The bottomless convenience of Dark stores

We’re usually focused on positive solutions in this space but this really excellent (if somewhat bleak) article by Lev Kushner and Greg Lindsay at Bloomberg’s CityLab is very much worth a read, as it exposes a glaring need for more pro-active and forward looking governance in cities.

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.

As they explain, this can be viewed as a completely different take on the 15-minute city. Where the original one aims for a lively neighbourhood with walkable streets and local shops close at hand, this latest “vision” uses the empty retail spaces of the pandemic and transforms them into a faceless distributed warehouse, made to feed our bottomless “need” for convenience.

[I]t’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.

Much like Uber, AirBnb and even Amazon’s Prime, this phenomenon is another example of apps and services focused entirely on personal instant results, to the detriment of collective well being and cities that are active and dynamic places for living, not dormitories criss-crossed by gig workers delivering packages.

Clearly, much like the climate crisis, personal choices can’t be relied on to control this kind of extraction – especially when these personal choices are made within each person’s productivity-pressured life – collective decisions need to be made.

Cities need to delineate the increasingly fuzzy boundary between stealth micro-fulfillment outposts and the traditional commerce of bodegas. […]

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.

I’m quoting liberally from their piece, yet also skipping over some of the solutions they propose, and the mention that “there is almost certainly a place in our urban future for a delivery ecosystem,” so again, have a read, there is lots to ponder on this topic.

[C]ities 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.