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Just-in-Time Urbanism

Charlie Clemoes

Little-known outside of economics text books, just-in-time production has had countless affects on the modern urban landscape.

Toyota Manufacturing - Assembly (Photo Credit: Toyota UK)




Little-known outside of economics text books, just-in-time production has had countless affects on the modern urban landscape.

Just-In-Time (JIT) supply chains have left an indelible mark on the modern city. Developed by car manufacturer Toyota in the 1960s and 1970s, JIT’s essential aim is to cut costs by reducing the amount of goods and materials a firm holds in stock and increasing the speed with which these goods and materials are transported, housed, processed and consumed.

Even from its origins, JIT was a distinctly spatial phenomenon. Japan suffers from a lack of land and natural resources. As a result, the country has long been forced to adopt a “lean” approach to manufacturing, involving smaller factories holding fewer goods and an efficient transport infrastructure to keep up a steady supply of new materials. Building on this pre-existing situation, managers at Toyota, also recognised the need to minimise waste by imposing greater discipline on the production line, ensuring smooth handling of materials and fewer mistakes.

The rise of the container

Just-in-time’s development went hand-in-hand with another innovation in global trade: containerisation. Now almost completely ubiquitous as a method of goods transport, containers were first widely adopted in the 1970s and, with the increasing standardisation of container units, it became possible to carry much larger quantities of goods on ever larger container ships, thus making it easier for a company to orient their supply chains to the just-in-time approach, since they could be more confident of a steady supply of goods.

Together JIT and containerisation brought about the decline of the inner-city warehouse as a building for storing goods. This set in train a rapid emptying of warehouse districts in major cities across the world, with the warehouses either being flattened and the land redeveloped – as happened in the development of a financial district in Canary Wharf from the 1980s and in the waterside redevelopment around Baltimore’s Inner Harbour in the 2000s – or converted – as happened in Manhattan’s Meat Packing district and in the London Borough of Hackney. Either way, property developers are indebted to JIT for the space it created in the inner city.

Farewell to the seedy docks

The shift away from inner city docks also made way for the emergence of new ports in smaller towns and on the edge of cities. In the UK for instance, as the London and Edinburgh docks declined, ports like Felixstowe and Grimsby emerged in their place to become, respectively, the largest container and cargo ports in the country. Unlike the former historic ports, these towns remain relatively unknown beyond their immediate regions, they also lack the reputation for seediness that the London and Edinburgh docks once enjoyed. This is partly because it used to be much easier to rob a boat’s cargo and because there were more dockers who were more embedded in the city. Smuggling still occurs in these new ports, but it happens in a much more clinical fashion (as illustrated in the brilliant second season of The Wire).

Along with inner city seediness, JIT also helped bring about the death of main street, since the approach mainly benefits big companies that can manage large supply chains. Massive supermarket chains such as Walmart can source cheap goods from all over the world at prices that the small-town store and the medium-sized factory simply cannot compete with. This particular shift has delivered some big benefits to ordinary people, most notably that consumer products have become much cheaper than they used to be, enabling more people to afford both the necessities and luxuries of life. However, the jobs needed to have the money to buy these products have declined thanks to containerisation and JIT encouraging companies to take the work process to other parts of the world, a move which has had disastrous results for the middle class in major developed economies.

A Landscape in JIT’s image

One last thing (although there’s much more to talk about), JIT’s demand for an ever faster and smoother flow of goods has led to a huge reconfiguring of the landscape. Land reclamation and river dredging around major ports, expansion of high-speed rail and motorway networks, and a massive proliferation of so-called fulfilment centres on the urban periphery, are just a few of the major ways that this reconfiguration has impacted the physical geography of countries across the world.

Thanks to JIT, the global economy is now deeply connected. While it may seem impressive in its scope, this connectivity is very precarious. Most cities now have only enough food and medical supplies to last them a few days and are faced with the constant threat of ever-present bottlenecks and chokepoints. Looked at this way, just-in-time has probably gone too far and penetrated too deeply into every aspect of our lives. But can it even be stopped?

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Toyota Manufacturing - Press (Photo Credit: Toyota UK)