As urbanization increases, land costs are higher, and the wealthy are outbidding other classes for housing in the central city. According to the U.S. Census, more than 80% of the country’s population lives in cities.[i] The rise of e-commerce produces an outsized demand for goods delivered rapidly. The suburbs, long thought of as an oasis for the wealthy from the grit of industrialization, is now experiencing increased poverty as gentrification of urban areas rises. This newer poverty has put a strain on the resources of suburbs as they face lower tax revenues and populations with different needs. At the same time, the supply chain’s distribution centers also seek low land values because they require vast amount of space. This leads to more pollution and congestion, especially in the areas around the distribution centers. Trucks travel longer distances to deliver to urban areas. While suppliers are not actively seeking to impose environmental, congestion, and road safety hazards on suburban communities, the issue remains: What can be done? Using the example of Atlanta and the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion (PAM) the issue is clear. The suburbanization of both poverty and freight results from a lack of regulation on a new pattern, one that planners can address using global strategies at the regional level.
The suburbs were not always for the wealthy.[ii] In fact, around the late 19th century through the early 20th century, it was diverse for its time, racism and xenophobia notwithstanding. Homeless shelters, asylums, and other social services were part of the development of early suburbs. Public transit was cheaper in real dollars, so commuting was not as much of an issue. Those early suburbs were later annexed into the cities.
At that time, however, freight did not have much of a suburban presence because it was concentrated around industrial centers and ports. Manufacturing hubs were located near these terminals, including storage and distribution. This all changed with Malcom McLean’s invention of the shipping container in 1956. The whole system of transporting goods was changed. Globalization followed. Transport costs were significantly reduced and more efficient. Suppliers no longer had to break bulk to move onto different modes: from ships, to trucks, to rail. Now one container could be used for three modes.
Concurrently, housing trends were also changing. In the 1940s and 1950s, middle and upper classes moved to suburbs fleeing the decaying urban space, and the increasingly diverse races and ethnicities that were leaving the neighborhoods they had been forced into through redlining and racial covenants. Commuting by car was also made easier through the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, which contributed to a commuter culture.
More recently, the U.S. has seen a reversal of trends. Wealthier individuals are moving to cities to take advantage of easy access to services, food, and accommodations. This is creating higher demand in already dense cities, and lower-income residents are being priced out. The availability of cheap land has attracted lower-income families to the suburbs for housing, especially after the Great Recession of 2008.
As goods make their way from airports and shipping ports to trucks and railway cars, there is eventually the point at which the goods are atomized at the delivery stage and routed through dense urban areas. This is where distribution centers (DC) come in. It is important to note that these DCs are not typically warehouses for storage. Now that transport costs are so low, suppliers are incentivized to produce Just in Time (JIT) finished goods, so that these centers are being used to assemble or package goods and immediately get them to consumers. Therefore, another attractive feature of the suburbs is the low-skilled labor market as incomes drop in those areas.[iii]
Planners are concerned with economic development, which translates to tax revenues from property and sales taxes through jobs in the area. Land uses for logistics do not provide as much of this revenue as residential development.[iv] Suppliers are not only concerned with the municipality or county of their DC. They see cities and municipalities as part of a global network. These differing sets of perspectives between planners and freight firms are an opportunity for relationship-building.
Let’s take a look at Atlanta, part of the megaregion known as PAM. Atlanta is a large metropolitan area, with a population of nearly 500,000 in the city proper and more than 5.2 million in the metropolitan area. PAM has a population of 19 million. Megaregions are large ‘‘networks of connected metropolitan centers and their surrounding areas… spatially and functionally linked through environmental, economic and infrastructure interactions.”[v] There are 11 in the United States. In Atlanta, the location of DCs has decentralized north and east, toward the rest of the PAM: Charlotte, Savannah, and Raleigh-Durham.[vi] The growing concentration of DCs in Atlanta follows along Interstate 85, making freight truck trips between distribution centers and consumers more efficient. Therefore, suburban and exurban locations have become attractive to freight logistics.
A study in the journal Land Use Policy examined Los Angeles suburbs, noting explosive growth in warehouses in mostly minority suburbs, but not mostly white suburbs.[vii] Suppliers are not looking for a fight with communities when seeking land. Marginalized communities tend not to mobilize around land use decisions due to a long history of disfranchisement.
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Transportation only began getting involved in freight networks with the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act in 2011. The 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act went further in tying state funding to freight plans. This lack of oversight and relationship-building with freight infrastructure is slowly being addressed. The state-centric method of the FAST Act and other federal guidelines and actions opposes the regional nature of freight logistics. Planners will need to bring leadership skills in order to navigate this.
One can argue that it takes a top-down approach for the direction of freight to change the culture of weaving freight planning out of a discussion that first separates the global and local and then needs to find some way to put them back together again. Leadership at all levels is necessary to alter planning strategies and relationships among all stakeholders, including businesses, governments, residents both those who are civically active and those that are not.
In Atlanta’s suburbs, poverty exploded between 2000 and 2011, rising by 159 percent. In 2014, almost 90 percent of the region’s poor people lived in the suburbs. How do planners reconcile economic development with a low tax-revenue-generating business such as supply chain distribution with the need to provide services to a completely new set of residents living in poverty?
Identifying the problem is the first step. Planners must be skilled in developing solutions and implementing them. Land use is regulated at the local level, but transportation is managed at different scales. The issue of suburban communities hosting distribution centers emerges from a lack of regulation. Suburban planners situated along freight corridors are in the best position to start the process of strategizing globally as they navigate compromises necessary on all sides. This will be an ongoing effort.
[i] U.S. Census. 2016. “New Census Data Show Differences Between Urban and Rural Populations.” December 6, 2016. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-210.html.
[ii] Howell, Aaron J., and Jeffrey M. Timberlake. 2014. “Racial and Ethnic Trends in the Suburbanization of Poverty in U.S. Metropolitan Areas, 1980–2010.” Journal of Urban Affairs 36 (1): 79–98. https://doi.org/10.1111/juaf.12030.
[iii] Dablanc, Laetitia, and Catherine Ross. 2012. “Atlanta: A Mega Logistics Center in the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion (PAM).” Journal of Transport Geography 24 (September): 432–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JTRANGEO.2012.05.001.
[iv] Cidell, Julie. 2011. “Distribution Centers among the Rooftops: The Global Logistics Network Meets the Suburban Spatial Imaginary.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35 (4): 832–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2427.2010.00973.x.
[v] Dablanc and Ross. 2012.
[vii] Yuan, Quan. 2018. “Mega Freight Generators in My Backyard: A Longitudinal Study of Environmental Justice in Warehousing Location.” Land Use Policy 76 (July): 130–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2018.04.013.
About the author: M. Clay Barnes is a former journalist at the Chicago Tribune who is now pursuing a master’s degree in transportation planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is interested in how freight logistics and communities occupy the built environment. Barnes is also a fan of Yoga With Adrienne. She also enjoys watching films as if she were a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Burns, Rebecca. 2014. “Sprawled Out in Atlanta: What happens when poverty spreads to a place that wasn’t built for poor people?” Politico Magazine. May 8, 2014. Accessed October 24, 2018. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/sprawled-out-in-atlanta-106500.
Cidell, Julie. 2011. “Distribution Centers among the Rooftops: The Global Logistics Network Meets the Suburban Spatial Imaginary.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35 (4): 832–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2427.2010.00973.x.
Dablanc, Laetitia, and Catherine Ross. 2012. “Atlanta: A Mega Logistics Center in the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion (PAM).” Journal of Transport Geography 24 (September): 432–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JTRANGEO.2012.05.001.
Federal Highway Administration. 2012. FHWA Freight and Land Use Handbook. U.S. Department of Transportation. Accessed Nov. 2, 2018. https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/fhwahop12006/fhwahop12006.pdf.
Howell, Aaron J., and Jeffrey M. Timberlake. 2014. “Racial and Ethnic Trends in the Suburbanization of Poverty in U.S. Metropolitan Areas, 1980–2010.” Journal of Urban Affairs 36 (1): 79–98. https://doi.org/10.1111/juaf.12030.
Kirk, Patricia. 2018 “Multi-Story Industrial Assets Might Be in the Future for U.S. Cities.” National Real Estate Investor. June 12, 2018. Accessed October 24, 2018. https://www.nreionline.com/industrial/why-multi-story-industrial-assets-might-be-future-dense-us-cities
Murdaugh, Shellie. 2018. “Jasper County Council Plans Lawsuit against SC Ports Authority.” Bluffton Today. October 6, 2018. Accessed October 23, 2018. http://www.blufftontoday.com/news/20181006/jasper-county-council-plans-lawsuit-against-sc-ports-authority.
Wren, David. 2018. “Charleston Port Officials: Jasper Terminal ‘long-Term Answer’ for SC, Ga.” The Post and Courier. September 30, 2018. Accessed October 23, 2018. https://www.postandcourier.com/business/charleston-port-officials-jasper-terminal-long-term-answer-for-sc/article_181c2750-c0ef-11e8-923f-039f9e475079.html.
U.S. Census. 2016. “New Census Data Show Differences Between Urban and Rural Populations.” December 6, 2016. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-210.html
Yuan, Quan. 2018. “Mega Freight Generators in My Backyard: A Longitudinal Study of Environmental Justice in Warehousing Location.” Land Use Policy 76 (July): 130–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2018.04.013.