By Brent Bellamy, Creative Director and Architect
Republished with permission courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press.
Amazon, the Seattle-based online shopping pioneer, recently sent shock waves across the continent when it initiated a search for a location to build a massive second headquarters somewhere in North America.
Image: Elaine Thompson / The Associated Press Files
Construction at Amazon’s campus in downtown Seattle. Amazon’s search for a second headquarters provides insight into what makes a city attractive to progressive companies
Amazon, the Seattle-based online shopping pioneer, recently sent shock waves across the continent when it initiated a search for a location to build a massive second headquarters somewhere in North America. In an unusual move, the company released an open call, seven-page request for proposals (RFP) inviting jurisdictions in Canada and the U.S. to submit plans to lure the technology giant to their city. The winner is promised a capital investment of US$5 billion and employment for up to 50,000 skilled workers.
Predictably, civic leaders from coast to coast, including those in Winnipeg, have announced their intention to enter the lucrative Amazon sweepstakes. Most realists would accept that cities such as Winnipeg have very little chance of winning, but the exercise of responding can be a valuable opportunity to understand what makes a city competitive in the battle for outside investment and new corporate offices. Amazon’s wish list is a clear window into what progressive companies are looking for when evaluating a move to a new location.
The RFP reads like an urbanist’s dream, specifically outlining a preference for sites offering dense, pedestrian-friendly, connected neighbourhoods that foster a sense of place and cultivate the local culture. The document celebrates Amazon’s urban campus in Seattle as a "city maker," supporting "restaurants, services and coffee shops... with its sustainable buildings and open spaces." It goes on to indicate the new location could be similar.
Amazon’s evaluation criteria suggest that cities able to offer urban lifestyle options will be the winners in attracting companies in the knowledge-based economy. Car-dominant cities without a diversity in its quality of life choices will be less competitive in the city-versus-city battle for outside investment.
In auto-oriented cities such as Winnipeg, alternative mobility options such as active transportation and rapid transit are often dismissed as a waste of money, demanded by a vocal minority. Amazon, however, makes it clear that these options are a priority, with a core preference that states, "include connectivity options: sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro, bus, light rail, train and additional creative options to foster connectivity."
The need for an effective bike-lane network and pedestrian access is specifically identified twice in Amazon’s RFP. One of the largest companies in the world believes cycling infrastructure and effective public transit are important, that they are no longer the issues of a special interest group, but are issues of economic development.
Many people living in suburban cities such as Winnipeg might not appreciate the importance of investing in amenities not focused on automobile traffic, but when companies are choosing between cities, mobility options become an important deciding factor.
Amazon’s focus on urban quality and diverse lifestyle opportunities represents an emerging trend for companies looking to invest and locate in cities across North America. It has become a particularly important priority for corporations whose greatest asset is skilled labour, such as those in the technology industries.
Connecting a business to a dynamic urban environment sets a company’s brand identity and corporate culture, inspires collaboration and engagement between local industries and, most importantly, is a valuable recruiting asset, allowing companies to attract and retain skilled employees.
By seeking out dynamic urban places, Amazon and other businesses are simply following the talent, particularly younger people, who in increasing numbers are attracted to walkable, vibrant neighbourhoods filled with restaurants, cafés, entertainment options, unique housing and cultural institutions.
A 2014 study by Higher Education Strategy Associates showed that when choosing a city to live in, 41 per cent of recent Canadian university graduates rated access to cultural amenities as highly important, 47 per cent are looking for quality public transportation and 90 per cent want good jobs. Access to good restaurants was almost as important as a good climate.
Cities that are able to retain their young, educated workforce by responding to these desires will be most effective in attracting the business that follows them.
The study also showed that Manitoba graduates ranked second in willingness to consider relocating to a different province, meaning that we are likely falling behind other cities in our ability to provide a desirable quality of life and appealing professional opportunities.
Responding to unprecedented mobility and an urbanizing labour pool, progressive cities are reconsidering their strategies to lure business and investment. Tax breaks and subsidies are no longer effective on their own, and a bigger-picture approach is required. Cities implementing public policies that create great urban places and lifestyle choices more diverse than only car-centric suburbs are successfully attracting the most skilled workforce and, in turn, the greatest business investment.
Winnipeg is unlikely to be successful in its proposal to attract Amazon, but we can learn from the experience and begin to make decisions that will allow us to be more competitive with other Canadian cities for business investment in the future.
Initiatives such as opening Portage and Main to pedestrians, investing in transit, creating bike lanes and re-establishing incentives to build downtown housing are ideas that are often resisted, but they represent a broader range of priorities to make Winnipeg more urban, walkable and connected.
They would contribute to the establishment of vibrant central neighbourhoods so the growing number of skilled, educated, young people who are seeking an urban lifestyle no longer have to move to a different city to find it. As Winnipeg becomes attractive to a greater number of young people, it becomes more attractive to businesses like Amazon and other knowledge-based companies that are hoping to hire them.
Brent Bellamy is chairman of CentreVenture’s board and the creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.