Multimodal green “sheds” for the future’s last mile

Multimodal green “sheds” for the future’s last mile

Brexit has highlighted deep flaws in the logistics system that brings us global trade and e-commerce. More efficient and sustainable regional transport networks are part of the answer. However, to deliver the world’s online goods to our door at the click of a mouse, we must develop innovative storage and distribution “hub” solutions linked directly to our urban centres.

To put this into context, in 2013 distribution centres were the property market’s Cinderella. A rapid evolution in technology has changed that. Today, investor interest in logistics stands at 74% compared to just 7% for retail because of three key terms: – smart mobility; urban hubs; and the “last mile”.

Green and profitable

Increased investor interest is also an opportunity to tackle pressing environmental problems – namely, poor air quality from over-crowded motorways, aggravated by increasing congestion on local roads and compounded by an over-stretched railway system.

Environmental concerns go even further, with wider issues such as noise pollution and more frequent and erratic storm patterns and flooding. Risks to biodiversity are also becoming increasingly important; Chancellor, Philip Hammond, said in his recent Spring Statement that habitat loss is no longer acceptable on new developments.

Investors will need to acknowledge and address this through creative integrated development models.

Tucking a big industry into small green spaces

In response, we are developing solutions to ease pressures throughout our transit infrastructure. In particular, we are focussing on a new generation of economically and environmentally sustainable distribution centres and neighbourhood mini-hubs designed with the potential to bring under-utilised buildings, derelict, or previously unviable sites back into commercial use.

The increasing risks of extreme weather, including greater variance in destructive flood and drought events, means that creating long-term resilience to climate change is an absolute priority.

However, we have the tools to help us do this. For example, we use innovative landscape design solutions mimicking the natural hydrological cycle. This allows us to clean and store excess surface run-off, smoothing out more intense flood and drought risks. Another is ground contamination on brownfield sites. With careful planning and a detailed understanding from investigation and assessment, it is often possible to mitigate or remove risks entirely.

At the same time, we can create new habitats with more robust (climate change) species mixes, increasing biodiversity and green corridors between habitats, very much as the Chancellor has in mind.

Green low-carbon energy

One other aim is increasing the efficient use of renewable rather than fossil-fuel energy to minimise greenhouse gas and particulate emissions and potentially power a new generation of clean electric vehicles (EVs). This has important implications for future bulk transport, when heavily-polluting diesel-powered HGVs are replaced, and also in the last crucial mile of delivery.

Yes, this is a demanding brief but one that can be delivered. Our goal is to develop an advanced logistical solution that meets current requirements but is able to adapt to rapidly-evolving technologies – self-driving vehicles, e-bikes, robots, drones, energy storage, vehicle power train systems and other innovations lying ahead.

Logistical makeover

Market trends in recent years mean we now live in a world where we expect goods bought online to appear like magic. Any delays can be costly; customers simply switch suppliers at a key stroke. However, the planning and environmental impacts of this are immense.

Modern delivery systems are multimodal where a single provider agrees to supply products in one integrated contract. This often involves moving bulk goods around the world by container ship, importing them through high-capacity docks for an onward journey by rail and/or road to regional warehousing centres.

Here, cargoes are broken down and forwarded to local wholesalers, retail outlets and in many cases the customer’s own front door. Which is where an unsustainable problem is beginning to emerge.

This global-national-regional system is competitive and efficient until we reach the last mile. Same-day delivery often means many different half-filled vehicles on urban roads at the same time. And this is where most people are likely to be affected.

Finding the gaps

An overview of how the network operates highlights the gaps. It relies on a high-quality transport infrastructure to ensure a smooth flow of goods. This is pointless if there is poor maintenance or funds are not leveraged correctly. For example, there has been little repair of local networks after last winter’s heavy pothole crop, even though they will be carrying a growing number of vehicles.

Currently, big distributors enjoy limited overheads through minimal taxes and only localised CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) or Section S106 contributions attached to planning consents. However, this is now on the Government’s radar and is unlikely to remain the case for long.

Land ahoy!

Britain’s 18 major freight ports add £5.4 billion to the economy, although only 6% of UK sea trade uses Dover. Private investment has beefed up northern harbours routinely handling cargos from New Zealand, Asia and Scandinavia. There is also significant potential for “free port” development.

In southern England, Bristol docks have been enlarged to take the world’s largest container vessels at a cost of £400 million. Circa £300 million has also been spent to cope with increased traffic at Tilbury associated with Amazon’s new distribution centre.

On England’s northwest coast, the Peel Ports Group as Port of Liverpool owner is carrying out the second £400 million phase of expansion at the deep-water container terminal, Liverpool2. Designed to take the world’s largest container vessels, it has road, rail and canal networks connections – including a renaissance for the Manchester Ship Canal – to almost 58% of the UK’s population.

The Government also recognised the importance of ports in an April 2018 study looking at how improved inland business connectivity could improve English harbour prosperity. It recommended better road and rail links to boost productivity, lower costs and give greater access to world markets. In January 2019, the Government’s Maritime 2050 policy paper also focussed on the role of ports.

As Mark Simmonds, the British Ports Association’s Policy Manager and BPA Port Futures programme coordinator, points out: “Ports are doing their bit but we rely on Government to ensure that road and rail connections from the port gate are fit for purpose”.

Moving north to the Humber

The Humber ports, Hull and Immingham, as gateways to the North of England and northern Midlands via massive regional distribution centres across the M1 and M62, are major beneficiaries of the migration from Dover

Developed some 50-miles inland from the Humber, theiPort at Doncaster is a “future-proofed” multimodal distribution complex built within a four-hour drive of 87% of the UK’s population.

It has consent for some 557,000 m2 of modern 30-meter-high “sheds”, plus 12 ha of European Gauge Rail Terminal linked to the 5 ha Doncaster International Railport (Doncaster Europort). Circa £300 million was spent on the iPort Logistics Park and Strategic Rail Freight terminal, plus £400 million on warehousing capacity.

Ditto Daventry

The Leicester, Milton Keynes, Coventry triangle as the Midland’s equivalent includes the Daventry International Road Freight Terminal and Magna Parks around the M1, M6 and M42. Again, 85% of the UK population are within a 4.5 hour drive. Sets of, say, napkins ordered by customers in Portsmouth, Newport or Chester are likely to come from the same “big box” in Milton Keynes.

In effect, the British high-street has been replaced by ultra-efficient super-warehouses on large levelled land platforms surrounded by berms, security gates, young trees and fishing lakes. Some “sheds” up to ten times larger than St Paul’s Cathedral are in planning parlance “nationally-significant infrastructure projects” consented by government.

However, there is another positive side to these carefully camouflaged mega-structures. Roofs clad with solar PV panels and walls doubling up as green energy storage batteries could pave the way for future fleets of zero-emission delivery vehicles.

Why the final mile is important

The final mile can account for 28% of total transport costs; most shippers see the last short-leg of a long trans-world journey as a logistics cornerstone for growth, profitability and customer-retention.

For the last mile to work well, mini-urban hubs that draw on the high-capacity of Doncaster, Daventry or Liverpool need to be developed very close to customer homes, restaurants and small businesses.

This is where we can help to make a substantial difference. With creative planning, lost ground can be recovered. But that isn’t the end of the story.

Green and pleasant hubs

For example, we can replace passive grassy banks and berms with more active landscaping solutions that are essentially SuDS (sustainable drainage system) schemes. These include contoured land, swales, reed-beds and soakaways to return cleaned rain or flood water to local aquifers and rivers

A more hands-off landscape management approach gives us scope to significantly enhance wildlife, increase biodiversity and provide multifunctional, layered Green Infrastructure solutions. In parallel, we can reduce maintenance impacts with manicured grass banks and verges replaced by meadow that needs only annual or biannual cutting. An alternative is woodland-edge and scrub planting with minimal annual maintenance requirements.

Using solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, we can generate on-site power, store it in large batteries, recharge EVs, or produce hydrogen for vehicles and fuel-cells. This could help to meet the tough ultra-low emission and low-carbon targets now being introduced while mitigating the increasing capacity and energy generation demands faced by the current power network.


Landscape architecture, with its core skills in both the strategic planning and technical delivery camps, is ideally placed to oversee the development and integration of a multitude of services, technical disciplines and solutions at a macro, regional and local level when developing a modern logistics infrastructure.

A multi-disciplinary environmental consultancy like Enzygo is particularly well positioned to bring these many key strands together effectively (see

We can help particularly where solutions must be multi-layered and multi-functional to maximise investor returns from new out-of-town iPorts and heavily-constrained sites previously thought unviable due to location, contamination, flood-risk and habitat status. The same applies to the generation of new, smaller inner-city hubs and their connections to the wider network.

Technology race

Final mile technology is unlikely to stand still either; it is inevitable that “big data” will make route forecasting decisions possible in fractions of a second using real-time traffic information.

As the gig-economy increases – a person on a bike is low-carbon, intelligent and adaptable – 4G and 5G networks will also bring self-driving vehicles to our roads, smart autonomous robots to our pavements and delivery drones to local skies.

The thoughts I have shared here are very much development work-in-progress. Any further ideas or comments you might like to add are very welcome. Please contact me directly. All discussions will, of course, be confidential.

[email protected]

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