CITIES. In February, Amazon unveiled an architectural showpiece. Accompanied by renderings of a sculptural, green-scaped glass tower, the announcement of the tech giant’s new marvel in Arlington, Virginia, reverberated through the design press; the complex, dubbed The Helix, was showcased in Curbed, Dezeen, The Architect’s Newspaper, Designboom and Architectural Digest, to name a few. It paints a memorable mental image. Featuring a lush green trail rising in a swirl of blue glazing, the building — intended to serve as an employee amenity for Amazon office workers — is described by the company as part of a biophilic vision to “infuse nature into the urban landscape and create a unique, sustainable environment where our employees can work and invent for our customers.”
Not everyone saw it that way. The Helix was gleefully shredded on social media, with the building succinctly described in The Verge as “a poop emoji covered in trees.” Meanwhile, the veneer of sustainability was dismissed as an “eco-fantasy” of corporate branding. Writing in Curbed, Audrey Wachs notes that “the dream of carbon-canceling headquarters often obscures the actual ecological footprint of new construction.” Paying back the embodied carbon of all that sloping steel and glass — a spatially and thermally inefficient form — takes more than a few plants and trees, if the irrigated greenery can be kept alive in the first place. In Jacobin, Marianela D’Aprile makes a broader argument, diagnosing the building’s implicit function “to attract attention to Amazon, specifically to paint it as a leader in ‘green’ capitalism, and investment in Arlington. Its role is also to continue to build an idea of what ‘progress’ should look like.”
As both an urban development and a public relations gambit, The Helix (designed by NBBJ Architects, which is also responsible for Seattle’s Amazon Spheres greenhouses) is a scion of the company’s much-publicized 2017 HQ2 announcement, which solicited cities across North America to bid for a chance to host Amazon’s second corporate headquarters. The RFP yielded 238 entries from across the continent. A race to the bottom ensued, with cities and regions competing to become the next Seattle or Silicon Valley. In exchange for a promised 50,000 jobs, billions in financial incentives and tax breaks were laid at Jeff Bezos’ feet. Meanwhile, cities outside the economic constellation of urban “superstars” distinguished themselves with more dramatic oaths of fealty.
Stonecrest, Georgia, voted to rename itself “Amazon” if selected as the HQ2 destination. Sly James, then the Mayor of Kansas City, personally bought 1,000 Amazon products, rating each five stars and proffering his city’s virtues in the comments accompanying each purchase. During an Ottawa Senators NHL game, the hometown crowd was encouraged to “make noise for Amazon.”
The media made noise too. At CityLab, for example, “the Amazon HQ2 desk churned out about 40 posts chronicling the competition,” Sarah Holder wrote in 2018, reflecting on what was already a year-long saga. Reader, I did my part. At the time, in my role as the web editor for a suite of small Canadian publications focusing on the built environment, I regularly updated our readers on the spectacle. More often than not, they were among our most popular stories.
Past the thrill of the horse race, however, the plan faced widespread criticism from the beginning. From union-busting to long hours, punishing labour conditions and a culture of surveillance, Amazon’s record as an employer hardly augurs inclusive prosperity. And the fierce competition to provide the tech giant with tax breaks and incentives — Maryland was prepared to fork over a staggering US$8.5 billion — meant that public funds would heavily subsidize one of the world’s richest companies. To what end? What kind of impact would 50,000 new jobs have on real estate and rent prices? And what would a publicly funded corporate headquarters mean to the bigger fights against inequality and homelessness?
The answers could be found in Seattle. Home to both Amazon and Microsoft, the city turned into an economic hub during the first tech boom of the ’90s. At the same time that big tech brought a gentrifying wave of wealth and white-collar workers, high rents and expensive real estate, Amazon became a powerful force in lobbying against Washington’s pay equity laws and Seattle’s proposed business taxes intended to alleviate chronic homelessness. Today, as Amazon’s presence grows in the city — where it employs some 50,000 office workers — it also pushes against its urban parameters. East of the company’s growing headquarters, the historically Black Central District neighbourhood has seen businesses shuttered and residents displaced as new condominium towers rise to serve high-paying tech workers. Between 2010 and 2019, the Black population declined from 21 to 15 per cent.
As for HQ2, Amazon eventually announced a shortlist of 20 finalist bids in early 2018, with Arlington, Virginia, and the New York borough of Queens chosen as joint winners later that year. In lieu of a single 50,000-employee hub, the company opted to split its footprint between the two cities, along with a smaller 5,000-person office earmarked for Nashville, Tennessee. In exchange, Northern Virginia and New York City had offered Amazon grants and tax credits valued at approximately $22,000 and $48,000 per job, respectively.
On the banks of the East River, the Queens neighbourhood of Long Island City saw an accelerated rise in rents and housing prices in anticipation of the e-commerce giant’s arrival. What’s more, Politico reported that the HQ2 site had previously been slated for a 6,000-unit housing development that included 1,500 affordable homes — a far cry from a corporate office. Weighing financial incentives for Amazon against underfunded schools, subways and public health programs, local opposition quickly rallied against the project. On Twitter, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez summed up the public sentiment on Twitter with characteristic clarity: “The community’s response? Outrage.” In early 2019, Amazon cancelled its plans for Long Island City.
Now the sole site of HQ2, the Arlington neighbourhood of Crystal City is gradually being redeveloped into a corporate haven. Like in Queens, concerns about the rapid influx of high-paid tech workers permeate as a relatively discrete cluster of generic new towers and retrofitted office buildings gradually takes shape. Beyond the fanciful notions of sustainability and technological innovation embodied by NBBJ’s architectural marvels – from Seattle’s glass spheres to Arlington’s swirling cone – Amazon’s urban presence is decidedly unimaginative.
The brand’s architectural style “isn’t aimed at architecture critics, but at the public,” writes the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott. Borrowing Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s terminology of elaborately formal architectural “ducks,” Kennicott identifies The Helix as a “distraction,” drawing attention away from “the millions of square feet of new space that is the subaquatic iceberg floating under the Helix’s crystal tip.” And although the HQ2 process — and The Helix — drew the sustained ire from academics, journalists and urbanists, the tech giant never really lost a step, continuing to expand its existing offices across North America and open new ones after pulling out of Queens.
Amazon’s approach is a stark contrast to the techno-urbanist romance that Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs bestowed upon Toronto. Weeks after the HQ2 process was announced, Alphabet Inc’s urban innovation subsidiary was selected as the winner of an RFP to redevelop five hectares of the city’s downtown lakefront in an audacious marriage of tech and urbanism. In exchange for a share of public revenue and an unprecedented program of public data collection, the tech giant promised Toronto the utopic city of the future, built “from the internet up.”
In the end, Google’s ploy for Toronto fell apart, much like Amazon’s plans for Queens. But the differences are telling. Seeking to monetize the urban centre through technology and data collection, Alphabet created a new business arm, employing a coterie of celebrity architects and urbanists to sell the vision. From the beginning, Sidewalk Labs knew it had to impress the critics. The charm offensive reached its zenith with the publication of a 1,500-page document detailing the vision – but for all the excitement and publicity, sustained public opposition saw Sidewalk pull out of Toronto last May.
Amazon never had Alphabet’s “city-building” ambitions or myth-making flair; its economic geography is encoded in a different landscape — a suburban and exurban empire of fulfilment centres, sortation facilities, airport hubs, cargo planes and delivery trucks.
SUBURBS. Last September, Amazon opened 100 new buildings. And in the first eight months of the year, the giant added more than 75 “new fulfillment, sortation centres, regional air hubs, and delivery stations in the U.S. and Canada,” according to a corporate press release. COVID-19 was good for business.
The online retail sector experienced “10 years’ growth in three months,” according to a study by Bank of America and Forrester. To maintain the speed and reliability of its marquee Prime Shipping service amidst an unprecedented flurry of online shopping, Amazon went on a building spree, adding sprawling fulfillment centres and smaller logistics and distribution hubs across the continent.
The scope is at once astonishing and elusive. By late October of last year, Amazon’s global workforce consisted of some 1.1 million employees, with well over 400,000 positions added in 2020 alone (an average of 1,400 employees a day). The majority of the new jobs were in warehouses or delivery operations, where a staff of full-time, temporary and seasonal workers forms the company’s backbone. Eclipsing even that colossal number, over half a million independently contracted drivers were brought on during the same period. And although the number ebbs and flows with seasonal demand — during the 2019 holiday period, for example, Amazon hired approximately 200,000 temporary workers — the company’s growth is reflected in a swelling workforce. The geography of all that labour is more difficult to pin down.
Amazon doesn’t publish the exact locations of its warehouses. Mapping the tech giant’s distribution network is left to a cottage industry of logistics experts, like Montreal supply chain consultants MWPVL. According to its database, the company boasts over 800 industrial facilities — which excludes corporate offices and customer service hubs — in the United States alone, with another 349 currently planned.
The largest of the lot are the 238 fulfillment centres, where orders are stowed before being picked, packed and sent out for delivery. Some of the newer facilities even span over one million square feet (92,900 square metres), equivalent in size to about 30 football fields. In total, Amazon’s American fulfilment centres have a footprint of 167,928,149 square feet (15,601,035 square metres). The largest in number, however, are the much smaller delivery stations. These 344 buildings are designed to speed deliveries by concentrating shipment close to population centres — tackling the company’s pervasive “last-mile problem.” In addition, there are smaller Prime Now hubs, Whole Foods warehouses, grocery pantries and regional sorting facilities, together with a handful of specialized facilities for large or bulky items and warehouses at airports and docks.
Using MWPVL’s data, a recent study by economic development watchdog Good Jobs First has mapped out the evolution of Amazon’s industrial landscape. From the first pair of (comparatively) small fulfillment centres that opened in suburban Seattle and Delaware in 1997, the company’s industrial network now traces the contours of every metropolitan region in America.
The scale and complexity of the operation is mind-boggling, but the logic of it is relatively simple. “Amazon, like any consumer goods company, needs to be close to its most-frequent customers,” notes Good Jobs First. The largest and wealthiest cities are the biggest drivers of revenue and Prime subscriptions; New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and the Bay Area are framed by the greatest concentration of fulfilment centres and delivery hubs. At the regional level, proximity to highways, cargo airports and affluent neighbourhoods also guides the company’s sites.
The geography of the market may determine Amazon’s sites, but Bezos and co. have also been the beneficiaries of generous — and wholly unnecessary — local subsidies and tax incentives. The same company that paid the IRS $0 in federal income in 2018 has accepted just over $4 billion in subsidies in exchange for its distribution hubs, data centres, film studios, offices and supermarkets.
But as MWPVL’s Marc Wulfraat puts it, “it doesn’t make sense for the government to hand out tax incentives, because if Amazon wants to be there, they’re going to be there, period.” A similar conclusion was borne out by the revelations of the HQ2 aftermath. Lamenting the Long Island City controversy, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio minced no words. “We know the game is rigged,” he said. “But we still find ourselves fighting one another in the race to secure opportunity for our residents as corporations force us into all-against-all competitions.” The truth may have been less elegiac. According to Brad Stone’s newly published book, Amazon Unbound, the personal preferences of Amazon’s future CEO Andy Jassy — a devout NY Giants fan — may have influenced the company’s initial decision to choose New York over the rival sports town of Philadelphia. (If anything, the anecdote hints that the geography of fulfillment centres is more crucial to Amazon’s operations than the location of its corporate offices).
Accelerated by the introduction of one-day shipping in 2019 and supercharged by the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon’s rapid expansion is equally spurred by an increasingly crowded e-commerce landscape. Once the tech behemoth’s staid brick-and-mortar rival, Walmart has evolved into an online powerhouse, building its own empire of automated fulfilment centres, with large grocers and retail chains similarly pivoting to a delivery model. Delivery services giants like UPS and FedEx have also expanded to meet growing demand with new trucks, cargo planes and warehouses. It’s a competition waged through an industrial land grab on the urban peripheries.
A generation ago, the rise of big box retailers prompted an earlier wave of suburbanization. Sprawling Walmart stores gradually proliferated across North America, following a fundamentally similar geographic logic as Amazon. Targeting proximity to highways and population centres, big box retail served an increasingly car-dominated America. The transformation galvanized a decades-long public discourse about suburban sprawl, environmental destruction, the death of the downtown shopping strip and — ultimately — the reorientation of American life. The phenomenon burrowed deep into the public consciousness, with the ubiquity of Walmart lampooned in a 2004 episode of South Park. Before the Waltons went megastore, and as far back as the 1970s and ’80s, the allure of shopping malls had prompted a reckoning for Main Street USA.
The spatial consequences of e-commerce are less immediately tangible. People go to malls and Walmarts and main streets, but they order from Amazon. In the popular imagination, online shopping pits brick-and-mortar shops against our phones, laptops and the trillion-dollar companies inside them. It’s tempting to apply this duality to e-commerce, conceiving of it as an invisible force that erases the physical and social geography of local retail. But the internet creates its own geographies. From our devices, a new landscape of fulfillment centres, trucks and highways is emerging — though one that’s only gradually entering the public eye.
As Amazon has grown, its controversies have brought its empire of fulfillment into the spotlight. In 2018, the company got the South Park treatment, too, with the HQ2 process parodied in an episode where a new fulfillment centre comes to town, creating dangerous jobs and — once again — destroying Main Street retail. The real news is hardly more flattering.
From chronic workplace injuries to widespread reports of fulfilment-centre employees urinating in bottles, Amazon’s labour record is rife with abuse and exploitation. By the time HQ2 was set to descend on Long Island City in 2018, the company’s treatment of workers became a talking point for local union leaders and public representatives. Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) president Stuart Applebaum called attention to Amazon’s “record of routinely mistreating and exploiting its workers at all levels, whether they are employed in its corporate offices or in its warehouses,” arguing that “Amazon has operated as an anti-worker, union-busting company.”
The anti-labour stance was brought into sharper relief this year, when a unionization drive at Alabama’s Bessemer fulfillment centre garnered national attention. The effort failed, as the warehouse — built with $54.6 million in subsidies — and its employees remained under direct management. But subsequent reporting reveals that Amazon installed a modified USPS mailbox to collect the votes, which union representatives contend “gave Amazon the ability to spy on workers as they voted and created the appearance that the retail giant was involved in conducting the election,” writes Bloomberg’s Matt Day. What’s more, an Amazon employee testified that he saw a security guard empty the mailbox. Then, a worker died on the site in a workplace accident and, after that, Vice uncovered that Amazon drivers were instructed to drive recklessly in order to meet the company’s strict deadlines.
Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning 2020 film Nomadland, which is based on the 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, situates Amazon as a driver of an economically hollowed-out America. Set in the nadir of the last great recession in 2011, the film follows a recently laid off factory worker in her sixties as she traverses the country in her camper van, taking on seasonal work at a fulfilment centre through the holidays. From a stable home and a middle-class factory job, the protagonist transitions to a world of sporadic gig work and nomadic living.
Nomadland offers a slice of the profoundly unequal country that’s chronicled in journalist Alec MacGillis’ Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, which charts a new American geography with Amazon at its heart. “The gaps were everywhere,” writes MacGillis. “Between booming Boston and declining industrial cities like Lawrence, Fall River and Springfield. Between New York and the struggling upstate cousins of Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. Between Columbus and the smaller cities it was pulling away from: Akron, Dayton, and Toledo on down to Chillicothe, Mansfield and Zanesville.”
MacGillis stresses that the vast inequalities between American cities and regions are shaped by much greater (and much older) economic forces than Amazon alone. But the tech giant is an embodiment — and an accelerator — of an economic era defined by extremes. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the disparities only increased, as billionaire net worth rose in the face of a deepening economic and public health crisis.
But while the e-commerce economy has contributed to inequality writ large, its essential geography is more acutely engrained in the divisions within urban regions than between them. As Good Jobs First’s mapping study shows, the location of Amazon’s fulfillment centres is contingent on proximity to populous and wealthy urban areas. It is a symbiotic relationship of consumers and services, predicated on geographic closeness and vast economic disparity.
In Canada, 13 fulfilment centres and 16 delivery hubs dot the nation. The nodes of the vast distribution network flank the country’s largest cities: Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa. True to the pattern, the Toronto region hosts the lion’s share of supply chain operations. Home to Canada’s largest population and its economic engine, the metropolis is one of the financial capitals of the world, also boasting North America’s fastest-growing tech economy and a staggering concentration of urban wealth, manifested in multi-million-dollar real estate. In turn, the city is surrounded by six fulfillment centres – in Brampton, Mississauga, Caledon and Milton – that will soon be joined by two more, in Hamilton and Ajax.
They’ve been in the news. Immediately west of Toronto, the Peel Region cities of Brampton and Mississauga are collectively home to a trio of fulfilment centres. Over the course of the past year, the warehouses have been the sites of mass COVID outbreaks, with all three ordered to close by the Ontario government. The region’s highest instances of infections have chronically occurred in lower-income neighbourhoods with large shares of racialized residents and immigrants. Surrounding Toronto’s whiter, wealthier — and, in the early days of the year, much more widely vaccinated — urban core, these neighbourhoods are home to a large share of the essential workers employed in transportation, warehousing and food production. In The Globe and Mail, Dakshana Bascaramurty and Vrunda Bhatt document the daily commute of Brampton fulfillment-centre employees:
During shift change at Amazon’s Heritage Road distribution centre in west Brampton, more than 100 people might be waiting to board the eastbound 511 Zum bus. Most wear disposable masks and have backpacks slung over their shoulders. The majority appear to be in their 20s, but after a 10-hour shift, they carry the world-weary expression of people thrice their age. The commute to L6P [an area code in northeast Brampton] can be a three-bus, 94-minute odyssey.
When an employee at the facility fell ill, they navigated “a long and difficult process to get medical leave to self-isolate, which deters employees with symptoms from calling in sick,” write Bascaramurty and Bhatt.
On the far northeastern edge of Toronto, meanwhile, the sole fulfilment centre within the city proper came online last August. Opened at the height of Amazon’s COVID-19 building boom, the Scarborough warehouse — dubbed YYZ9 — commands a sprawling site, boasting a footprint of well over one million square feet. A far cry from the transparent glass bijouterie of The Helix, it presents a largely windowless, sterile face to the city. From outside, it can be hard to grasp that 700 people work inside.
As in Peel, the Scarborough fulfilment centre is staffed by a highly diverse staff, with a wealth of languages spoken. In Spacing, urban planner Aria Popal offers a nuanced perspective of the draws and drawbacks of fulfilment centre life. “The reality is that jobs are hard to find in Scarborough,” writes Popal, “and often BIPOC, immigrant and refugee workers are excluded from conventional white collar jobs because of a lack of qualifications or experience and, instead, must look to work in areas like warehousing for employment.”
Arun Chandramohanan, an Amazon employee who immigrated to Canada from India in September 2020, tells Popal of “being in need of a job to pay my bills, especially during the lockdown.” He’s far from alone: According to the 2019 Toronto Employment Survey, the transportation and warehousing sector has been a driving force of employment growth well before the pandemic.
The rapid expansion of fulfilment centres around Toronto mirrors the city’s relentless economic growth. Even in the depth of the pandemic, the demand for downtown office space never dissipated; Amazon itself announced major new leases last December — just as tech rival Shopify quietly revealed the expansion of its own offices. Here, too, Amazon is merely one part of a larger socio-economic phenomenon: Toronto, like prosperous cities across North America, is increasingly stratified.
First published in 2007, J. David Hulchanski’s seminal Three Cities Within Toronto report mapped out the geography of income inequality. Around an increasingly wealthy urban core, a disappearing middle-class is subsumed into a growing low-income periphery. In the 14 years since, the divisions have only grown more stark, with maps of COVID-19 infections reflecting an unsettling parallel to Hulchanski’s analysis. From this vantage point, tech and e-commerce “innovation” only ossifies pre-existing divisions. But, at the same time, the sectors are also influencing the contours of those socio-economic conditions. Cushman & Wakefield’s Goran Brelih describes surging demand for industrial land across the Toronto region amidst a shortage of acreage, with prices sharply rising to match. As residential sprawl continues to dominate the urbanist agenda, industrial sprawl is re-shaping the urban periphery in cities around the world.
And the consequences will be felt by the public. In Philadelphia, the city’s push for a new trolley yard was recently derailed by Amazon: the public transit agency was outbid for a three-block redevelopment site occupied by a shuttered General Electric plant. In southern California, meanwhile, the glut of Inland Empire fulfilment centres already serving Los Angeles have been linked to an increase in toxic emissions and traffic-related pollution, borne disproportionately by racialized communities. According to the same research, “the communities dominated by Amazon warehouses have the lowest rates of Amazon sales per household.”
Back at Scarborough’s YYZ9, another massive warehouse is under construction next door. While the whole area remains a greenfield site on Google Maps, the area is in the midst of a dramatic transformation. Amazon’s new neighbour? Canada Post. In 2021, even the public postal service is an integral part of the geography of fulfilment.
SERVER FARMS. There’s no such thing as an online business. While e-commerce is manifested in a suburban geography of warehouses and shipping, the internet itself also exists in a network of electricity-hungry data centres. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft are ultimately also in the real estate and energy business.
Just like the exact locations of its supply chain network, Amazon’s data empire is shrouded in secrecy. On the company’s website, the server farms that house Amazon’s operations and its enormously popular AWS cloud computing platform are only identified on a general regional scale.
Comprised of multiple data centres, Amazon’s “Availability Zones” are in turn part of a larger “Region” of server hubs. Canada’s sole “Region” is situated somewhere in the Montreal metropolitan area, thanks in large part to Quebec’s low electricity rates compared to Ontario. In 2018, WikiLeaks published its so-called “Amazon Atlas,” using leaked internal documents to map out the company’s clusters of data centres. And while the quickly outdated data only revealed a portion of the company’s operations, the map shows a combination of urban, suburban and exurban facilities, existing in geographic proximity to Amazon offices. A number of data centres can now also be identified on Google, offering a glimpse into the inner workings of the internet.
There are now over four billion active internet users around the world, resulting in a carbon footprint that accounts for approximately 3.7 per cent of all global emissions. In varying degrees, the energy that fuels our daily habits re-emerges as heat (and carbon) in a building of servers. If you stream Netflix — or Amazon’s own Prime Video — the activity is powered by the AWS.
Amazon rivals Google, Microsoft and Facebook also operate growing networks of data centres, ranging from Facebook’s enormous server farm in the Swedish Arctic to suburban warehouses and much smaller facilities in urban cores.
This month alone, Microsoft purchased two large sites in the Toronto area to support its Cloud infrastructure, buying a 13.2-acre site in Etobicoke and a 28-acre lot in Woodbridge. In the city’s downtown, a controversial cluster of architecturally ambitious data centres is also emerging on Parliament Street, while an older server hub in the Financial District is now set to be topped by a Bjarke Ingels-designed office tower, with the developers promising to harness the “enormous amount of heat” generated by the facility to build a district energy system.
As with fulfilment and supply chains, the internet’s fundamental impacts on the built environment are transformative — and easily overlooked.
Against the seamless ease of e-commerce and the hyper-visibility of marvels like The Helix and the Amazon Spheres, Amazon’s geographies of gentrification, fulfilment and data risk being relegated to the relative fringes of public consciousness. But the whole of the digital landscape remains profoundly enmeshed in the social and physical geography of our cities. From inequality and urban displacement to pollution, sprawl and climate change, the new economy recreates — and exacerbates — many of the same old problems.
From downtown offices to sprawling fulfilment hubs and faraway data centres, the e-commerce economy is rooted in transformative patterns of land use.