E-Commerce and Land Use


Most people don’t equate e-commerce with land use planning, but as more people shop online it is going to have a huge impact on our cities. For example, North America is undergoing a massive boom in warehouses and “fulfilment centres.” As the Economist writes:

Such modern structures usually lie within 100km (60 miles) of a big city and are near sea- and airports, highways and sorting hubs for couriers like FedEx and UPS. They are much bigger than older types of warehouse: often more than 100,000 square metres (1.1m square feet, or 14 football pitches); and they have high ceilings to further increase their volume. At Dotcom Distribution’s cavernous New Jersey warehouse, pickers ride “reach trucks” up to three storeys above ground to fetch 50,000 different products for 15 e-commerce clients. Such fulfilment centres also employ far more people than older warehouses: around Christmas each may have up to 3,000 staff working on shifts.

We can already see how the rising demand for fulfillment centres is playing out at the local level in British Columbia where there is a brewing battle between conservationist and developers for land.

The Globe and Mail reports that the demand for new industrial land required in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland is already far more than what is available. Paul Tilbury, the Chief Operating Officer of an industrial developer in the Lower Mainland argues that demand for industrial land can’t be served “by intensification or telling distributors to go to Kamloops or Calgary, as local politicians have suggested. A lot of the new demand comes from the e-commerce section. “They measure their success in delivery time,” Mr. Tilbury says. That means they want to be as close as possible to the big population centres.

E-commerce is going to significantly affect land use policy as we grapple with preserving agricultural land and reducing sprawl. It is also likely to create a mismatch between retail space and industrial space. We’ll need fewer stores and more storage. Will this mean that eventually big box centres will be converted to warehouses? It’s hard to say, but what is clear is that fulfilment centres are becoming an integral part of the economy and will shape the future geography and economy of cities and regions.


The City at Eye Level: Lessons for Street Plinths

Photo by sssteve.o

Photo by sssteve.o

Stipo, an Amsterdam based team of urban designers and planners, have released a book “The City at Eye Level: Lessons for Street Plinths.” The book is completely free and available online.  I’ll be honest when I first took a look at it I had no idea what a “plinth” was. I now know it means “the base or socle upon which a column, statue or structure rests.” In Dutch it also translates to mean the ground floor of a building. The word captures beautifully the thought the ground floor is a place of transition. Just as a plinth represents the transition between the structure that rests on it and the ground, the ground floor reprsents, as the authors explain, a place of transition between inside and the outside, between the public and the private.

The book’s primary premise is that the plinth is the most important part of the building and its success is crucial to the vitality of the building, neighbourhood and the local economy. As one of the contributors writes “New high-rise can be part of the city centre, but not if they have a poorly designed plinth that kills the area around them.”

Building a good plinth is not easy to pull off. Stipo has developed a three-layer set of criteria containing 26 points that should be part of each analysis and strategy for plinths. One contributor, Adriaan Geuze, argues that to truly change and improve plinths in an existing city takes a least three generations.

To illustrate what makes a good plinth, the book has many contributors who provide a history of city streets, an overview of iconic urban designers and thinkers  (Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen, Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, Allan Jacobs), and case studies on how streets work, where good plinths exists, and how to improve those where improvement is needed.

I found one of the more interesting case studies to be on Meanwhile Spaces.  Meanwhile Spaces is an organization that promotes what I would call pop-up stores by finding and linking people who are looking for opportunity spaces for social enterprises or to provide community benefit to landlords that have spaces that are temporarily vacant.

Why is a Meanwhile Space useful for improving plinths? As Emily Berwyn explains:

People want interesting things to see and do–that don’t cost a fortune. And increasingly they want to do their shopping online, or in suburban retail hubs. We can’t change that. But we feel meanwhile use is a good way to test new uses on the high street and through meanwhile, we can help our high streets to adapt to an uncertain future and to become places that people want to spend their time again. Our vision for an ideal ground floor is one where vacant space does not exist; that vacant periods are foreseen and ‘curated’ to give people a chance to test an idea, even for a few days or a few weeks. This requires a transparency of ownership, a flexible approach to bureaucracies, and somewhere to store all the knowledge on an area so it is easily accessible.

Meanwhile Spaces is a fascinating idea, one of the many in the book.  I strongly suggest taking a look, who knows what may inspire you.

Can we expect everyone to walk to the grocery store?

There are many things in Naomi Lakritz’s article on walkability in the Calgary Herald that I disagree with, but it was her quote “We can’t have a society where everyone walks to the grocery store.” that bothered me the most. The reason? It fails to acknowledge that we live in a society where not everyone can drive to the grocery store. Furthermore, the statement implies that because not everyone is going to walk to a grocery store we shouldn’t bother paying attention to the many things that could improve walkability and city streets. As the Toronto Star declared last year “Walking to the Grocery Store Shouldn’t be an Extreme Sport

The reality is that 33 percent of Canadians do not even have a driver’s license. That’s over 11,000,000 people. Furthermore many people who do have a license may not own a car or have regular access to one. And this number of non-drivers is going to get bigger. Much bigger.

Fewer young people are driving, and the demographic that is most likely to live without a car, single-person households, is the fastest growing in Canada.  Should we expect that these people will never walk to the store and buy milk cartons, glass jars, cans, ice cream or other frozen food, as Lakritz would have us believe?

It is articles like Lakritz’s that remind me why I feel compelled to write about walkability. There is a general belief that everyone everywhere has access to a vehicle. This is not true. The result is we have built most neighbourhoods since the 1950s to exclude those who do not drive. Seniors and young people deserve to be a part of the city and move around it freely and safely even if they have lost or have not yet earned the right to drive. People who work and have families should not need to feel compelled to buy a car.

For those of us who advocate for more walkable cities, it is not about building a society where everyone must walk to the grocery store, it is about building a society where everyone has the choice to walk to the grocery store.

What will happen to cities as retail moves online?

Yuri Milner, a Russian Internet investor is predicting that the percentage of retail sales done online will be 20 per cent within a decade, and 50 per cent within two decades. This is up from just 6 percent today. What are some of the potential consequences for urban places of shifting to a society that does half it’s shopping online? Here are some of my thoughts:

We will drive less

If retail shifts online people will need to take fewer shopping trips. This will have a huge impact on how we use roads. In the US, 45 percent of trips are taken for shopping and errands, while only 27 percent are social and recreational, and 15 percent for commuting. The amount we drive is already hitting a plateau, so if we start buying more online expect to see it to start dropping.

Place will matter more

Cities, developers, retailers will need to focus on creating vibrant walkable places. When shopping online becomes easier, expect to see a surge in retail projects that are focused on “place making.” As it gets easier to shop online retailers will have to look for innovative ways to draw people to stores.

Niches will drive brick and mortar retail

Photo Credit: Jason Bragg, Toronto Neighbourhood Walks Project

In areas where developers and retailers are not investing, niche and ethnic retailers will continue to be the main tenants for suburban shopping malls and older main street. Niche Markets where demand won’t or can’t be met by online retailers will still leverage the bricks and mortar buildings drawing on a loyal customer base.

Offices will remake Retail Strips

I also believe that we will see more of what I call the office strip. Streets where the retail is rented mostly by medical offices and other services such as health and education providers, drug stores, massage therapy businesses, lawyer, and real estate offices As the population ages, demand for these services will increase. This is already happening in Toronto where many of the condominiums meet ground floor retail requirements by renting out space as offices and clinics.

The Rise of the Exurban distribution centre

We are also going to see the rise of massive warehouse distribution centres that employ thousands of low paid, often temporary, workers on the outskirts of cities who are going to be sorting and delivering all these products sold online to your door. For a view into what that potentially means I highly recommend reading Mac McClellands article about working in an Ohio warehouse during the Christmas season rush.

These are just some of my best guesses. What do you think the rise of online retailing will mean for cities?