Fordism and the 20th Century City

Fordism has influenced the design of cities from its conception in the early part of the 20th Century. It has influenced lifestyles and changed the face of industry (Sheldrake, 1996). The impacts of Fordism can be felt throughout the century but to understand its level of influence it must be understood what the city was like before the Fordist era. By charting the progress of change in the city throughout the 20th Century up to the 21st it can be established how they have adapted and to what extent Fordism played in that change. The effects will be examined in various cities in the USA and Europe from the period of 19th to the 21st Century.

The Fordist Method

To many, Fordism stood as the transition from traditional methods of labour management to a more modern approach (Meyer, 1981). Fordism combined the methods of scientific, welfare and personal management and was not just the creation of the assembly line and mass production (Kumar, 1995). The 19th century industrial methods were ones of chaotic production. There was no system to the manufacturing process and workers would assume many roles in the workplace.  By 1914 the Fordist method of production had taken hold and soon the workplace had become a more efficient entity. Assembly lines ordered jobs systematically and kept employees working at a consistent pace. The Fordist use of single purpose machinery meant that skilled workers were not a necessity and so reduced the complexity of production flexible (Kumar, 1995).

The Fordist method of mass production though would have been doomed to fail if it were not for one critical factor: mass consumption. For a product to be mass produced there must be a sufficient number of consumers willing to purchase it. The Model T met the requirements of the prevailing market and Ford enjoyed lasting success for having such a product (Sheldrake, 1996). The Model T met all the requirements for an all purpose, volume car. By standardising the product’s parts and production method, the Model T was able to be produced in vast quantities at ever decreasing costs. The high level of production enabled Henry Ford to pay his workers $5 a day, which was far above the national average at the time. This kept the workers happy and was guided by the principle that high wages equalled high production, which in turn meant higher profits. In 1914 ford was producing 250,000 cars annually out of its factories in Detroit (Sheldrake, 1996).

Before the model T’s conception, many people had not stepped outside of their respective towns and villages and the vast majority had not travelled more that 30 miles from their homes (Meyer, 1981). The advent of the Model T changed that. A new world of possibility was opened up. Personal travel became a reality for the masses as a Model T would cost the equivalent of herd of horses, making it affordable to all but the poorest of society.

The Old Towns

To examine the impacts the Fordist revolution have had on the development of 20th century cities, it must first be established how the city was like beforehand. In the 19th century the populations of industrialising countries in Europe and America grew astronomically. The population of Great Britain alone had quadrupled by 1851 and 50% of the population were living in cities, compared to just 17% in 1801. (Schoon, 2001). The growing number of workers needed to live very close to the factories. People would have to walk to work. This lead to an explosion in high density, often poor quality housing; 732 people per hectare of built up land in Berlin by 1862 (Hall, 1984). Economic deprivation was rife in the city, which amounted to as much as 40% in inner London (Hall, 1984). Poor building regulations meant that many of these buildings were falling into disrepair. By 1925 only half the houses in Paris were connected to a sewer system (Hall, 1984).

Planning regulations were incredibly lax at the time, which provided little opposition to huge swaths of countryside being urbanised for growth. The main industrial centres of the day; New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Manchester, were expanding rapidly. New York in this instance became a massive conurbation of several districts around Manhattan: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond (Hall, 1984). The growth brought with it problems of poor quality housing, congestion, lack of adequate sanitary facilities and often created a new underclass as workers from all parts of the migrated to find work. There was little in the way of transport planning and when works were underway, it was found they sometime exacerbated the problem as in the case of the Parisian Haussmannesque road works (Hall, 1984).

Changes in the City

Cities in the 20th century underwent much change, especially in Europe after the World Wars, which had devastated much of the urban landscape. There was a much greater emphasis on urban planning and social change (Amin, 1994). Transportation was seen as one of the most important issues facing cities and by 1940 the major cities of the age had begun to integrate it into the planning process. Numerous planning authorities had taken form including the Greater London Council, New York Planning Commission and the Parisian Prost Plan of 1939 (Hall, 1984).

The Fordist form of economic organisation was seen to dominate the industrialised world from the 1930’s onwards. The state aided in the ideals of the Fordist industrial movement by providing the necessary transport infrastructure and by caring for the working classes (Werna, 1995). This was accomplished through the use of planning regulations and the construction of social housing that was no longer susceptible to the disease of the past as fresh water and an adequate sewer system were made compulsory (Schoon, 2001).

Transport infrastructure planning for road traffic had taken its time to take prominence. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that road traffic was being modelled and developers were taking a more organised approach (Gazis, 2002).  Traffic problems had existed before Ford’s Model T but they were minor and not very common. When Ford’s car hit the market there was an exponential growth in congestion and cars on the road. The low cost, maximum production values of Fordism had meant that the majority of the population could afford to travel. This led to planners having to theorise the best ways to control the flow of traffic and led to macroscopic and microscopic theories of traffic flow being developed (Gazis, 2002).

To counter the build up of the traffic flows in high density urban areas the ‘New Towns’ project was launched. The idea was to relieve overcrowding in major cities and alleviate the problems of congestion and to regulate the migration to existing cities. New Towns were essentially the successors to Garden Cities which were founded in 1920 in Britain (While, Andrew, & Gibbs, 2004). New Towns were built in Britain in 1946, examined by the United States as a way to counter-urbanise heavily populated cities and a similar plan was implemented by the Parisian Government which sought to control the overcrowding nature of the region. New Towns were to fit comfortably with the Fordist ideal. They catered for the working class population by providing spacious homes with all the latest modern conveniences, therefore playing to the consumerist nature of the population (Hardy, 1991). The towns were built using the best planning and developing techniques at the time. Factories could be large and spacious and kept away from the residential districts whilst at the same time have adequate network infrastructure. The towns were designed to be as efficient as possible (Amin, 1994).

Towards the end of the 20th century the level of redevelopment in cities had reached new heights. Economic growth was on the way up for the world’s cities after the devastating impacts of the World Wars. Consumerism had reached new heights, more credit was available to more people than at any given point in history and the Fordist regime of low cost, high production was the basis for the majority of the industrial growth. New out of town shopping centres were built to cater for the consumer populations, public transport was receiving heavier investment and disposable incomes were high (Amin, 1994). City centres were being transformed into comfortable social spaces fitted well with the idea that shopping was no longer a chore, it was a leisure experience. The way that shopping centres and commercial spaces were designed can be linked with the Fordist idea of maximising production. Spaces were designed to be efficient, clean and organised so that consumers could do the maximum amount of shopping with as little effort as possible (Amin, 1994).

Fordism can also be seen to have had an effect on the way that urban spaces are governed. Each new wave of urbanisation in the 20th Century saw the introduction of ‘a set of territorial reforms aimed at rationalising the administrative map, at limiting municipal fragmentation and at generating economies of scale in the planning and development of local public services’ (Jouve, 2005). The ability for governments to do this was reliant on the way the system was organised. The state had to be rigid, centralised, bureaucratic and hierarchical in order to oversee the necessary changes to the way the city, region or country was run. This mirrored the way in which the Fordist organisational structure functioned (Werna, 1995).

The Only Way Was Fordism?

Whilst Fordism has had an impact on the structure and organisation of cities, there are areas where Fordism has been preceded and lost its appeal due to its rigidity and mass consumption ethic. The 21st Century city is different in the way that the 20th was different to the 19th Century city. There has been the decline of traditional manufacturing industry and the growth of more specialised quaternary services. The tertiary sector now employs the greatest number of workers of all the sectors and countries such as Britain and those of the Europe are now knowledge based economies (Begum, 2004).

Fordism was merely the successor to Taylorism. It was Frederick Taylor who first theorised the systematic approach of worker management and observed the techniques that would improve such methods of work. (Sheldrake, 1996). A key aspect of the theory was the desire to standardise production and to de-skill the workplace, crucial principals that made up the Fordist method (Amin, 1994). It could be said that the efficiency drives of the manufacturing industry and later town planning stems from Taylor and not Ford.

The industrial sector of the 20th century city has seen the biggest change. Traditional mass production industry has declined rapidly. By 2004 manufacturing accounted for just 14% of the labour market (Begum, 2004). Fordism was dominant in its approach to bring standardised goods to the market on a large scale at low cost. But as mentioned earlier this would fail if thee wasn’t the market to support it. 20th Century lifestyles changed considerably and were more reactive to certain trends and fads. If the market demand changed quickly and a product that was being produced was no longer sought after the Fordism method wouldn’t hold (Amin, 1994). The 20th Century has seen the market move to counter the problems. Flexible specialisation has meant that companies can react to market changes quickly. Numerically controlled machines ‘allow for the economic production of small batches of goods directed to specialised sections of the market’ (Kumar, 1995, p. 43). Specialisation meant a rapid response to new market demands without the need for new machinery or reorganisation. It doesn’t require the need for large-scale technology or factories and the reliance on semi-skilled/skilled workers in the Fordist form of production is eliminated. (Kumar, 1995). The large scale industries have been replaced with smaller; more high-tech facilities that employ fewer people and are able to situate themselves beyond the traditional range of the city. High-tech business parks can be located outside of the cities in the countryside and have environments suite to their needs (Donald, 2004). This has led to the abandonment of inner-city production facilities which are no longer needed and the creation of areas of derelict land.

The Fordist impact on the planning system might also be overstated. Fordism didn’t take off until the early 20th century but cities around the world had already begun to reorganise themselves and attend to the social needs of their populations. In Britain the Public Health Acts were introduced in the 19th century, 50 years before Fordism (Sutcliffe, 1980). This was in response to the appalling conditions that workers faced in inner city housing. A Royal Commission was established in 1884 on the Housing of the Working Classes and in 1890 the Local Authorities gained the power to construct new social housing to improve working conditions (Hall, 1984). Public transport planning was also carried out years before the Fordist revolution. Paris’s metro was officially completed in 1900 and designed to allow workers to commute into the centre allowing people to live in the suburbs. The ideas of maintaining a happy working class to maximise production was not a new idea proposed by Fordism. In fact some employers had created whole new towns to house workers in a non-polluted, safe and open environment. Saltaire was built in 1850 for mill workers; Port Sunlight built 1888 for soap factory workers and Bourneville for Cadbury’s chocolate factory workers.  Community facilities were provided and lower density housing was built because the employers knew that a healthy, happy workforce meant a more productive workforce (Hardy, 1991).

Concluding Remarks

To say that Fordism is the sole source of city organisation and planning would be wrong. The Fordist idea of improving workers lives to improve production values was not a new one. Industrialists such as Cadbury and Joseph Rowntree had already made these observations. They had gone as far as creating a new town for their workers (Hardy, 1991). Fordism did though show how this could be implemented on a grander scale though. Ford provided community classes for his workers, schools and cinemas which aided in providing a happier, more productive workforce (Meyer, 1981).

When it came to urban planning there is no doubt that regulation and systems of management were being developed before Fordism. Governments were reacting to the needs of the people and trying to improve the lives of all citizens. After the early parts of the 20th Century though, Fordism led to a rapid increase in consumerism and mass consumption and peoples aspirations and demands grew. This meant city planners had to develop housing and community facilities that fitted those needs. The quick uptake of the car also meant that governments had to put greater emphasis on the movement of people and develop systems to allow people to flow more easily (Gazis, 2002).

When the end of the 20th Century approached Fordism lost its influence on the industrial markets as rigidity and bureaucracy no longer met demands. The commercial sector wasn’t able to respond to the market quick enough. However the urban spaces in which we live were now governed by the idea of mass consumerism in the form of new shopping centres and retail spaces and the desire to keep shopping an efficient process in terms of planning and design (Amin, 1994).

The evidence shows that Fordism did have a direct impact on the changes that cities underwent. Whilst some of the ideas were not original, Fordism brought them to the forefront of the industrial world and revolutionised the manufacturing industry. As for city governance and planning it was to be seen towards the latter half of the 20th Century the impact that Fordism would have. The impact being felt in the way our retail sectors were being organised and the way we travelled to them.

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