Anyone working in the world of logistics pre-2019 was expecting an uptick in online retail and planning for the resulting fulfilment space.
However, what no one imagined as we entered 2020 was the exponential increase in online retail driven by the pandemic that saw global online sales go from 3,354 billion US$ to 5,424 billion US$ from 2019-2021, or 18% of all sales globally. We now live in a world where online retail is the norm with next day delivery and even one hour delivery an expectation rather than an exception to the rule.
The resulting impact has meant that industrial investment volumes have risen more than sixfold in 2020 to service this drive in demand – from warehouses to store, to fulfilment centres to distribute the goods that we are all clicking and buying every minute of the day. And as customer behaviour is changing so are our logistics spaces and the places where we house them.
Urbanisation accelerating our demand for convenience
With over 56% of the population now living in town or city centres and urbanisation accelerating as infrastructure and social mobility drive people into city centres for jobs and to boost local economies, we need to rethink our city and town centres and ensure that we have placemaking strategies within our planning policies for logistics. While many town and city planners globally include healthcare, education and other such amenities as essential in our urban communities, logistics is still rarely on the urban planning agenda. A recent study found that in the UK current storage volumes equate to an average capacity of 70 ft2 of warehouse space per household. A statistic which is only going to grow rather than lesson as we look to build more houses within our cities. As we become driven by convenience around delivery to the doorstep, we need to think how we integrate warehouses and last mile distribution units into our cities and towns.
Traditional city planning not fit for purpose today
Many cities were traditionally built with commercial and retail at their heart, then residential and leisure and green spaces and wrapped around with transportation links be it like in London with its orbital motorway M25 that encircles almost all Greater London or other cities with trains, trams, or boats. However, this traditional city and town design no longer works when cities can span across 16,411 km² like Beijing or the 6,340 km² of Shanghai. These communities now need logistics in the heart of them. For most cities this coincides with the decline of the traditional high street with many physical shops now closed and existing units repurposed into multi-usage or service-related spaces such as cafes or working hubs. With land scarce and rents and rates high in city centres, vast spaces for warehouse aren’t an option so the key lies in more and smaller units to service smaller geographic districts, or last mile distribution units.
The only way is up (and down)
Unable to spread out or take over more buildings and with building out wider not an option, new space will need to be created either on top of existing space or sometimes down below ground with multi-level logistics and vertical hubs and solutions that increase loading capacity. New industrial masterplanning incorporates multi-level loading docks and the smart use of automation to increase both the storage and operational density achievable through the building footprint. Such schemes are already being seen with developers such as SEGRO looking to build an 807,000 ft2 underground last-mile delivery facility in South-East Paris with space to be used by companies using electric vehicles and delivery tricycles.
Logistics’ part in meeting social and environmental targets
Which brings us to one of the largest challenges at play for those looking at how they integrate industrial and logistics in the heart of cities and town centres – how to combine environmental targets with growth. With many cities having carbon zero targets in place such as London aiming to be carbon zero by 2030, our new logistics infrastructure needs to have sustainability as the golden thread throughout. What better way to stop larger, diesel heavy trucks entering urban areas than by replacing them with electric and hydrogen fleets delivering to and from last mile distribution hubs, reducing both carbon emissions but also working towards decreasing air pollution.
Thinking even more laterally, many cities have rivers and waterways running through them which currently are used for international cargo but not domestic transportation such as the Manchester Ship Canal or the Mersey in Liverpool in the UK. With many able to transport loads of up to 1,500 tonnes waterways could save even more emissions on our roads and in our cities, replacing the impact of 100s of HGVs dealing with bulk deliveries from the already congested road infrastructure. However, we know that the biggest challenge for waterways now is their price point and until we can drive volume through this route it will remain an expensive option for many operators.
Then there is the social value that having industry on our doorsteps can bring – providing economic stability to areas of social deprivation with local employment for those living near to last mile fulfilment centres both within the warehouses and to deliver in that last mile radius. Of course with this increase in employment comes the attraction of more people to our cities, driving with it an ecosystem of new housing and of course, more warehouse space needed, as well as providing the monies to help fund community projects, create green spaces through corporate taxes and business rates.
We know that urbanisation is accelerating and with more people living in town and city centres comes the need to service them. On demand retail will continue to grow and we need to think of innovative and dynamic ways to weave our logistics into places where we live, work and play. And we need to change our way of thinking about living next to these places. Instead of thinking of them as faceless spaces with shelves of boxes, we need to view them as we do other community amenities and places of convenience – as a facilitator of the lives we want to live. When we start to understand the value – economically, societal and from a lifestyle point of view – of having logistics at the heart of our urban spaces then we might start to embrace them.