Is Amazon Prime undercutting all those earnest urban planners?

My latest guilty pleasure is Amazon Prime.  It’s given me this wild sense of power about shopping – totally saving me time and lots of schlepping to stores, and making the miraculous appeance of my just-purchased goods almost instantaneous.  It’s practically as fast as schlepping to buy it myself. There’s just a 2-day delay before I have that thing in my hand.  And that transport to my front porch is free.

That “free” part gives me that sense of power I just mentioned.  How easy is it to just search, peruse, and one-click your way to stuff, without having to pay an extra cent to get it in your hands?  What a miraculous logistical feat they’ve accomplished, those people over at Amazon.  But then comes the guilty part.

It’s late morning on a Saturday. I’m sitting here at my computer, and I glance out the window that faces our street, and I see some guy’s car pull up in front of my house. He takes out that familiar brown rectangular Amazon box, with the black strip on it. And he runs it to my front porch, then speeds off.  Are these Uber drivers?  It’s not UPS or Fed Ex.  It’s some guy schlepping around on a Saturday delivering a BBQ cover I ordered, and didn’t bother selecting anything but my Free 2-Day Shipping… because it’s FREE and because I could.  Way too tempting to pass up.

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Then I started thinking, wow, this is so environmentally irresponsible.  That one little click of my mouse sent a whole logistical behemoth the size of some minor country into motion — the picking the good from the warehouse, the packing, but especially the transporting that box from some warehouse by god-know-what means to some distribution point, and into some guy’s car which drove its way up to my house on the cul-de-sac.

For all of the great work that urban planners and reformers are doing these days, trying like hell to educate us about the blessings of sustainable metropolitan design — building places in more compact ways, promoting mass transit, touting regional approaches, creating walkable places, reducing suburban sprawl … all in the name of protecting the environment and curbing pollution that comes with careless suburban development — I fear that a thing like Amazon Prime is un-doing so much of this, with that one-click.

The fact is, the suburbs are here, they aren’t going anywhere. We have to figure out how to soften the ill effects of this existing landscape.  Densifying things is great.  Retrofitting is fine.  But if we have a whole other set of players and their emerging infrastuctures (like on-line retailers) cooking up cheaper and cheaper — but more environmentally taxing — ways to feed our consumption habits, it starts looking like the urban planners/designers are walking up a down elevator that’s going faster and faster.  There are so many moving parts to the equation of metropolitan living these days.  I don’t envy the planners.  They have to master not only the realities of place and space, but also the hyper-dynamic pace of techno-economic change.

In the meantime, I’m going to switch over to binge-watch that new series “Red Oaks,” about some suburban New Jersey country club in the 1980s.  Thank god for my Amazon Prime.

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7 thoughts on “Is Amazon Prime undercutting all those earnest urban planners?

  1. You’re a great writer. I never thought Amazon Prime could be made interesting. That being said, I was never interested in getting it and this only confirms that. Don’t know how to convince my wife, though….

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  2. Your concerns are so you, Becky! Worried about the impact your behavior–our behavior–has on the common good. But before you put that Prime account on hold (sorry, David), consider the environmental costs of going out shopping for the items you’re ordering. And not just you, but everyone, of course. There’s the environmental cost of manufacturing the eighteen wheelers that deliver the items from warehouses to stores, likely places like Target, big box stores. There’s the stores themselves, structures of steel, cement, vinyl, and other plastics. Did you know that companies like Cal-Portland, a major producer of cement on the west coast, burn tires to create to heat to produce cement? Think also of the parking lots, the cars there driven by all the employees and shoppers. How about all those plastic goods used by such stores, from the carts to the bags that hold purchases?

    I’m not a big fan of Amazon, for sure, even though I too have a Prime account. (Love the easy movie download for air travel!). My conscience is nagged by the way they treat their employees, which author Brad Stone first examined in his book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Long hours, a dangerous work environment in their warehouses, and a culture where job comes before anything else in a person’s life, and I mean EVERYTHING. But also in line with your blog theme, I think it’s worthwhile to consider the impact shopping at home has on community. I’m grateful I live in Claremont, in that respect, where, five times out of ten, when I go to our local neighborhood market, Wolfe’s, I run into someone I know. I’m not talking just about the employees there who recognize me and know my preferences, as in “no, I don’t need the receipt.” I never have to say that because the checkout staff just know that about me. I’m talking about friends and acquaintances who live here. I can get delayed five or ten minutes on any shopping trip to Wolfes or Trader Joe’s by chatting with neighbors, fellow church members, and other folks I know who live and/or work in town. Shopping is convenient and maybe better for the environment, but is it better for the already thin sense of community in many suburban places?

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  3. I’m both an Amazon Prime addict and a planner. But, then again, I’m one of the few planners I know who doesn’t live in a suburbs. Where does that put me? Anyway Becky, so happy to see your voice out there and your wonderful insights being shared. Hadn’t even heard of Red Oaks so thanks for the head’s up.

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