Amazon’s HQ2 Makes a Compelling Case for Urban Sustainability

flickr: brewbooks- Amazon's Biosphere Headquarters

In early September, America’s ubiquitous e-retailer dangled an enormous carrot in front of all city governments — $5 billion in investment, 50,000 high paying jobs, and a boost to every horizontal industry needed to support the largest company in the U.S.  Amazon’s HQ2 request is unusually transparent, and their anyone-can-play narrative has cities coughing up virtually every incentive in the urban planner’s playbook.

There is no doubt that this rat race was carefully engineered, nor that executives will carefully consider million dollar tax benefits piled beneath their tree. But Amazon has hinted that their final decision will equally regard the city’s cultural fit, that ethos situated somewhere between openness, livability, and uniqueness of character. If their RFP is any indication, sustainability is key to Amazon’s culture.

Where Employees Will Enjoy Living

For Amazon to attract 50,000 new employees, its newest headquarters must be located in a place where people actually want to live. Amazon itself has highlighted population diversity and public transit as essential to their competitive advantage, but “quality of life” amenities map perfectly onto sustainability strategies. Attracting young urbanites usually starts with dense, multi-use neighborhoods where restaurants, daily needs, and entertainment opportunities are grouped within a mile radius (or less). Besides health benefits, density unlocks important environmental prospects, such as reduced car ownership, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and better air quality. Many studies find that available green space, whether within urban fabric or along riverfronts, is also a key component to daily happiness. Not surprisingly, open and permeable land helps manage stormwater runoff, keep rivers clean, and sequester CO2.  Amazonians are also likely to enjoy farmer’s markets, community gardens, bike share systems, and microbreweries — comforts which (unsurprisingly) contribute to sustainable food systems.

A Biosphere-Sized Commitment   

Amazon HQ2 also explicitly calls out the company’s dedication to sustainability, namely in regards to their Seattle campus. According to the brief, “the buildings’ interiors feature salvaged and locally sourced woods, energy-efficient lighting, composting and recycling alternatives as well as public plazas and pockets of green space. Twenty of the buildings…were built using LEED standards.” So not only will the committee be looking for a population with the skills to build and design their new campus, but they will also likely seek a local government that prioritizes progressive legislation — and can handle their standards for graywater, renewable energy production (Amazon is 100% renewable), and green building codes.  Cities that privilege mineral production or industrial manufacturing cannot incentivize the types of economic activities built into Amazon’s success.

The Brand Proposition

No matter Pittsburgh’s final standing in the HQ place chase, its attention to green buildings and climate impacts will not go unnoticed. In 2017 alone, national conferences on community development, environmental journalism, green manufacturing, energy codes, and climate change have picked Pittsburgh to host their participants, and hundreds of other innovative businesses fuel their creativity with the same progressive values. Amazon will ultimately do what is best for their bottom line, but cities would do well to take this opportunity to regroup, restrategize, and calibrate how to put people and planet at the center of their growth. They have nothing to lose–and Amazon to gain.

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