Right Here in River City

October 23, 2018 |

You got no troubles, right here in River City, friend, if building a sustainable business or a biorefinery is on your mind. The secret of the economics of the bioeconomy is in the riverside cities and towns, if you think about it.  

Now, all cities are close to rivers, but here we think of them as the kind you find in Iowa, the mythical home to River City in the theatrical production Music Man — that is, as opposed to seaport cities along the coast.

Why river cities? The trite answer is that “river cities are closer to the feedstock”, but then again, you could say the same of Odessa, Texas (when compared to Houston) in relation to petroleum. The true answer lies in the way that infrastructure is arranged, and cities along the river have all the advantages, for reasons that lie not in geography but in history.

Seaports have changed — so much, you’d hardly recognize how they were a hundred years ago. Then, the prime real estate was on the hills, or away from the water. Think San Francisco’s Nob Hill, or the mansions of New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Then, seaport waterfront was teeming with ships, cargo, terminals, rail connections, power, water supply — not to mention rats, raw sewage, saloons, flophouses and itinerant sailors. Because oil supply came into the seaports, that’s where the wagon trade lived, that’s where the roads led, that’s where the first gas stations were.

There were similarities in river cities, but it wasn’t exactly the same. The towns evolved where the water supply was strongest — because water was connected to transport, to food production and to defense (rivers provided a barrier to invasion or infiltration). From the first trading posts came the villages, and the first roads, and the flatboat trade to bring cargo downstream towards the seacoast and a wider trade, and along came the railroads, and more.

So, there were more similarities than differences between the cities by the river and the sea; until well into this century, when the seacoast cities began to change.

The saltwater port of Sydney

To illustrate, let’s start with the typical coastal port city of Sydney, Australia. Here’s how it looked when it was young. Note that the infrastructure for transport and logistics is based around the Sydney harbor shoreline.  

Sydney’s Circular Quay in its early days

That’s where it was built, and it made Sydney the bustling port that it was, and laid the foundation for Sydney’s emergence as a regional finance center for the South Pacific. You see, trade requires credit, infrastructure requires project finance, and shipping requires working capital.  The emergence of banking led to the emergence of a powerful insurance and reinsurance industry, and then financial services to assist the flow of capital, and merchant empires were built on all that trade flowing in through Sydney’s Circular Quay, and a rail system developed that linked all of Australia from that port of entry. Warehouses emerged to provide logistics and storage. A postal and communications system emerged to serve that trade & finance hub. Oil refining emerged to provide energy. Trucking and roads radiated out from the port to link regional Australia and suburban Sydney to the port. 

The port? It could get grimy, odiferous, loud, and filled with the type and density of infrastructure that gave rise to terms like “urban blight”. The waterfront population was transient, and seamy businesses often sprang up in the area.

Sydney’s Bennelong Point as a busy harbor terminus

Then, fashion changed. Waterfront became valuable, associated with the fine harbor views. Grimy pubs replaced by swanky restaurants. Flophouses replaced by gleaming glass towers that were home to city hotels and wealthy urbanites. Smelly shorelines choked with truck smoke, ships, people and warehouses became harborside parks.

Warehouses gave way to pubs and shops. Cargo-based shipping gave way to passenger and tourist ferries and cruise ships.

What was once a major shipping hub of Darling Harbour is now an urban mixed-use center filled with restaurants, shows, theaters and residents.

Sydney’s Darling Harbour, then

Sydney’s Darling Harbour, now

What was once a turnaround point and a maintenance shed for the Sydney tram system at Bennelong Point is now the site of the Sydney Opera House.

Sydney’s Bennelong Point today, home to the Sydney Opera House

Now, Sydney remains a trade center, and a powerhouse in finance. But the infrastructure that was built in the 19th and early 20th centuries has had to be disbanded, packed up, moved elsewhere — and exploded to the points through the city that remained affordable to industry in a city where waterfront prices rose to more than $1000 per square foot.

Which is to say, everything is pretty much in the wrong place, infrastructure-wise and industry-wise. And, it had to be built twice, at great cost both times. The bill for making Sydney the beautiful city it is has been a high one. Sydneysiders have been incredibly positive about the transformation of their city, because it makes for a far better lifestyle. But it makes Sydney a tough place for affordable manufacturing, and Australia has struggled for years to maintain its manufacturing sector, the jobs and secure supply chain that it provided. 

The story of Sydney is a common one for saltwater port Cities. But for river cities, things happened differently in a lot of cases.

About River Cities

The first thing you can say about River Cities is that, by definition, they’re near to ample sources of fresh water. That’s important for agriculture. 

But there’s more.

One reason that river cities have remained remarkably integrated — even as the infrastructure of the port city dispersed — is the problem of bridges. River cities are developed because of the presence of bridges — these naturally concentrate the traffic on either side of a river and the roads all lead there. And, especially this is the case when rivers join, because that join-point concentrates the river traffic. Where traffic goes, so builds up the city, first a trading post, then a transit hub (ship to rail, wagon to ship, and so on), and then the warehouses and with them come the banks. With the banks comes the ready capital for city development, and that’s how they grew.

The river port city of St. Louis, still arranged around its bridges.

Because the wagons came there, the highways came there; because the ships were there, the rail arrived; there are usually low-slope river banks that offered railway operators an affordable route that was conveniently placed next to the source of water that trains needed in the steam era. And because of the lifting and lighting required for a bustling port, the power arrived. 

The river city of Shanghai, still built around the century-old Waibaidu Bridge linking the Bund to Hongkuo

The story of American seaport infrastructure

Here’s Seattle waterfront as it was.

Seattle waterfront, 1897

Cluttered, industrial, noisesome, and a bustling engine for Seattle’s original economy. The timber would be skidded down the hills behind the city to the Yesler sawmill by the shore — along the original Skid Row. The sawmill would refine the logs into wood products that were shipped out to California and the Pacific from the dank, busy, ugly waterfront piers. Later, the Alaska gold rush was provisioned with the infrastructure built along Seattle’s waterfront. 

As with Sydney, finance emerged to provide safe depository services for the gold fields, working capital for shipping, credits for the trading industry, project finance for energy and infrastructure. 

All that infrastructure, it gave rise to a remarkable transformation of American retailing. The world’s first gas station was here.

Nordstrom got its start as a shoestore along the Seattle waterfront. UPS was born here.

Boeing was founded at the south end of the Duwamish warehousing area. United Technologies was born at the waterfront. So was United Airlines. Eddie Bauer and Starbucks emerged in the retail area just east of the waterfront. The conversion of the US shipping fleet from coal to oil accelerated right here. Seattle City Light pioneered hydroelectric power to serve this burgeoning city’s needs, after power came to Seattle via an old railway power house. That power station was located where the rail car turned from the waterfront into the downtown district, and if you wonder why Seattle’s Pike Place Market is located where it is, that’s why.

The Mosquito Fleet emerged to link Seattle with the Puget Sound. Rail arrived along the waterfront to link Seattle to the US and the Orient trade to the railroad system.

Boeing’s Airplane Plant #1, built adjacent to Seattle’s waterfront infrastructure and astride the Duwamish River

Then and Now

So, to take again the example of Seattle or San Francisco, the areas suitable for industrial companies, the space for labs and pilot facilities and affordable office space? That’s almost invariably down by the airport. The infrastructure of the city was developed around transit by land and sea, but the light industrial district is designed more or less around transportation by air, an unaffordable transport option if ever there was one.

Here’s Seattle’s waterfront, then.

Seattle in 1891, its original infrastructure built around the seaport

In 1907, that’s where the very first gas station appeared.

Billed as the world’s first gas station, built by Standard Oil of California in 1907 in the Seattle dock area

This is the waterfront, now. A plaque memorializes that first gas station, nearby — but as you see, the land is now oriented towards pedestrians, and tourists. The transportation and infrastructure hub of what was once known as Front Street (as in water-front), is now home to attractions like the Pike Place Market and the Seattle Aquarium.

A concept for the redevelopment of Seattle’s waterfront, along Alaskan Way (previously, Railroad Avenue)
The same Seattle district (Railroad Avenue), in 1900

Chicago’s Navy Pier? Redeveloped for tourists. San Francisco’s Embarcadero? Redeveloped for tourism.

San Francisco’s wharves, circa 1900, when the city’s infrastructure was planned and first placed.

What happened to all that port city infrastructure? It rarely moved all to one place, and if it did, rarely was that in a logistically perfect place — because, of course, the logistically perfect place is now home to some combination of tony high-rise apartment buildings and modernist skyscrapers offering enterprises a snappy view.

San Francisco’s wharf area, today

By contrast, river cities and towns

River Cities never went through that extreme a transformation. For the most part, riverfront infrastructure is more or less where it was originally put in. The railroads, the high-throughput power lines, the roads designed for heavy-duty trucks, the terminals and storage areas — they’re right where they were first placed.

The prospect of sweeping seacoast views that drove residents and businesses down the hills and to the waterfront didn’t, on the whole, happen in the river cities. Generally, the rivers were too narrow to offer the viewscape of the sea coast and the water moves too swiftly and perpendicular to the shoreline to build up beaches. Riverfronts are muddy affairs, rather than home to sugar-sand sprawls.

So, if you’re looking for a place to develop a bioeconomy project, you’ve got no troubles, right here in River City.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Category: Top Stories

Thank you for visting the Digest.