Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Sustainable Industries Journal.

What happens to a region when land is scarce and demand for housing goes up? First of all, prices for land and housing start to increase. But the opportunity to make money is a powerful draw.

Land that is underutilized for housing—especially industrial lands—becomes a prime target for rezones. Why keep big chunks of a city locked up with warehouses, rail spurs, and smokestacks when dense, compact communities are far more sustainable?

One answer is jobs. Industrial advocates argue that heavy industry creates lots of living wage jobs. But what about reducing carbon emissions and promoting sustainable neighborhoods? The conflict between jobs and industry on the one hand and housing and neighborhoods on the other might be resolved by new technologies that could put manufacturing and housing in the same place.

A great example of one of these new technologies is 3-D printing, and it’s a revolution in efficiency in light manufacturing. It is already impacting our lives. The crown on my back molar was made in my dentist’s office using a small device that converts Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) drawings into an actual in-house manufactured crown, saving the delay and expense of going to a lab.

My dentist took a picture of my tooth, mapped out the crown on a screen, shaped it using CAD, hit print and less than an hour later a device about the size of a small espresso machine kicked out my crown. With some adjustments she was able to fit it to my tooth and I was on my way.

  • How does it work? The best way to answer this question is to watch a machine in action. The printer is able to duplicate CAD drawings in three dimensions by laying down layer after layer of powder and a binding agent to the correct specifications. The object can then be dusted off, trimmed, and used. The technology is now being used for models of parts or products like my new crown.

     

    But more can be done with the technology. One team from Stratasys & Autodesk produced a first full-scale turbo-prop aircraft engine. Watching the process is pretty amazing because the engine is produced entirely using the printing technique, and the engine actually works.

    So how can technology like this preserve jobs, create new ones, and at the same time promote sustainable dense neighborhoods? First, zoning was created to separate different uses. Manufacturing should be done in one place and living done somewhere else, or so goes the theory of contemporary land use. And it makes sense. Who wants to live next to a huge, belching steel mill? It’s loud, noisy and unhealthy. Land use made it a priority to keep these uses apart.

    But technologies like 3-D printing could reshape the way we think of manufacturing. A family could live above or near a facility that produces parts and models using a 3-D printer; it would be quieter, cleaner and healthier. Imagine a neighborhood that combined manufacturing using this technology with compact communities. The result would be jobs and housing in the same place.

    But this solution would require big thinking by local city councils, labor unions, housing advocates, and neighborhood leaders. Of course not everything can be built using this technology. But if local and state government encouraged and provided incentives for partnerships between manufacturers, unions and non-profit housing developers, we could see neighborhoods built to accommodate jobs and housing for people that need them most.

    One neighborhood here in Seattle immediately comes to mind: Interbay. Interbay is a lot like what the Pearl District in Portland used to be; a mix of warehouses and light manufacturing. But a lot of Interbay’s warehouses are empty and there isn’t much infrastructure and the infrastructure that is there is decaying. The area is low lying between the Magnolia bluff and Queen Anne Hill and is close to the Port of Seattle terminals to the south and rail lines. Interbay could become a world class model of how to put manufacturing and housing together in a healthy, sustainable way.

    Industry no longer has to be a pig in the parlor when it comes to local land use. We can have dense, walkable, and green neighborhoods and have some manufacturing use as well. The first step is to support the industry with incentives like tax credits and grants to keep new developments in technology coming. But even more important cities in the region need to start rethinking zoning as a strategy for bringing uses closer together rather than pushing them part. That, in many ways, is even more revolutionary that designing plane parts on a computer and manufacturing them by clicking ‘print.’