Apart from air pollution, trucks also damage pavement and increase traffic collisions. They are loud: One truck can generate noise equivalent to 22 automobiles. Large warehouse facilities also have lots of pavement, meaning they tend to absorb heat and deflect rainwater, exacerbating urban heat islands and increasing stormwater runoff.
While some of these costs occur throughout the region, as trucks move from warehouses to urban centers and back, they are costs borne most heavily by adjacent communities. It is thus important to know which communities tend to host these facilities: The location of logistics sprawl has important implications for environmental justice.
What do Neighborhoods Near Warehouses Look Like?
Most neighborhoods do not have warehouses, but a small number of places with warehouses have a lot of them. Figure 2 shows the distribution of warehouses in Greater Los Angeles, the second-largest metropolitan area and the largest trade gateway in the United States. Most of the region’s warehouses are located in a relatively small number of neighborhoods. The region’s 5,818 warehouses are unevenly distributed across its 3,775 neighborhoods. While 83% of neighborhoods have no warehouses, 3% have at least 10 warehouses. This 3% of LA’s neighborhoods house 75% of the region’s warehouses.
Figure 2. Distribution of warehouses in the neighborhoods in the Los Angeles region
Figure 3 shows that poorer neighborhoods and those with substantial Latinx populations are more likely to have warehouses, as are places with lower land values and good transportation access.
Figure 3. Socioeconomic characteristics of neighborhoods with and without warehouses
Environmental Inequity in Warehousing Location: A Statistical Analysis
To better understand the relationship between warehouse location and low-income households and communities of color, I divided neighborhoods in Greater Los Angeles into six categories: high-, medium- and low-income white neighborhoods and high-, medium- and low-income neighborhoods of color. I then used statistical analysis to measure the likelihood that these places would host warehousing facilities.
The results suggest that warehouses are disproportionately located in communities of color, especially in Latino neighborhoods. Both low- and medium-income neighborhoods home to communities of color have significantly more warehouses, and higher concentrations of warehousing space, than do medium-income white neighborhoods (see Figure 4). These results are consistent with many previous environmental justice studies, which found that race/ethnicity, not socioeconomic status, is most strongly associated with environmental inequities.
Within neighborhoods of color, medium-income areas are more likely to host warehouses than low-income areas. This finding may be surprising. If lower-income areas have cheaper land than most other neighborhoods, why don’t they attract more warehousing facilities than medium-income neighborhoods? One answer is that lower-income areas don’t always have lower land values. In Central and South Los Angeles, for example, incomes are low but land values are high — at least relative to land values well outside the city. Low-income people are able to live on this high-value land primarily through density: each household consumes relatively little space. And precisely because land values and density are high, these neighborhoods have few of the large, vacant parcels that today’s warehouse developers look for. They also suffer from high levels of traffic congestion.
The medium-income neighborhoods of outlying areas, in contrast, are different. People with slightly more money buy their way out of dense places and purchase more space where land is cheaper. That same abundance of space and cheap land, however, creates a landscape that is appealing to warehouse developers who want large parcels and less congestion. Many middle-income neighborhoods in the Inland Empire offer large parcels, affordable land, good regional access, and favorable local land use policies. These factors mean that they will probably remain popular among warehouse developers in the near future.
Figure 4. Spatial distribution of warehouses and neighborhoods by income and race/ethnicity
Source: Costar Group Inc. (2017); US Census Bureau (2015)
Social and institutional factors may also help explain the racial/ethnic inequities in warehouse location. Zoning, in particular, may have a long-term and salient effect on both the distribution of warehousing facilities and the characteristics of the local residents who live near them. For one, existing industrial zoning tends not to change over time and Greater Los Angeles has a high variation in the amount of land zoned for warehouses. Such historic conditions likely explain why some low-income neighborhoods are largely free from warehouses, while their medium-income neighbors are not.
Finally, warehouses hire mostly blue-collar workers, many of whom live in medium-income neighborhoods. Thus, proximity to labor may be another reason that warehousing developers have chosen to locate in medium-income neighborhoods, and may also explain why some people choose to live near warehouses.
Think ahead and take action
The local impacts of warehousing and logistics are unequally distributed, which raises troubling environmental justice questions. However, local and regional governments have the power to ease this burden off of low-income areas and those that are home to communities of color. Warehouse location is not purely market-driven; both land use path-dependency and local land use and transportation policy exert substantial influence as well. Through land use, building, and environmental regulations, governments can attract or discourage warehouse development. These policies can be used to promote economic growth, and to maintain a fair socioeconomic and racial distribution of that growth’s environmental costs.
The varying warehousing burdens across racial/ethnic communities are a regional problem, meaning governments above the local level should be involved in finding solutions. Regional leadership could help local governments develop consistent standards for regulating and mitigating warehousing and logistics-related externalities. State governments and regional planning agencies can track both the environmental impacts of warehousing and logistics activities and the spatial distribution of these impacts. They can also guide local authorities to mitigate these impacts. Officials at all levels of government can help foster better communication among stakeholders to discuss and develop solutions to environmental equity problems. These stakeholders should include not only warehousing and goods movement interests, but also community groups (especially those representing the racial/ethnic and low-income communities disproportionately affected), environmental organizations, and public agencies. Including voices from these underrepresented perspectives in regional logistics policymaking is essential.