Steel cities in transit landscapes

Steel cities in transit landscapes
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The Architecture of Logistics: In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, a certain type of industry has rapidly developed – an industry that produces nothing. Storing, packaging, assembling, and other ancillary processes of manufacturing and distribution are carried out in extensive logistics parks. These territories have huge effects on the built environment, landscapes, societies, and individuals who live in these regions. Kateřina Frejlachová on the spatial impact of global supply chains on peripheral territories.

 

Two contexts of logistics

The shapes and names of urban, suburban and vernacular terrains are capable of carrying meanings that articulate the lives which unfold among them. The territories of continental logistics, with highway networks, truck terminals and especially logistics parks are recognisable almost in no way. They do not intend to be. It is enough that they are measurable.

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The architecture of logistics manifests itself in an aesthetic of replication and uniformity
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Abstract steel envelopes of warehouse sheds simply convert ground to floor area and cultivate the value of its position on a continental map. Row of truck docks functions only in relation to another row of docks elsewhere in Europe, from which, or to which a regular shipment of standardised things frequents in regular rhythms. In short, an international logistics park only ‘makes sense’ when presented in the context of the supply chain of which it forms but one of many nodes. Such networks, and not the immediate physical surroundings, form its primary physical, economic and infrastructural context. The actual physical presence of each of the logistics parks is only somewhat secondary. Even though each of these developments radically transforms local environment and impacts livelihoods of local populations, and forms new, often precarious livelihoods of its workers, it makes no difference if it is this or that land, or if it is these or some other workers that are affected. The physical presence of a logistics park, however overwhelming, is secondary, only an inevitable, if somewhat annoying consequence.

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Steel Cities, as some locals have termed them, occupy increasing amounts of what has been fertile farmland. Their vast sites have doubled in terms of area covered every four years during the past two decades.
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Case study: Tachov region in Czech Republic

“Here they built Steel Cities. They took over farmland and built these halls. Gigantic ones. And there’s also a huge flow of people, coming here from far and wide. But never once have I heard anyone with a good word for the wages.” These words give a summary of the situation around the logistics complexes, from the viewpoint of a resident of Bor u Tachova, a small town in West Bohemia not far from the industrial zone of Nová Hospoda (currently CTPark Bor).

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Steel Cities in the V4 Countries: In less than 20 years, Visegrad Group countries have seen the growth of a logistics infrastructure which offers more than 35,000,000 m² of storage space. This process is similar to what happened in Western Europe in the previous century, but it is happening at an even faster tempo. Transnational companies drawn by tax incentives and ample quantities of low-paid workers develop hectares of metal-clad halls where components are assembled, stored, and repacked before their completion and distribution back onto the domestic market. The first wave of these developments saw the boom in the easiest accessible Czech Republic and western regions of Poland, while recent years have seen the activity shift further east to Hungary, Slovakia, and the rest of Poland.
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The Tachov district is peripheral. An area that lies geographically at a remove from major centers and near the national border, but also peripheral in the sense of forgotten and at the edge of public interest. At the same time, the character of the region is not entirely determined by the Czech context alone, but is shaped no less forcefully by its relation to the German context across the border. The region lies immediately adjacent to Bavaria, separated by a fifty-km stretch of national border, a former “Iron Curtain”.
This part of West Bohemia has always been a transit landscape. Thanks to its position just between two territories of different state power, it has a tradition-grounded relationship to all the infrastructure that historically linked them. During the primarily German medieval settlement of Tachov district the central role was played by the Nuremberg Road, the trading route connecting Prague with Western Europe. Today, running through the sites where the old cart-route once wound, the cities of Prague and Nuremberg are linked by the D5/A6 highway.

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Logistics shed by the D5 highway in West Bohemia. Photo: Jan Kolský, 2019
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With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the border to the West was essentially open by the end of 1989, and pressure to create a high-speed connection naturally welled. The entire highway was opened in 2006. For the states of Western Europe, it prefigured the possibilities for the expansion of the global marketplace eastward. D5 is a major part of the strategic transport system connecting Western to Central and Eastern Europe.

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German space economy: Germany is the largest and most productive European economy, yet it has been argued that the competitiveness of the German market is largely made possible by its neighboring states. While some western european states, such as the Netherlands and Ireland, serve as tax havens, Central and Eastern Europe mostly serve as an extended assembly plant and storage space for German industry.
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Without the highway, there would be no warehouses. After 1989, Tachovsko remained affected by stagnation in agriculture, as well as the departure of the iron curtain guards and the disappearance of related services. In a region hungry for new work opportunities in the face of high unemployment, farmland adjoining the newly built highway exits became a commodity full of potential for quick and high profits. The original local zoning plans for commercial-industrial zones in the 1990s assumed smaller structures for small- and medium- sized businesses, low-impact manufacturing or skilled crafts. Gradually, the surface areas ballooned up to the size of the current vast halls. In the sparsely settled terrain between the city of Plzeň and the German border, after the year 2000 several commercial-industrial parks arose in quick succession.

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Expansion of construction near highway D5 (cadastral district: Ostrov u Tachova) from left to right 1998, 2005, 2008 and the present. Source: Czech Office for Surveying, Mapping and Cadastre.
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A closer look at the tenants in the centers along the West Bohemian border reveals that most are German or multinational corporations, not serving the Czech market but the German or the broader West European one.
One example is the warehouse for the clothing brand Primark, operated in CTPark Bor by the logistics giant DHL. The clothing, sewn cheaply in Asia, is unloaded from ships in Rotterdam. In an identical container, already adjusted on hangers, it is transported further inland. The trucks cross the Czech-German border and the goods make their brief halt near Tachov. In the warehouse, they are unwrapped, separated using special hanger conveyors, and prepared for distribution to one of the German or Austrian retail points.

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Primark Close-up view of Primark distribution center for Western European markets in Bor, West Bohemia. Photo: Miroslav Pazdera, 2018
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Enormous quantities of goods all around the world move along seemingly absurd trajectories, yet ones that immediately make sense once we include in the logic of global logistics the variable of local economic and political conditions. Operating manufacturing, storage, and distribution centers a few kilometers from the German border, is, quite simply, to international companies’ financial advantage.

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Performances: The resulting color of the NUTS 2 region is the outcome of the synthesis of the values of the individual socioeconomic parameters, such as work productivity, labor cost, GDP per capita, indicators of the scale and quality of innovation, investment, education, level of meritocracy in the public sector, ability to compete, and risks associated with globalization. The largest differences can be seen in labor productivity, which translates to lower financial compensation of employees. The eastern states, but also some Southern European states, also have a lower quality of public administration, which allows for easier neglect of legislation and the public good.
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Private Infrastructure of Logistics: Multinational corporations split their activities into those with higher or lower added value, and geographically spread them out according to the benefits which the individual places offer. In this way, they create a value chain which maximizes the profit margin on the product produced. Despite their distance and their less developed infrastructure, the east (and south) of Europe still offers better conditions for production with lower added value, such as assembling various components and their packing and storage, in terms of expenses per labor cost and corporate tax.
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Construction of a new shed in CTPark Bor. Photo: Miroslav Pazdera, 2018
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Despite more or less palpable difficulties the construction of huge logistics centres brought to the region, the attitude of residents in the area tends to be one of resignation, perhaps even indifference. As if the presence of the “Steel Cities” were something fated, something unquestionable, something merely that one should learn to live with. The Steel Cities remain distant even when people live right next to them, the two virtually oblivious of each other’s presence. The asymmetrical relationship of the continental systems and local livelihoods, however, grows in, despite, or because of, the mutual indifference. The warehouses, after all, provide work.

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Workers’ dormitory for 80 residents just before completion. Ostrov u Tachova. Photo: Martin Špičák, 2018
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About the book

In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, a certain type of industry has rapidly developed – an industry that produces nothing. Storing, packaging, assembling, and other ancillary processes of manufacturing and distribution are carried out in extensive logistics parks, the area of which has doubled on average every four years. The publication examines logistics centers on three different scales and contexts with contributions of both local and international authors.

About the authors

Kateřina Frejlachová and Tadeáš Říha are architects based in Prague, London and Berlin and editors of Steel Cities: The Architecture of Logistics in Central and Eastern Europe. Together they collaborate on design and research projects in the realm of architecture, urban environment, landscape and infrastructure.

Co-Editors of the book Steel Cities: Miroslav Pazdera is an architect working as a research assistant at Czech Technical University’s Faculty of Architecture in Prague and with Bernd Schmutz Architekten in Berlin. Martin Špičák is an architect and co-founder of Placemakers.cz collective. He works at the city of Prague’s department of urban planning.

 

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