Vancouver’s industrial harbor in British Columbia, Canada. (Shutterstock)

Community planners are well-versed in the tenets of smart growth and other similar concepts that advance compact development forms, mixed uses, diverse housing, walkable communities, and environmental protection. But what about jobs?

As stated in a 2012 journal article (Smart Growth’s Blind Side: Sustainable Cities Need Productive Urban Industrial Land, Nancey Green Leigh and Nathanael Z. Hoelzel, Journal of the American Planning Association, 2012):

For many cities and planners, adopting smart growth sprawl-containing strategies is associated with the conversion of relatively inexpensive industrial-zoned land to land zoned for mixed-use commercial and residential redevelopment. This can weaken the urban economic base, reduce the supply of good-job-producing land, and contribute to industrial-sector suburban sprawl.  

This critique is still relevant today. Much well-located industrial land has been converted to residential development under the name of smart growth and sustainability. But not all industry can be outsourced to elsewhere.

If smart growth means creating homes for families of all income levels, that also means creating spaces for all job types.

Industrial-like businesses providing crucial services in the urban ecosystem may be “low key,” such as the “dirty work” of maintenance, suppliers, deliveries, waste management, cleaning, construction, etc. Some are population serving and some are business serving, and some are a combination of both.

Annual awards for most livable cities should be supplemented with ones for most workable cities.

Industrial Importance

Just as there is a housing continuum and an urban transect, there is an industrial spectrum, from light to heavy, traditional to modern, analog to digital, land extensive to building intensive. Even an economy oriented towards the future requires some industrial lands.

Industry offers many positive externalities and “back of house” functions that are under-appreciated, and is not just an undesirable neighbor—they provide diverse jobs, many services, and property taxes. Flexible and responsive spaces are needed for adaptable and resilient cities.

In terms of transportation, more jobs close to the city center and proximity between suppliers and customers can counter some reverse commute patterns and contribute to shorter trips, enhanced transit service, efficient goods movement, less traffic, reduced air emissions, and safer streets.

The highest use for lands from a financial perspective may not necessarily be the best use from a policy perspective. Some lower-value industrial uses are required as part of an urban system, and displacing them disrupts that network.

Pushing Industrial Jobs to Worse Locations

In a sense, the smart growth approach has capitalized on the deindustrialization of North American cities that are experiencing population expansion, by converting urban industrial lands to residential-oriented, mixed-use, higher-density communities, with the promise of additional housing, active transportation, and environmental sustainability.

In a prior era, those industrial lands were the employment base of the city, and housing was built within walking distance from them. The conversion of industrial lands are also easier in terms of development approvals, because unlike the intensification of existing residential districts, there are no residential neighbors raising objections.

Whether by intent or effect, the tension in many cases is protecting existing industrial lands vs. building new mixed-use developments. The concern about residential change leading to ‘gentrification’ is well-known, yet displacement of industrial land is just as real. When those service commercial and light industrial businesses, often in older buildings on lower-density properties, turn over, industry is pushed out of the city.

Utilization is not measured only in residential units per acre or commercial floor area ratio. Industrial is inherently land extensive, and yet is still productive. A simple count of the direct number of jobs on industrial lands paints an incomplete picture; industrial activity contributes to many more indirect and off-site jobs through multiplier effects.

Industrial Economy, Urban Services

Profiles of smart growth appears as if the only types of jobs are office, retail, service, and some other sectors, if they have enough cache, such as knowledge-based tech, software, design, R&D, that desire an urban work locale.

Yet these businesses need supportive uses; product design needs prototyping labs; food production needs processing facilities; e-commerce sorting needs distribution hubs, etc. Additionally, industrial lands accommodate public services like infrastructure, maintenance yards, bus parking, and recycling facilities needed to run a city and fulfill sustainability objectives.

Proper land use plans support these economic development objectives. Urban industrial locations provide proximity to the workforce, businesses, consumers, services, etc., supporting and advancing agglomeration economies, clusters, and positive spillovers, which are the very reason cities formed.

Land use conflicts, past and present, real and perceived, must be addressed. In some cases, the impacts of industrial on residential such as pollution, vibration, odor, and noise require a physical separation, especially between heavy industrial and ground-oriented residential. But with lighter industrial and vertical residential, there is the opportunity, through careful policy and design to integrate some of these uses. Out of sight, leads to out of mind. But also out of place, and out of space. Sustainability is not just an environmental matter, but also one of economy, employment, income, and wealth, which sustains a vibrant society.

Even as the structure of the economy changes, there remains a necessary link between production and consumption, industrial and service, workers and work. The form and type may change through technology and time, but is still needed for the denizens. We don’t want to lose industry; we want to modernize the products and processes so it can be part of the future of cities.

Metro Vancouver

The Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy, Metro 2040, adopted in 2011, included policies to designate and preserve industrial lands in the region. This was in response to conversion of industrial lands to other uses, including suburban office parks and residential housing, collectively leading to an undersupply of industrial land to meet the needs of the regional economy.

With decisions about significant lands made by individual municipalities, retention of uses that service the region were at risk. These policies were enhanced in the updated Regional Growth Strategy, Metro 2050, adopted in 2023. These regional policies have helped municipalities understand the importance of preserving industrial land and has substantially reduced the rate of industrial land conversion.

Metro Vancouver also prepared a Regional Industrial Lands Strategy, completed in 2020, which included additional actions for governments, agencies, and stakeholders to ensure sufficient industrial lands to meet the needs of the growing regional economy. In addition to elaborating on the importance of a coordinated transportation system, it further advances industrial intensification and densification, such as multi-level buildings, to optimize the limited lands available.

In terms of monitoring, every five years Metro Vancouver undertakes a comprehensive inventory of industrial lands to document the supply and change over time. Notably, while comprising only 4 percent of the region’s land base, industrial lands are home to over a quarter of the region’s jobs.

Conclusions and Solutions

Smart growth has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the importance of industrial lands for the livability of cities, with emphasis on residential, retail, and recreation. Conflicted policy objectives and responses need to be recognized and reconciled. Smart growth needs to embrace an equitable, efficient, and adequate industrial land base necessary for the urban economy and its diverse workforce.

The demand for urban living, which is a positive form of development that advances sustainability and is often advocated by smart growth, can occur in higher-density forms than are viable for industrial uses.

Here are the solutions:

  • Simultaneously pursue industrial lands retention and residential densification, through coordinated regional and municipal plans and actions.
  • Use robust policy and zoning tools to protect industrial land—and avoid spot rezonings that undermine policies.
  • Intensify existing residential and commercial areas, and keep industrial lands for primarily industrial uses.
  • Enhance strategies to promote industrial intensification and densification.
  • Direct office space to urban centers well served by transit and amenities.
  • Introduce light industrial uses within some commercial and mixed-use districts where appropriate, with cautions about combining industrial and residential uses together.

Success is a place where residents can live close to work, and industry can operate close to the workforce. Stable industrial lands are needed for resilient, sustainable, prosperous, and smart communities for years to come.