Modern Company Towns

Les villes de compagnie et l’art de l’urbanisme, de la Deuxième Révolution industrielle à la Seconde Désindustrialisation

Company Towns are single-enterprise planned communities, usually centred around a single industry, where a company commissions an urban plan, builds housing for its workers, and sets up recreational, commercial, institutional or community facilities. This 5-year research funded by SSHRC studies those company towns mainly built in the 20th century, that are now endangered by a second wave of deindustrialization, as, aside from studies or monographs of individual towns that populate the literature, no reference framework exists that would allow for their analysis or their conservation as built environments as a whole. This situation is particularly critical in Canada and other so-called frontier territories that developed along with resource-extraction, as they have, through the companies’ need to settle workers in ready-made communities, determined decisive parts of their landscapes as well as their collective memory.

In this light, the research is intended to build new knowledge and an understanding of company towns, as a result of its cross-cutting perspective, looking at the historical and spatial factors that link them beyond country borders, support efforts to value their heritage, and contribute to the (very young) history of modern planning by reframing it through a paradigm shift. This paradigmatic turn considers planning as an art of making places (instead of managing spaces), thus encompassing company towns of the 20th century as some of its main creations, from the original design of company towns to the preservation issues that mark the processes, actions and intentions of urban planning today.

Above and beyond industrial typologies or working-class studies, company towns are considered here to be a unique corpus given the relative homogeneity of the industrial conditions that have surrounded their birth and evolution; this is especially true from the urban planning angle, as their models often refer to one another across the world, forming unchartered yet defining networks. This research diachronically explores this corpus from the double perspective of particularization and of the relationships that they have with each other on the world scene. It thus documents the genesis of company towns by dealing with forms (planned and built), as well as with historical representations, by way of four lines of inquiry: a) the community intent of the company-town project; b) the making of symbols that give meaning to the living environment, for example through the use of vernacular or historical built forms; c) the circulation of ideas and theories; and d) the technical, economical and legal means that have given them a tangible form.

The research is inductive and deals with some 260 towns, as well as the contexts of their creation, focusing more particularly on a hundred or so of them (including 16 in Canada). We mainly draw upon two primary forms of documents: the built company town as it has come down to us, and its plan; other archival material relating to development control, zoning, building, property, and such works of urban planning complete the documentation, together with the discourse published on the company town, as we build our interpretation from one company town to another, while forging a general picture that then nourishes our holistic view on each.

Under the leadership of Prof. Lucie K. Morisset and co-applicant Prof. Luc Noppen, the project also builds upon the participation of master’s students, PhDs and postdoc fellows, as well as 8 collaborators from around the world, who contribute to the documentation and analysis of local company towns: Jean-Yves Andrieux (Université Sorbonne), Yiping Dong (Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University), Plácido González Martínez (Tongji University), Christina Meneguello (Universidade Estadual de Campinas), Jaime Migone (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile), Massimo Preite (Università degli Studi di Firenze), Jennie Sjöholm (Luleå tekniska universitet).

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