabric – the malls and business parks, leisure complexes and industrial estates. These are the unreconstructed parts of the city that we rail against, the dark side of car-dominated, nowhereville that the urban design profession exists to reform.
Well we may argue that retailing, leisure and office uses should be brought back into the urban fold and designed as street based layouts, but what about industry? Ever since Josiah Wedgwood moved his porcelain factory from the centre of Stoke to his model factory at Etruria in 1769, The Lever Brothers moved their soap factory to Port Sunlight or the Cadbury Brothers decided that the polluted streets of Birmingham were no place to make chocolate, there has been a realisation that some types of Industry might be better outside cities. Today we continue to draw inspiration from the residential neighbourhoods that these industrialists and others built for their workers, but we pay very little attention to their factories. Nor do we study the great business parks built a little later such as Speke in Liverpool, Trafford Park in Manchester, Park Royal in London or Team Valley in Newcastle. Instead we build industrial estates on the edges of our cities set within a sea of parking and lollipop landscapes, accessible only by car and cut off from the creative exchange, innovative workforce and inter-trading networks on which business thrives. Urban design apparently doesn’t apply to industry. Making things is a practical no-nonsense activity and the frivolities of design (other than the landscaping of roundabouts for some reason) are of no relevance.
The economic impact of urbanism on business was the main focus of Jane Jacobs’ work. Much of the ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and all of her subsequent book ‘The Economy of Cities’ is concerned with business and urban economies. She argues that a healthy economy needs a constant injection of new ideas and products, without which it atrophies. These new ideas almost never arise in large corporations once they have moved their operations to a corporate campus on the edge of the city. New ideas need the intensity of activity, ideas and interchange that can only be found in cities. Big business feeds of this creativity through the acquisition of smaller companies and by poaching creative staff and they can’t survive without it.
This was Bruce Katz’s theme last year when he visited the Advanced Manufacturing Park between Sheffield and Rotherham last year. He talked about his book written with Julie Wagner “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A new geography of innovation in America’ in which they describe a new type of business park that is ‘physically compact, transit-accessible and technically wired’, offering a mix of housing, office and retailing alongside large-scale industrial and business uses. His point is that even ‘traditional’ manufacturing needs to be linked into innovation networks for research and development, design and marketing. No business can afford to cut itself off from the creative people that supply this innovation and these people are now overwhelmingly urban in their outlook. Where it is not possible for companies to locate in central areas, they must create environments that promote this innovative milieu, even in peripheral locations. Large tech. companies like Apple or Google may be able to do this on their own, but for most companies the solution is an Innovation District: focused around a local centre with some good bars and coffee shops, strong links to an academic institution, with a range of business accommodation – from start-ups to factories for multi-nationals – apartments, hotels and serviced accommodation for workers and a convenient tram service into a really good city centre. In recent months URBED has been asked to masterplan two such innovation districts. The first is a scheme in the midlands called Brookhay Waterside and the other is an International Advanced Manufacturing Park outside the gates of the Nissan factory in Sunderland. In both cases the brief has been to develop something more than a industrial park. We have therefore turned for inspiration to the original industrial estates mentioned above, particularly Trafford Park and Team Valley.
Trafford Park in Manchester was the first modern industrial estate. Indeed, having originally been a deer park owned by the De Trafford family, it might be the first industrial area to be be called a ‘park’. In the 1890s The family watched the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal along the northern edge of their ‘beautifully timbered deer park’. Once it opened and industry started to spring-up around the new docks, they decided that the time had come to sell. There were moves by the buy the estate as a municipal park, but these were outbid by the London financier Earnest Treah Hooley who paid the family £360,000 and established Trafford Park Estates Ltd in 1896 with the aim of creating what he billed as the ‘world’s first industrial estate’. He had overreached himself and within a year bankruptcy had forced him to step down, but the company continued and within a few years industry had started to develop. This was given a boost in 1911 when the Ford Motor Company chose Trafford Park for its first factory outside the US, introducing the revolutionary concept of the production line simultaneously in Detroit and Trafford. The park would also become home to the Rolls Royce factory making Merlin engines for Spitfires and was a major centre for wartime production during both world wars.
In the very early days a tract of land was sold for Trafford Park Village in the centre of the park. This was masterplanned with an American grid of avenues numbered 1-4 and streets numbered 1-12. By 1907 the village was home to 3,000 people and was entirely surrounded by industry so that became a self-contained island with pubs and shops, three churches, a school and community halls. By the 1930s the wider park provided 75,000 jobs and its private railway system handled 3% of the UK’s freight traffic. In the interwar years it was a phenomena, making Manchester an industrial powerhouse long after its textile industry had started to decline. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the park hit the skids, losing much of its employment and seeing the village demolished by Stretford Council as a slum. In the 1980s it was designated as one of the UK’s first Development Corporations and saw widespread environmental improvements. Today it is once more a successful employment location as well as being home to the Trafford Centre shopping mall, the Libeskind-designed Imperial War Museum of the North, Old Trafford Football Ground and a new set of terraced streets – the relocated set for Coronation Street.
Team Valley on the edge of Newcastle and Gateshead has a slightly different history. This was an initiative of Stanley Baldwin’s Tory Government in the mid 1930s as part of the economic strategy following the Great Depression. They set up the North East Trading Estates Company in 1936. The contract to layout the estate was let soon after and within a year the first factory had been let to the haulage company Messers Orrell and Brewster Ltd to be followed within 12 months by a further 75 companies. Today the estate remains in public ownership, having passed through the hands of English Partnerships and the Regional Development Agency. Today it is home to 700 businesses employing 20,000 people.
Because of their age the design of these two estates is very different to modern industrial estates. It is true that in both areas much of the development is pretty functional and not at all attractive. However they are both structured in such a way that they create some sense of place and a degree of identity. This is more evident in Team Valley where the central boulevard, Kingsway, is still lined with factories. In the centre of the street is a roundabout with the crescent shaped offices built for the North East Trading Estates Company and now occupied by the Homes and Communities Agency. In Trafford park the sense of place is harder to see because many of the original buildings have been demolished including the village, however even this retains hints of its former identity, particularly the areas refurbished by Urban Splash as a location for smaller companies.
The underlying design structure of each of the estates is in fact very similar. At URBED we have been analysing this structure in a attempt to reconstruct an urban design language for the design of industrial areas. From this we have drawn the following six principles that we are applying in our industrial master plans:
Grid: They are based on an open grid rather than a closed set of cul-de-sacs. This has a certain logic since factories are generally orthogonal and fit best onto rectangular sites. In both cases the grid is based on a module of roughly 100m by 300m (measured to the centreline of the streets). At the centre of the estates these blocks might be further broken down as they are in Trafford Village. Towards the edge of the estates the blocks are combined to larger plots accommodating larger companies.
Hierarchy: There is a hierarchy to the streets of the grid. Team Valley has a central boulevard while Trafford has a series of primary routes. These traditionally were the ‘shop windows’ of the estate with companies building their offices to line the street with their administrative functions and visitor entrances (although this has sadly been lost in much of Trafford Park). The streets parallel to these ‘front of house’ streets are much more business-like providing servicing, loading bays and employee access. The streets of the grid tend to alternate between front of house and service streets, like a terraced housing layout but on a much large scale.
Plot Divisions: The development blocks are broken down to create a huge variety of plot sizes. A 100m deep block may contain a single company or could be divided into two 50m deep plots or further broken down into smaller trading estates. Elsewhere blocks are combined to accommodate much larger companies. Generally the plots are smaller towards the centre and larger on the edge of the estate.
Orientation: traditionally factories have had a front, designed for show, and three elevations that are purely functional. In these estates the fronts all face onto the main streets and the loading and other functional operations happen around the back. In the past the front would include the board room and offices with the flag flying proudly over the main entrance and the chairman’s jag parked outside. Modern factories have much smaller front-of-house operations and are less concerned about making a corporate statement with their buildings. Nevertheless orientation is important.
Building line: On the ‘front of house’ streets factories all tend to follow a common building line. The illustration to the right shows a cross section of the Team Valley boulevard with 20m wide street and 20m ‘front lawns’ on each plot which includes parking, corporate branding and landscaping.
Centre: Finally both estates originally had local centres, including pubs, shops and local facilities as well as bus stops and administrative offices. The clearance of Trafford Village has largely seen this disappear in Trafford but it still exists to an extent in the Team Valley.
We combined these elements into an idealised layout for a new industrial estate or innovation district (below). This combines our six principles into a framework for industrial urban design that we are working to apply, particularly in the International Advanced Manufacturing Park in Sunderland. The aim is to create a flexible open grid that can accommodate companies of different sizes with a coherent and legible street network with the plots becoming smaller at the centre to create a local heart that would be linked to the wider city by public transport.
Just as we have spent the last twenty years rediscovering the lost art of designing residential neighbourhoods, there is a similar job to be done with industrial areas. As with housing estates we need to challenge the car-dominated, cul-de-sac based layouts that have dominated in recent years by reaching back to an earlier tradition. We won’t succeed if these grid layouts are seen as being uncommercial or impractical, which is how some will regard them. However it is hard to see how there can be anything more practical than an open grid and we believe that this type of approach is required to turn today’s industrial estates into the innovation districts required by tomorrow’s economy.