Urban and Last Mile Warehouses– the logistical challenges and solutions

Nobody could have predicted what was going to happen over the last 18 months.

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But for commercial real estate, it had already begun to enter a phase of structural change well before the start of 2020.

What COVID did fast track however was the rise of urban warehouses and last mile distribution, which has seen the unparalleled growth of e-commerce, purchasing power and increased demand for courier services.

With the huge surge in the number of parcels being delivered, this has seen Urban and Last Mile logistics explode. To understand the sheer scale, at its peak in the pandemic, there were 11.7 million parcels delivered on a single day in the UK.  

The culture change in flexible working from home has also shifted people’s purchasing consumption – from in-store to ordering online.

And the domino effect of online shopping? Increased necessity for more couriers, more packages being delivered, and a driving demand for spaces which facilitate this last stage, or Last Mile of the delivery process.

The challenge ahead

Finding suitable sites is the real challenge. But with more demand for space brings more questions than answers, and a test of warehouse management. The online shopping surge is pushing Last Mile facilities into urban centres – next to offices, residential areas, and your favourite restaurant or coffee shop. 

Undeniably, the creation of these new logistics hubs fulfils a need to meet shifting consumer habits. But the questions ahead are how can urban logistics integrate effectively into the urban environment, which already have huge competition for resource, liveability, and affordability?

The concept of ‘beds and sheds’ is not new, but with developers looking at new ways to utilise what developable space there is in dense urban environments, a proportion of mixed use development will help local authorities meet the high demand for inner city logistics, retail and residential space.  

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Planning the logistical warehouse

Once built as large sheds in well-connected areas such as the Golden Triangle, logistics assets are moving closer into the centre and integrating into the urban fabric. Typically, and depending on the end user and their exact business model, Last Mile logistics usually comprises of:

  • Being on edge of a town/city to reach consumer within an hour
  • Good access to national (for goods in) and local (for deliver) road networks
  • Plenty of loading doors and a significant yard
  • Good site circulation
  • Circa 100,000 sq
  • Sufficient space for required loading bays, lorry and car parking

But with this becoming more commonplace, it’s no surprise city centres are experiencing a greater number of van and truck traffic. Public space is an increasingly scarce resource for cities, which increases the problems of congestion, pollution, and carbon efficiency, to name a few concerns. And with carbon and net zero targets in place, both cities and businesses are prioritising environmental protection as a paramount focus with any planning or development.

Potential business blockades

The duty of any city is to ensure a good quality of life for its citizens. This means guaranteeing them healthy living conditions, whilst providing easy access to the services and goods they require.

The blockades businesses face when planning for urban logistics is accommodating these needs and necessities, as there’s no fixed scheme or solution for any development due to the variation of topography and geography determined by the location. But the key question that will be asked before anything else is: does the area have enough resources to support a warehouse?

Power and data supplies are crucial – and has sufficient power for EV charging been explored? All front of mind considerations for any warehouse plan will include:

Another key issue is the need for Urban and Last Mile logistics to be fully operational 24-hours a day. But to factor in such an important aspect of warehouse planning and bringing it to reality, conflicting interests with noise, air pollution, traffic and potential problems with residents and housing nearby all need to be seriously well-thought-out.

For a warehouse to be immersed within its setting, the ecology, air quality, transport links, biodiversity net gain and it’s carbon footprint all need to be addressed. This is to ensure it’s delivered within an environment that is sustainable, accessible and welcoming to all.

Multi-storey warehouses

With Last Mile, city space is tighter than ever before. Many businesses are building up rather than out, to maximise the location they have available.

Multi-storey warehousing is not a new concept and is an established norm in The Far East, where land is at an acute premium. But can it work in the UK and for Urban and Last Mile logistics?

"It’s definitely an emerging trend, with the multi-storey format beginning to enter UK markets. With that being said however, the trend most likely to gain pace is the multi mezzanine; a cheaper and more flexible option and doesn’t compromise external loading and circulation facilities".

Tony Pinchess

Senior Director - Project Management & Cost Consultancy


Structuring RPS' logistical solution

Working with RPS, any project will be developed through a process of analysis, engagement consultation and refinement, over a sustained period of time. This helps to integrate the proposed scheme into its local context and surroundings.

With carbon reduction and maximising on carbon savings the priority of any warehouse planning, elements to measure energy usage, and enhance biodiversity will always be incorporated, where feasible. Additionally, the same can be said for the inclusion of renewable energy technologies, which will be explored and integrated where necessary.

The selection of materials, both externally and internally, for the buildings and landscaping will be based on durability, recyclability and environmental impact considerations, with the end goal is inevitably to achieve high environmental and sustainable standards.  

What does the future hold?

Urban and Last Mile logistics are growing fast; it’s more than just bringing a same-day delivery to your home. Now more than ever, it’s creating jobs closer to city and town centres, facilitating economic recovery, and providing a much-needed tax base for local governments, which is helping to supplement the deficit from battered retail.

And it’s not just major players within the sector taking up this space. Given the land constraint, urban logistics can be made up of smaller unit sizes which are more fitted to growing local businesses and entrepreneurs.

The Last Mile delivery market is expected to increase by 16 per cent between 2021 to 2025. The prospect of vehicle automation, pavement delivery bots, high-speed Hyperloop capsule delivery and airborne drone transport means that logistics companies and their partners must reconsider where to locate distribution centres and how to build them. But what will always need to be proactively managed is the transition and integration of these warehouses into urban centres, and how they can positively impact the future of cities.

The dynamics of the new economies of logistics is changing, and this needs to be integrated into the thought and planning process. The increasing value of completed projects, and the potential of land value inflation is crucial in supporting the expanding land values of urban locations, against the traditional rural environment.

Whatever happens, change is certainly on the horizon for Urban and Last Mile logistics for the foreseeable future.

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