December 07, 2021  |  permalink

The Dark Side of 15-Minute Grocery Delivery

(Originally published at Bloomberg CityLab on December 7, 2021.)

When we think of resource frontiers, it calls to mind the rugged, glamorous classics: oil booms, gold rushes, or, in the not-so-distant future, asteroid mining. But the latest is closer to home. Whether you live in Manhattan, Hollywood, or beyond, the storefronts and sidewalks in your city are being mined.

Over the last year, cities across the U.S. and Europe have seen a rapid rise in the number of dark stores — mini-warehouses stocked with groceries to be delivered in 15 minutes or less. Operated by well-funded startups such as Getir, Gopuff, Jokr and Gorillas, dark stores are quietly devouring retail spaces, transforming them into minimally staffed distribution centers closed to the public. In New York City, where seven of these services are currently competing for market share (including new entrant DoorDash), these companies have occupied dozens of storefronts since July, with expansion plans calling for hundreds more in that city alone.

With low or no delivery fees, the convenience is mind-bending. “Fifteen-minute delivery changes the way you shop,” JOKR’s Zachary Dennett explained to Grocery Dive. “Customers first try us out because they forgot an ingredient. Then they use us the next night for all their dinner ingredients.” Soon enough, they never have to wear pants again.

Laugh all we want, it’s exactly this addictive convenience that threatens to transform downtowns into dark cities, where the everyday commerce that gives streets their vitality has evaporated from view and been reconstituted on an app.

On the surface, the idea of 15-minute delivery has much in common with another model of urban commerce that has recently risen in popularity: the 15-minute city, where essential services are easily accessible on foot or by bike. Both visions bring goods and services closer to home, but while one harnesses consumption to seed and bolster community, a delivery-based world devours community.

Cities need to delineate the increasingly fuzzy boundary between stealth micro-fulfillment outposts and the traditional commerce of bodegas. If not, our post-pandemic urban future is less likely to be one where we’re on a first-name basis with the neighborhood baker than one where the streets are filled with workers ferrying cilantro for impromptu tacos. In fact, given the ambitions of DoorDash and others to vertically integrate their operations — to stop delivering meals and groceries from local stores and start running their own — it’s a future where bodegas and restaurants are unequivocally in the crosshairs.

The turbulence transforming retail is driven by familiar trends and turbo-charged by venture capital. E-commerce and on-demand delivery undermine the need for brick-and-mortar retail, resulting in empty storefronts. In turn, surviving retailers adopt new tactics to lure shoppers, such as experiential retail and their own dispatch services. Through lockdowns and the safety concerns of Covid-19, the pandemic has only accelerated these trends. The demand for convenience is seemingly bottomless, but no city has yet found a way to balance the short-term benefit of personal convenience against the long-term costs of eroding community life through decreased social interaction.

We’ve seen this before with ride-hailing services, when VC-backed entrepreneurs arbitraged the urban realm at the expense of public transportation and traffic congestion. One can’t blame customers for seeking convenience then or now, but public officials should be savvier this time. They need to think clearly and proactively about tradeoffs, since the rise of dark stores will directly harm three aspects of urban life: sidewalk life, congestion and equality.

Sidewalk life is already suffering. While a glut of vacant storefronts plagued American cities even before the pandemic, dark stores reinforce those holes in the urban fabric by plugging them with services that move the point of sale from the street to the doorstep, discouraging the hustle and bustle that defines cities.

For decades, planners have mandated street-level retail zoning to enliven public spaces specifically because it enables the in-person transfer of goods and services. But as the proliferation of 15-minute delivery demonstrates, the question of what defines retail isn’t so easily answered. Does it require the space to be open to customers? Traditionally, industrial uses such as logistics have been kept out of sight to support retail — not compete with it.

Wherever cities decide to draw the line between dark stores and retail, it’s now painfully clear the silver bullet of zoning is losing its effectiveness. Rather than trying to club the disruptors with aggressive enforcement of existing, flawed zoning — as Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer aims to do — public officials should embrace this crisis as an opportunity to clarify the boundary between industrial and retail, or perhaps even create a new category entirely.

A good first step would be to greatly simplify retail permitting, which would expand access to the retail playing field and promote the temporary activation of vacant commercial spaces by small businesses along the lines of Australian nonprofit Renew Newcastle. Open the floodgates and let entrepreneurial and artistic spirit drive a renaissance in street life.

Longer-term, one model to follow is Singapore’s plan to revitalize its historic high street Orchard Road by incentivizing landlords and developers to convert aging Central Business District properties to a broader range of uses — from housing and hotels to cultural and educational sites. Patch the urban fabric rather than tearing further holes in it.

A delivery-based economy will also clog our already-taxed transportation infrastructure, crowding our streets and sidewalks with mopeds, scooters, bikes and robots. This, too, exacerbates a pre-existing problem that can be addressed with policy. Funding reallocation is long overdue to create a robust citywide transportation network accommodating diverse forms of transportation. Cornell Tech’s proposed “new mobility lanes,” wide enough for small vehicles to pass each other while physically protected from auto traffic, are just one good example of how to implement such a policy. Such lanes don’t care if you’re a delivery worker, a commuter or out for a Sunday ride.

Finally, and most importantly, the rise of dark stores expands a delivery economy that commodifies our neighbors, transforming some of them into gig workers who are at others’ beck and call. As the e-commerce consultant and investor Web Smith describes this new class divide, “Either your life allows you to command from the comfort of your home or hybrid office, or you are being told where to be within 15 to 60 minutes.”

While many of these new delivery companies have avoided some employment issues by hiring workers full-time, they haven’t escaped unscathed. Philadelphia-based Gopuff reportedly slashed the pay of its gig workers below minimum wage this summer less than a month after its latest round of VC funding. Several hundred of its drivers across the country staged a one-day strike in late November demanding a $20 minimum wage, a guaranteed number of working hours and protection from unfair termination. Whether or not workers like these are legally considered full-time employees or contract workers — a point of ongoing legal dispute in California — this tension is a perfect example of how cities need to balance the benefits of increased convenience for those who can afford it against larger societal costs.

Despite the growing pains of players in this new economy, there is almost certainly a place in our urban future for a delivery ecosystem. The skyrocketing market for these services reflects its upside for urban dwellers: City living is hard, and much like the remote work revolution, this is something that makes it more attractive for those who can afford it. Perhaps it’s better to have a 15-minute dark city that can offer delivery to hundreds of thousands of urban residents by electric bicycle than a suburb of a few thousand in which “street life” consists of picking up one’s groceries at the curb.

These are undoubtedly hard choices. But cities need to start thinking seriously, now, about how residents’ personal choices, and the businesses that respond to those demands, can unintentionally transform our cities and communities. It is government’s job to keep the two in equilibrium. We may not get everything we want, but that’s always been the attraction of city life: Instead, it gives us what we didn’t even know we needed.

Lev Kushner is the founder of Department of Here, a strategic communications and economic development consultancy.

Greg Lindsay is the senior fellow for applied research and foresight at NewCities, and a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab.

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November 22, 2021  |  permalink

CoMotion LA Returns!

After two years away from being together in person, CoMotion LA returned to Downtown Los Angeles for three days of vigorous discussion and debate about the future of mobility. For the fifth year in a row, I had the pleasure and honor of MCing the proceedings, along with drafting the program and curating a special session on “Delivery 3.0.” (That’s me on the right at top, along with the rest of the CoMotion team.)

As the host of “Fast Forward,” CoMotion’s weekly podcast, I’ve spent this fall exploring themes such as urban air mobility (with Up Partners’ Ben Marcus, at bottom), the battle between cities and their would-be disruptors when it comes to data and privacy (with Lacuna’s Hugh Martin, second from bottom), and recapping the themes of CoMotion LA itself with CityFi’s Gabe Klein, Duffl’s David Lin, and Metropolis’ Alex Israel (below). Click on a podcast and listen in — it’s the next best thing to having been there!




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November 12, 2021  |  permalink

JLL & The Economist: Future-Proofing Cities

Please join me on Nov. 30 for a special virtual event hosted by The Economist, starring the city of Paris’ Marion Waller, JLL’s Walid Goudiard, Invesco’s Mike Bessell, and The Economist’s Vinjeru Mkandawire. Register here; event description below:

The covid-19 pandemic has redefined the shape of cities and sped changes in the way people and organisations use built environments. As economies reopen, the use of city infrastructure and buildings is set to be transformed. The rise of e-commerce and hybrid workplaces has propelled cities to reuse and repurpose their urban fabric, adapting and regenerating urban centres. As space becomes more flexible, elastic and distributed, many organisations are envisioning new ways of staying connected with customers and employees.

In stimulating urban activity, city governments are creating opportunities to align recovery initiatives with environmental and social goals. Central to making built environments more sustainable is a focus on multi-stakeholder engagement and investment. Now more than ever there is a chance, even a need, to reimagine the plan, design and fit-out of built environments to ensure they are adaptive, resilient and long-lasting. The questions we will seek to address include:

• How are cities changing and adapting to trends in hybrid work and shifts in consumer behaviour?

• Has the pandemic changed the playbook for property investors, developers and policymakers? If so, how?

• What steps are companies taking to decarbonise their portfolios? What are the risks of failing to decarbonise their assets?

• How difficult will it be to reach environmental, social and governance (ESG) objectives within the built environment? And how are different stakeholders rising to the challenge?

• What role are data and technology playing in the transformation of the built environment?

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November 01, 2021  |  permalink

On the Road Again, Or: What I Learned On My Biennale Vacation

It’s been a long, loooooong time since I posted an update from the road, but not even Delta (as in the variant, not the airline) could deter me from traveling to New York, Chicago, San Antonio, and Tirana-Venezia-Torino this fall. Here’s a quick recap of what I’m doing, where I’ve been, and where I’m going:

1. In late September, I flew to New York to host the second installment of NewCities’ Greenfield Cities Alliance Dialogues 2021, a series of live- and virtual events exploring the post-pandemic strengths and weaknesses of master-planned urban megaprojects. While the first edition focused on the viability of such projects in general, the New York City event — held at Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus, a greenfield project within a greenfield project — focused on “sustainable urban mobility systems of the future.” From NewCities’ description:

On September 23, 2021, NewCities convened the second edition of the Greenfield Cities Alliance Dialogues 2021 in New York City at Cornell Tech’s Verizon Center in partnership with the university’s Urban Tech Hub. Titled “Sustainable Urban Mobility Systems of the Future,” this installement explored how greenfield city projects might act as proving grounds for the proper balance of local-, walkable- and regional-, high-speed transportation systems of the (near-) future.

The session began with a keynote address by Canadian-American transportation planner Adam Giambrone, who ran projects in Toronto, New York, and Riyadh before joining the Saudi greenfield city project NEOM as its Director of Regional and Urban Mobility. In his opening remarks, Giambrone paid particular attention to The Line — an audacious plan to create a 140 kilometer-long urban corridor combining high-speed transit strung with local nodes of “five-minute cities” along its trunk.

Following his presentation, he was joined by ITDP CEO Heather Thompson and Starbust Co-Founder and COO Van Espahbodi to explore and debate the particulars of NEOM’s proposal, which recalls both Hong Kong’s extreme urban-rural divide and utopian projects such as Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, which sought to limit urban sprawl across the deserts of Arizona through its desert “arcology” concept.

During their subsequent discussion, the panelists debated the appropriate speeds- and scales of urban movement; how to balance the sheer audacity of building greenfield cities with the need to sustain existing urban systems; and even how to reconcile the energy intensity of our desires to move and to travel with the early pandemic-era lesson that the fastest way to decarbonize society is to simply sit still. How do we resolve these tensions in the face of decades of climate change?

(left to right: Greg Lindsay, Heather Thompson, Van Espahbodi, Adam Giambrone)

2. That trip was bookended by my opening keynote at the National Association of Realtors’ inaugural C5 Summit. But I’ve covered that already.

3. My October (Archtober?) kicked off with my first visit to Albania for Tirana Design Week, which was exciting and inspiring in equal measure. You can watch my opening address here, but it doesn’t capture the thrill of visiting Tirana, which has the unique charm of a European capital that’s still waking up from history. Big thanks to POLIS University’s Dr. Rudina Toto, Dr. Dritan Shutina, and Rector Besnik Aliaj for inviting me!

4. From Tirana, it was off to Venice, where I arrived at sunset — just in time to catch a vaporetto across the lagoon at dusk (below). There, I met up with my old friend Daniel Safarik to tour churches, drink spritzes, launch a podcast, and finally visit my Venice Architecture Bieannale team’s “station” in the Arsenale. (Photographic proof at top.) Other highlights included the Japan Pavilion’s “Co-ownership of Action: Trajectories of Elements,” in which a 1954 wooden home was demolished/disassembled, digitally tagged, and shipped to Venice, with a team of artisans using elements to fashion new furniture. I snagged a stool, knowing Sophie would appreciate giving new life to splinters of a beloved home within our own.

5. From there, we hopped the train to Turin for Utopian Hours, an urban conference co-hosted by Torino Stratospherica’s Luca Ballarini, who had graciously invited me twice before — it figures the third time would be the charm in a pandemic. Luca invited to me present on our Biennale theme of “open collectives,” so I was joined onstage virtually by my MIT teammates Rafi Segal and Marisa Moran Jahn, along with Quipu’s Mercedes Bidart (pictured on screen below). Joining me in person was DisCO Coop’s Irene Lopez de Vallejo, who shared her team’s vision for blockchain-powered digital cooperatives. Dan and I were also joined by reSITE’s Alexandra Siebenthal, host of the Design and the City podcast, for more cities talk over spritzes.

6. In between everything, I mastered the skill of being two places at once, with virtual talks for Belgrade’s Smart Cities Festival and NYU’s Rudin Center on flooding and public transportation, along with a deeply ironic interview about climate change with Esri CEO and co-founder Jack Dangermond, which took place in my Venice palazzo hotel room during aqua alta, i.e. the city’s periodic flooding during king tides.

But my favorite virtual talk of the fall was with the office of the Mayor of Buenos Aires (below), in which I was one of several experts (including Harvard’s David Zipper) discussing how best to carry forward pandemic-era investments in converting streets to public space, active transportation, and more.

It was a little wild to deliver one talk before rushing to the airport and another shortly before an hour-long talk in person, but that’s how things go these days.

7. Once back across the Atlantic, I rounded out the month with trips to Chicago and San Antonio, first to speak to 700+ members of Worldwide ERC comprising an entire industry of mobility and relocation experts who I desperately wish I had known when I emigrated to Montréal. Many thanks to CEO Lynn Shotwell (bottom) for inviting me (and for TikTok dancing with me.)

Finally, I flew to San Antonio to speak with the members of the Municipal Advisory Council of Texas — the municipal debt folks — hopefully inspiring, probably scaring, and definitely provoking the audience with a vision of post-pandemic cities.

Next up: CoMotion LA in Los Angeles Nov. 16-18. Hit me up if you’re around, and if you’re not, register for this free Webinar on Nov. 30 hosted by The Economist on future-proofing sustainable cities.

It’s good to be back.


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October 28, 2021  |  permalink

Introducing Unfrozen

As if I didn’t have enough podcasts on my plate (here and here) I’ve teamed up with my old friend Daniel Safarik to launch another, Unfrozen. Inspired by How Long Gone, but riffing about architecture and urbanism rather than green juice, we started it on a lark while visiting Venice last month. The first episodes are out (and available below). Here’s what you’re missing:

1. Greg and Dan successfully make it to the 2020 > 2021 Venice Biennale, on their fourth attempt, only to find it is closed on Mondays. Fortunately, there are other things to talk about and see.

2. Greg and Dan visit the Venice Biennale and share their thoughts on “How Will We Live Together?”

3. Greg, Dan and special guest Alexandra Siebenthal, host of the Design in the City Podcast by reSITE, convene in Turin, Italy, to discuss their “redpill” moments that got them hooked on architecture and urbanism, and what they’re looking forward to seeing at Utopian Hours, the urban design festival held 8-10 October, 2021.

More episodes, and more guests, to come!

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October 26, 2021  |  permalink

threesixtyCITY Returns

Podcasts are the new television, at least when it comes taking the summer off and airing fresh episodes in the fall. So it goes with NewCities’ threesixtyCITY, which returned when the leaves started to turn. Airing live on Wednesdays at 12 PM Eastern on NewCities’ Facebook page and repackaged as audio-only podcasts later, the fall season stars Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather (above) — a self-described remote work climate migrant from the wildfire-ravaged Pacific northwest to a lakeside village in Wisconsin — urban surveillance critic Rebecca Williams (below), and air pollution expert Jeffrey Smith, among others. Watch this space, as the fall season runs through the holidays.

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October 25, 2021  |  permalink

The Fast Forward Podcast’s Fall Season

CoMotion’s Fast Forward podcast returns for its fall season with a new co-host — the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Julia Thayne DeMordaunt — and a new slate of guests, including ClearRoad CEO Frederic Charlier (listen above), Swiftmile CEO Colin Roche (below), and RedBlue Capital managing partner Olaf Sakkers (bottom).

As CoMotion LA (Nov. 16-18) approaches, expect more episodes on urban air mobility, autonomous vehicles, and more. Watch this space — or listen, rather.


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October 16, 2021  |  permalink

“Searching for the American Dream? Go to Canada”

My buddy Parag Khanna blew my cover in the The Globe and Mail:

In the early 2010s, my colleague Greg Lindsay and I set out to answer the question, “Where will you live in 2050?” The answer could simply have been “high-tech cities,” but which ones? Some will be sites of predatory surveillance while others will allow residents to preserve some privacy. Some will be in areas resilient to climate change, while others may well have been submerged by then. Some will have thriving service economies and lively culture, while others will have become the discarded “factory towns” such as those littered across Michigan. As we scanned the world for geographies that offer abundant freshwater, progressive governance, and could attract talent to innovative industries, we decided on … Michigan.

More broadly, we pointed to the emergence of a “New North,” a collection of geographies such as the Great Lakes region and Scandinavia that are making significant investments in renewable energy, food production and economic diversification. Not too long after living through Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Greg and his family moved from New York to Montreal.

Greg’s relocation to Canada is far from unique, and it represents a bet not only on Canada’s climate resilience but also its physical and economic mobility. These are the tenets of what used to be called the “American Dream.”

Read the whole thing.

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October 15, 2021  |  permalink

The VISION Podcast by Protiviti

Listen to “The Way We’ll Live Next - with Greg Lindsay, Senior Fellow at NewCities” on Spreaker.

(The folks at the global consulting firm Protiviti were kind enough to invite me on their podcast series about the future of cities. Listen above; description below.)

Greg Lindsay is a senior fellow at NewCities and director of strategy for CoMotion LA — an annual mobility festival in Los Angeles — as well as a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. Greg is a futurist, urbanist, author, journalist and all-around expert in how cities of tomorrow will look, feel and function. During this Q&A, Greg talks about the remote work revolution, self-driving cars and instant cities being created by visionaries, among other things. And what should keep executives up at night? Climate and location, location, location.

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October 02, 2021  |  permalink

The National Association of Realtors’ C5 Summit

(The National Association of Realtors invited me to deliver the opening keynote of the inaugural C5 Summit, the association’s first event devoted expressly to commercial real estate rather than residential. Stacey Moncrieff’s recap from REALTOR Magazine is reposted below; thanks again to the organizers for having me.)

How will commercial real estate needs change in the next five to 10 years? How has the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the change? And what’s the implication for cities? Those questions were top of mind as the National Association of REALTORS®’ inaugural C5 Summit, a commercial real estate conference, kicked off Monday in New York.

Cities have a bright future, said Greg Lindsay, a senior fellow and director of applied research at the New Cities Foundation and Monday’s opening speaker, but the way residents live and work will undergo a radical transformation.

People take for granted that in the not-too-distant future, we’ll all be accepting deliveries from and riding around in autonomous vehicles. But what about autonomous buildings, which are essentially machines where goods, services, and amenities automatically come to you? That’s the future that Lindsay asked C5 attendees to think about. Research shows “Americans are ready for extreme automation,” Lindsay said.

To meet the demand, planners and developers are deconstructing spaces and rethinking them to combine housing, retail, industrial, office, and recreation. The vision for autonomous buildings includes these ideas:

• Food can be dispatched from nearby centralized kitchens.
• Retail and grocery delivery can deploy from micro-warehouses.
• Residents can eliminate their daily commute through companies’ adoption of cloud solutions, flexible workspaces, and coworking.

Retailers and developers are already putting such ideas into action, Lindsay said. He pointed to Hub 121 in fast-growing McKinney, Texas, as a development that turns traditional city planning on its head. Rather than restaurants and amenities springing up to serve area office workers, the developers started with multiple outdoor beer gardens and restaurants, surrounding them with flexible workspaces, Lindsay said.

Buildings that can integrate technology and adapt to consumers’ and companies’ changing needs will succeed. “He who controls the app and the delivery controls the experience,” Lindsay said.

Amazon Fresh, for example, opened its first grocery store in Woodland Hills, Calif., and quickly began using delivery data to change the store layout in real time. Lindsay said the company is bringing to life the concept of the “15-minute neighborhood”—a term coined by University of Paris Professor Carlos Moreno to indicate areas where residents can mostly bike, walk, work, and meet all their needs within a 15-minute radius. Moreno, who serves as a special envoy for smart cities to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, envisioned the concept as a way of reducing cities’ carbon footprint while improving residents’ quality of life. He has said he draws inspiration from the work of Jane Jacobs, author of 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs famously fought urban planning efforts of the 1950s and ’60s that facilitated the growth of car-dependent, suburban living.

Bustling Times Square, where the C5 conference is being held through Wednesday, served as the perfect backdrop for Lindsay’s C5 Summit remarks.

While the pandemic proved that office workers aren’t place-dependent, “superstar cities have retained their vitality,” Lindsay told C5 attendees. “Urban cores are stronger than ever, even if the real estate types within them are changing.”

To thrive, he said, cities need to rethink the public realm, focusing on how to beautify it, activate it, and turn it into something that’s more useful. “We can no longer think of cities as places where we stack people.”

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About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the chief communications officer at Climate Alpha, an urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, , a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, and a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

» More about Greg Lindsay

Articles by Greg Lindsay

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The Engine Room

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The Office of the Future Is… an Office

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Now Arriving: A Connected Mobility Roadmap for Public Transport

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Why Every Business Should Start in a Co-Working Space

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Can the World’s Worst Traffic Problem Be Solved?

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Hacking The City

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