A better future for cities should involve leather artisans

Redwood Comment
Published:  31 May, 2022
Credit: SeventyFour/Shutterstock.com

Mike Redwood discusses the possibilities that can be found for makers in a post-Covid landscape with emptier cities and a WFH focus.

Urbanisation has been one of the major trends of the last few decades and has continued regardless of the pollution it creates, the areas of deprivation and the fear created by terrorism. By 2010, over half the global population was living in cities and, because cities offer a boost to GDP, they fit into many national plans.

That growth has been interrupted by the disruption created by the pandemic and recovery is being complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its strategy to leverage its position through famine and fossil fuel price inflation.

While cities were historically mixed communities with rich and poor, makers and traders living together, they have increasingly become dominated by wealthy service industries with expensive housing, pushing the poor into ghetto districts or far-flung suburbs. The pandemic has changed this and many of our top world cities saw a hollowing out as people, especially those with children, moved to the suburbs or regional towns to work from home (WFH).

Many of those people in the U.S. and UK are reluctant to return but, even in Europe, governments have accepted that working from home cuts emissions and should be supported. Ireland has been worried about rural depopulation and supports WFH while other countries like Spain and Japan, who also have a rural depopulation problem, might well make similar moves.

So, we should now ask: what are cities are for? Should they be citadels for the exclusive use of rich finance and legal services employees, mingling with a few elderly residents, tourists and other occasional visitors enjoying the heritage and culture?

There are just over 100 livery companies in the City of London and nine of them are related to leather, not counting many close associates such as the butchers and the skinners. There are at least a similar number related to wool and textiles and many other crafts like clockmaking, candle making, goldsmiths, fan makers, cutlery producers and so on. While capital eventually came to dominate trade, the City of London, like most cities around the world, was founded on craft.

Put maker communities back into the heart of cities

Would it not make sense to put those maker communities back into the heart of city life once more? Should all our cities be merely a forest of monolithic office buildings with endless coffee and sandwich shops, interrupted only by the highlight of an ancient place of worship or a museum?

The exit from cities and the reluctance to return should drop property prices and create space for younger people to find affordable accommodation, and for more designers and makers to find workshop space. A dense community of diverse people is always creative, but innovation is always more valuable if it is associated with the physical production of goods.

The geographer Danny Dorling long ago argued that the global population would probably level out at nine billion or so. He thought that we should consider a city to include its hinterland and the people in it – often extensive and rural like Chongqing but sometimes, like Tokyo, more a conglomeration of well-connected towns – and for that a size in the order of 32 million makes sense.

Considering this, each of the approximately 300 centres should have livestock and tanneries of varying types and scale, and each should hold a range of leather-using businesses from the larger scale to the craft workshop, from the start-up perhaps to the luxury goods producer. And one great place to put some of that craft, to remind our service industry moguls of the vital importance of manufacturing, would be right in the city.

In Japan, that was how Himeji was structured. The tanners worked in three towns in the hinterland area – on the Ichikawa River, Tatsuno City, Takagi City and Guchogo City – while the leather was used to make items produced in an artisan district close to the amazing white Himeji castle. The tanners are still there but the artisan district is mostly a series of restaurants and coffee shops.

It is a huge loss as Himeji leathergoods became famous and were carried by nobles to give to the Emperor in Tokyo and to their families. Incredible lacquered items were shown at World Fairs in the 19th century; leathers and techniques perfect for 21st century interior design and for the millions of Japanese and foreign tourists each year to purchase,

Productivity is boosted by learning via association. Innovation improves from diversity of all sorts, and the arts, theatre and museums prosper and benefit society more if designers, artisans and younger people have easy local access.

Such plans are not about nostalgia but about looking at how cities might better fit today’s society. One where not everyone wants to get an advanced degree or work behind a screen. A society where there is an opportunity for those who want to use their hands, to make things and to see manufacturing holding a better balance with the services so all can prosper in their own way. And cities would be more vibrant better places. It feels like a future worth fighting for.

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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