Made in Chicago: Bringing Manufacturing Back to Cities Through Industrial EcoDistricts

Five miles southwest of Chicago’s Loop sit three nearly vacant buildings that were once part of the Central Manufacturing District (CMD), one of the first industrial parks in the country. In their heyday, these three buildings housed tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, the sort of well paying, blue collar work that is largely a relic of a bygone era. Each building is about a half million square feet, and a freight rail line runs adjacent to the site (though investment would be needed to reconnect the site to active rail). One of the buildings provides back office and warehouse space for City of Chicago departments, but the site is otherwise empty.

Where others might see decay, we see potential. With ample space for manufacturing and close proximity to freight rail, we think that this site could be repurposed as an EcoDistrict to bring manufacturing jobs back to Chicago and catalyze neighborhood economic development in a way that’s also eco-friendly. Manufacturing and associated transportation has been historically viewed as a “dirty industry,” but new technologies allow manufacturing to be a cleaner, quieter neighbor. Increasingly, “manufacturing” no longer means massive steel plants, but rather small-scale producers who, using new technologies like 3D printing or CNC machines, have a far smaller footprint. Similarly, freight transportation is changing. CNT’s cargo oriented-development work is showing how clean, location-efficient freight systems can reduce costs and emissions.

On November 19, we brought together a group of experts from fields including freight, manufacturing, workforce development, and community economic growth to tour the Central Manufacturing District site and brainstorm possible uses.

Touring the Central Manufacturing District

Old Central Manufacturing District railroad track

After touring two CMD buildings, we reconvened at the Green Exchange in Logan Square to workshop CNT’s ideas for how the buildings could be used. We think that the EcoDistrict framework offers great potential for transforming the site into a model for sustainable manufacturing.  EcoDistricts are comprehensive, neighborhood-scale approaches to sustainable development that can produce low or no carbon emissions and reduce costs by combining renewable energy, energy efficiency, access to active and public transportation infrastructure, business development resources, affordable housing, sustainable water management, and place-making in one integrated infrastructure system.

One of the charrette groups discussing the future of the CMD

Stay tuned in the coming months as we build out our vision for the Central Manufacturing District and investigate next-generation urban manufacturing opportunities. With some creative thinking and innovative new framing, we’re hoping to make “post-industrial” a thing of the past.   

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