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.
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.