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What We Buy When We Buy Local

The price we put on consumer goods should account for the worlds they bring into being.

You don’t have to be an urban designer or activist to be affected by your environment, or to affect it by your actions. Even those who take an explicit or professional interest in the built environment may impact it most directly not through activism, intellectual work, or professional work, but by the quintessential American public activity: consumption.

The choice of what, where, and how to consume is the most frequent and direct impact many of us have on the structure of the world around us, full stop. Yet my frequent rants against the world-withering impacts of Amazon at bonfires and dinner parties are often countered only by an outdated model of rational consumer choice: “But it’s $6 cheaper!”

It is naive to exclude from the purchasing choice the world that that purchase implies, is produced by, and sustains in being. Much like a curated social media persona cloaking the messiness of a real person’s life, Amazon’s seamless end-user experience masks the landscape its heavy-industry logistics is transforming our world into. When these transformations are priced in to the one-click purchase, it is unlikely to remain the least costly or even most utility-maximizing alternative.

In 2020 alone, smelling e-commerce blood in the pandemic waters, Amazon more than doubled its real estate holdings—from $1.4 billion to nearly $4 billion. According to the commercial real estate database Real Capital Analytics, Amazon currently rents 142 million square feet in the U.S., owns 68 million, and holds 63 million square feet of development sites. Dollop 9 million square feet of office space on top and Amazon is sitting on close to a square foot of American space for every American citizen.

The average size of one of the 70-odd warehouses Amazon has under construction at the moment is 812,616 square feet. That’s a single building the size of a new suburban subdivision with 60 single family homes, or four city blocks filled with even more homes. No wonder Jeff Bezos is eager to leave the planet he’s covering with such monstrosities.

More to the point, that’s also about the size of your classic main street commercial district. A typical million square foot Amazon distribution center—such as those currently under construction in Spokane, Amarillo, Sioux Falls, Little Rock, Detroit, Sacramento, and Tampa, to name a few—has the same footprint as the more than 100 business on a comparable ten blocks of my nearby Grand Avenue, home to the workplaces of more than 1500 people. (That’s 50 percent more jobs than the nevertheless highly subsidized warehouse, by the way.)

Comparing Amazon apples to Grand Avenue oranges on purely economic grounds is difficult work. And significantly, the rise of e-commerce was a one-two punch. Amazon didn’t evolve in a landscape of thriving local retailers. It evolved to replace the soul-crushing trip to the big box store, itself already a stripping of humanity from activities of production and relationships of consumption. As an alternative to lugging my SUV to the Walmart parking lot and back for toilet paper and batteries, one-click shopping is the epitome of class. It has even been argued that by picking off big box retailers, Amazon may serve to re-localize commerce in the long run.

Concern about the physical shape that centralized e-commerce will have built our world into by the time that happens, however, seems to me more than justified by the company’s pandemic-era, multi-billion-dollar investment in box buildings bigger than any we’ve seen before. The world that leaps into being in response to my one-click purchase is one of warehouses the size of neighborhoods and neighborhoods dreary as warehouses, connected by freeways and streets full of little blue trucks. Social media, video games, and television continuously expand their claims on our wallets and free time to fill the void left by any interest, beauty, or surprise in our built surroundings and daily errands.

The world of Grand Avenue retail, by contrast, is one where, off work early on a summer Friday, as I was a few weeks ago, I can meet a neighbor at the local park to scavenge for birch branches for midsommar flower crowns, step into Cooks of Crocus Hill for a martini shaker (and quick cocktail tutorial), stop by the liquor store for summer beers and get an impromptu lecture on Slovenian wine (complete with samples), run to the bustling art supply store for floral wire (and pick up an unusual notebook—sparking banter with the quirky salespeople), and opt out of the local florist’s offerings in favor of completing our festive laurels with scavenged blooms from neighboring alleys.

With party prep this fun, who needs parties? (We still need parties.) But the locomotion, humanity, and surprise spontaneously generated by our afternoon of local consumption—factors systematically eliminated from consumer activity in the twilight zone of an online marketplace projected like a hologram over sprawling logistics networks—were grounded not in sophisticated supply-chain or behavioral economics, or in ideological obstinacy, but in something much simpler: a human appetite for interesting places. At home on my laptop, or on foot in a culturally articulated world: it’s a choice of where I want to live my life—and what kind of spaces I want to be there for me when I venture out my front door.

Having invested billions in every step of the e-commerce logistics chain, the commercial real estate industry and its investors are betting hard that we’re going to stay in our houses even after the pandemic clears. But I have legs, not just a wallet. I want to live in an interesting world, not just in a house full of nice things plucked from thin blue air. Please, let’s prove them wrong.

Madeline Johnson works as a research analyst for a commercial real estate firm in Minneapolis. She holds a Master of Urban Planning degree from McGill University. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.



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