The city of Vancouver’s limit on large warehouses strikes a reasonable balance between economic and environmental concerns.
The city council this week approved a series of code changes relating to large warehouses — often called distribution centers. Officials had placed a moratorium on such facilities, and the temporary ban expires Dec. 6.
Moving forward, warehouses larger than 250,000 square feet will be allowed only in heavy industrial zones — essentially the Port of Vancouver and the Columbia Business Center south of Highway 14 — and not in light-industrial areas. They will be subject to climate action measures, such as having electric vehicle charging stations and roofs that can support solar panels.
With the decision, Vancouver has weighed in on growing debates about distribution centers and has joined numerous cities in taking action. The growth of e-commerce and consolidation throughout the retail industry have driven construction of large warehouses, often tucked into urban areas.
“Warehouse growth is totally demand-driven,” Susan Phillips, a professor of environmental analysis at Southern California’s Pitzer College, told the New York Times last year. “Developers and many municipalities do not want any regulation on this, and at this point warehouses are growing at many times the rate of population growth.”
In a report last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce highlighted the economic benefits of distribution centers. “In arguing to maintain the status quo, critics of DCs miss how strongly beneficial the investment in a new DC can be for local workers in the warehouse industry, workers in other industries in the area, and the broader economic benefits to the community,” the report states.
Notably, however, the words “environment,” “pollution,” and “emissions” do not appear in the report. That is where the watchdog role of elected officials comes in.
A report this year from the Environmental Defense Fund determined that 15 million Americans live within 1 mile of a distribution center. In summary, technology website The Verge writes: “A warehouse isn’t your average neighbor. Warehouses often operate around the clock, bringing in a steady stream of truck traffic and delivery vans. Communities of color were more likely to see one crop up in their backyard, according to the report, which suggests they’re disproportionately dealing with the public health risks.”
Diesel emissions are particularly problematic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports: “Exposure to diesel exhaust can lead to serious health conditions like asthma and respiratory illnesses and can worsen existing heart and lung disease, especially in children and the elderly.” The agency adds, “Emissions from diesel engines contribute to the production of ground-level ozone, which damages crops, trees and other vegetation.”
Limiting warehouses to sparsely populated areas is in the best interests of human and environmental health. In addition, placing them in heavy industrial areas ensures that easy access to truck routes is in place and reduces traffic congestion.
Some members of the city council expressed concern that the restrictions are not stringent enough. But the compromise is a nod to reality.
Warehouse construction is peaking because the modern economy requires places to store products prior to delivery. Vancouver officials are wise to recognize this while placing reasonable restrictions on the location of distribution centers.