Logistical Ecologies of the North American Operational Landscape
Wind turbines, like the one seen here in Rochelle, IL, are among the recent transformations of Illinois soybean and corn croplands. © 2015 Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective
Essay by Conor O’Shea, Luke Hegeman, and Chris Bennett
Even for those of us who may be focused on the cities as zones of intervention, we can’t understand what is going on within them unless we look outside them, far outside them.
— Neil Brenner 
The UN has declared the twenty-first century to be an urban century  and across the United States the popular press and scholars alike herald a “return to the city” and an “urban renaissance” ; accordingly, the design disciplines are now preoccupied by high-profile design projects in dense urban centers. These projects—outmoded infrastructure or buildings transformed into parks, retail, office space, or museums, for example—have become almost compulsory tools for municipal governments seeking to attract investment from jobs, tourism, and recreation in lieu of an eroded manufacturing tax base and amidst increasingly neoliberal policies.
With a practical financial interest in these new urban projects and with formal training rooted in twentieth-century urban theory hindering the prospect of alternative viewpoints, much of design myopically focuses on “the city” as a site of intervention.  Possibility for density, walkability, social interaction, and creative exchange are frequently cited as reasons for an interest in designing in cities. However, when reframed in a regional, continental, or even planetary context, the situation is quickly complicated as the global systems of waste, energy, food, and mobility needed to sustain any settlement, dense or otherwise, emerge into view.
Millennium Park, Maggie Daley Park, and the Lakeshore East development pictured here in downtown Chicago typify the type of landscape architectural projects used to lure investment dollars back into the historic cores of American cities. © 2015 Chris Bennett
Among these systems, the movement of containerized freight by train and truck along railways and highways is an illuminating lens through which to decipher twenty-first century urbanization processes. Considering the urban as a process, rather than an aggregation of discrete areas, underscores the fact that the aforementioned zones of downtown reinvestment are but one moment of capital accumulation. Virtually all the goods consumed in North America arrive by containership at North American coastal ports, mostly from newly industrialized Asian countries, where they move to market by train and by truck. Since the early 2000s, mounting spatial, economic, and labor pressures on coastal United States ports coupled with a rise in online commerce and an increasingly fragmented global supply chain have caused activities historically associated with coastal ports to spill over into the interior of the continent. This interiorization of port activities has produced vast logistics landscapes in former rangeland, cropland, and pasture areas.
These logistics landscapes, where third-party logistics providers, warehousing and distribution facilities for online retailers, and manufacturing plants cluster around massive inland ports, are more than the just the inverse of America’s centers of tourism and commerce: they are distinct urban environments, critical junctions in the global circuitry of twenty-first century capital.
Like the shipping container itself, these environments are hyper-engineered for efficiency and economy, and are done so in an effort to transcend existing local ecological and hydrological dynamics. Standard rail turning radii, warehousing dimensions, and road widths are deployed across the country in an effort to maintain a physical uniformity that keeps the specifics of place at bay, thereby sustaining the high standard of living across the continent that so many Americans enjoy. However, if these logistics landscapes, like the sites of reinvestment so popular with today’s designers, are categorized based upon form alone, much is overlooked. The infrastructure and development needed to deliver goods to market collides with existing local economies and ecologies to produce regionally-specific logistics landscapes.
As a first step towards classifying these variations, or logistical ecologies, distinct adjacencies (of land uses, infrastructure, development, and ecologies, to name a few) of Northern Illinois and Alliance, Texas are documented in the accompanying photo essay.
Located at the crossroads of the North American rail system where six of the Class I railroads meet, Chicago’s older intermodal freight facilities, like the Burlington Northern Santa Fe one seen here, are hemmed in by nineteenth-century fabric, with little room for expansion or the clustering of twenty-first-century logistics related facilities. © 2015 Chris Bennett
Completed in 2002, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Logistics Park seen here is part
of the CenterPoint Intermodal Center in Joliet / Elwood, IL, North America’s largest inland port, where more containers move through annually than all coastal ports except for the Port of Long Beach, Port of Los Angeles, and Port of New York and New Jersey. © 2015 Chris Bennett
Completed in 2010, this Union Pacific Global IV intermodal freight facility seen is part of the CenterPoint Intermodal Center, which abuts the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, now the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and site of a 2015 American Bison Bison bison herd reintroduction. © 2015 Chris Bennett
Facilities like this Menards distribution facility in Plano, IL collide with existing croplands and agricultural communities to produce a logistics landscape unique to the region. © 2015 Chris Bennett
The Union Pacific Global III intermodal freight facility pictured here was constructed in 2003 outside of Rochelle, IL atop some of the nation’s most productive soils. © 2015 Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective
Dating back to the 1980s, Alliance, Texas is the nation’s most mature logistics landscape; anchored by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe intermodal freight facility seen here that was expanded from 2001 onwards, this 18,000-acre master-planned logistics community was constructed on the natural gas field known as the Barnett Shale and includes industrial, residential, office, and retail space. © 2016 Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective
In the Alliance Gateway section of Alliance warehousing and distribution facilities, like the DSC Logistics and Martin Brower facilities seen here, leverage their proximity to the BNSF intermodal facility in order to decrease shipping times and costs. © 2016 Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective
Due to union contract negotiations at the General Electric facility in Erie, Pennsylvania, jobs have moved to the General Electric Forth Worth Locomotive Plant in Alliance, Texas, pictured here, which opened in 2012 and employs over 500 people. © 2016 Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective
Infrastructure, including the Alliance Highway seen here, continues to expand into adjacent rangelands and near low-density single-family housing developments to accommodate rising levels of imported containerized goods. © 2016 Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective
Overlapping rail, highway, rangeland, and access roads to oil and gas drilling sites characterize the logistics landscapes of Northern Texas. © 2016 Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective
The infrastructure connecting Alliance, Texas to the North American rail system is built atop the Barnett Shale, a natural gas field, where surface wells and their associated infrastructure sit within rangelands. © 2016 Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective
Expanded rail corridors, like the one seen here near Alliance, Texas, are built to accommodate longer container trains delivering goods to downtown retailers and low-density big-box stores alike, thereby transforming the hinterlands they cut through in into regionally specific logistics landscapes. © 2016 Luke Hegeman / MODUS Collective
1. Neil Brenner, “Wildly Civilized: Ecological + Extreme + Planetary Urbanism… What’s Next? (moderated panel, Harvard Graduate School of Design, September 13, 2014).
2. A range of publications, from major world newspapers to graduate student thesis projects, now reference the UN’s claim that “over half of the world’s population now lives in cities.” For a critique of this claim see: Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38:3 (2014), 731-755; also: Neil Brenner, ed, Implosions / Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization (Berlin: Jovis, 2014).
3. See for example, Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011). I attribute these observations on twenty-first-century urbanization to my participation as a researcher during the spring of 2013 in the Urban Theory Lab at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. More information on their ongoing research can be found here: www.urbantheorylab.net
4. Within much of design discourse, the urban is still synonymous with “the city” and vice versa, a term wrought with ideology. For a discussion on the widespread use of the term city as an analytical category, see: Hillary Angelow and David Wachsmith, “Urbanizing Political Ecology: A Critique of Methodological Cityism,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39, no. 1 (2015): 16-27.
Chris Bennett is an architect, designer, and researcher from Chicago, Illinois. His work focuses on large scale urban processes that expand beyond the typical building site, questioning how to operate in the built environment as well as post-industrial landscapes. He holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Michigan with High Distinction, and a Master in Design: Urbanism, Landscape, and Ecology from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design with Distinction.
www.cebennett.net | @COE_architect
Luke Hegeman is a landscape architect and designer from Green Bay, Wisconsin. He is the founder of MODUS Collective, an aerial analysis and cinematography firm focused on utilizing unmanned aerial systems to investigate new frameworks for analysis and visual representation. Luke holds a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture from Colorado State University and a Master in Landscape Architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
www.moduscollective.net | @moduscollective
Conor O’Shea is a landscape designer and urbanist based in Chicago, Illinois where he is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Master of Landscape Architecture program in the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 2014 he founded the design research office Hinterlands Urbanism and Landscape. His current research uses critical urban theory to inform contemporary landscape architectural theory and design research.
www.hinterlands-ul.net | @ceoshea773