External of warehouse next to Docks.

Urban Logistics: The Technical Challenges Facing the Emerging Trends

Urban logistics continues to grow in our major cities in the U.K. We explore the emerging trends and the technical challenges facing this sector’s viability.

What is Urban Logistics?

Urban logistics is the final stage in the process by which goods are collected, transported and distributed to consumers within urban environments, the last mile is typically the most expensive part of the delivery process, as contrary to large-scale shipping where a large number of goods are sent to a single destination, a large amount of smaller parcels are delivered to different individual locations.

To reduce the cost of these deliveries and improve efficiency there is a growing demand for Industrial buildings to be located within urban areas, centrally located with good access to both national and local roads.

Warehouses are used as distribution hubs to load up vans and are generally smaller, typically up to 100,000 square feet with lower headroom and racking requirements as the products are not stored for long.

What is the Demand for Urban Logistics?

The demand for urban logistics is being fuelled by the rapid growth of on-line retail which has grown significantly over the last 10 years and is set to continue to grow.

High consumer expectations for fast delivery and convenience are increasing pressures on the wholesale distributors to shorten the last mile delivery timescales. Meanwhile, increasing values, low vacancy rates and limited industrial land in city locations require innovative ideas to unlock potential to assist in meeting demands. Developers are considering more complex constrained sites and are exploring opportunities for industrial mixed-use, multi-storey warehouses and repurposing disused retail space.

What are the emerging trends in Urban Logistics?

Three emerging trends to maximise land opportunities in cities for urban logistics have been gaining momentum in the U.K.

  • Multi-Storey Sheds

Multi-Storey warehouses are common overseas in Asia, however, this trend has yet to gather pace in the U.K. With the increasing limitations and demand on land in cities, industrial developers have been exploring the viability of stacking warehouses or incorporating internal multiple mezzanine floors to existing warehouses.

  • Beds & Sheds

Beds & Sheds is a concept of stacking residential apartments above warehouses. Housing and industrial space are equally in high demand in the U.K. and developers from both sectors are competing over the same sites in cities. It is not surprising therefore that consideration into the viability of mixing residential with industrial land; thus, helping to alleviate a city’s demands for both housing and industrial space. An example of best practice, the Gloucester Docks, owned by the City Council and managed by the Gloucester Docks Estate Company, showcases major regeneration over the last 20 years to include the renovation of the Grade II listed warehouses to create around 260 apartments together with offices, attractions, bars, restaurants and pedestrianised public realm.

External of warehouse next to Docks.
  • Repurposed Retail Sheds

The pandemic sadly has expedited the decline of the high-street, with the growth in online shopping. To be noted the role of the high street has been changing for the last decade and has been the subject of much discourse across the U.K. cities, towns and villages. Repurposing retail could be an attractive opportunity for creating additional space for industrial hubs, coupled with introducing new types of uses to evolve the traditional role of a high street into a space that can meet housing needs, support leisure uses as well as provide support, to meet the demand for urban logistics hubs. Retail spaces typically are ideally located in close proximity to consumer populations and transport links. The floor plates of retail spaces generally comprise of column free open spaces.

Assessing the viability of these emerging trends is critical to the success of urban logistic hubs, as these become established as common typologies in the U.K. These innovative concepts however, all require complex technical challenges to be solved and this is where smart engineering can add value.

What are the technical challenges?

The common challenges facing urban logistics are well known and typically comprise:

  • Environmental impact – The challenge of reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality where energy use and transport congestion are increased. 
  • Noise, vibration & visual impact – The challenge of mitigating noise, vibration and visual impact so that operators can function 24 hour/7days a week without creating higher anti-social noise levels and light pollution at night and at weekends.
  • Public Safety – The challenge of ensuring public safety providing distinct separation between industrial and public areas.
  • Access – The challenge of creating sufficient circulation space for vans and Heavy Goods Vehicles to load and unload, as well as the provision of turning circles.

In addition to the challenges noted above, industrial sites in cities are generally more constrained as the locations are predominantly brownfield and often located adjacent to rivers, railways, tunnels and in close proximity to other buildings. The sites are also often contaminated and heavily congested with existing below ground services that either have to be diverted or built over. These challenges can require lengthy consultations to obtain approvals with statutory regulators that can delay and add significant costs to the development.

Industrial warehouses are often simple in structural design above ground, typically steel framed, long span structures with their lateral stability being provided by a combination of cross braced bays and portal frames.

The challenges are often below ground, balancing levels to minimise imported and exported material through cut and fill assessments; whilst exploring improvement techniques on sites with poor ground conditions to avoid costly piling operations.

Multi-Storey Sheds

Multi-Storey sheds have unique challenges over single storey sheds, the most significant challenges to viability are:

  • The loss of lettable area required to free up space for access ramps, staircores and lifts.
  • The requirement for higher floor load capacities to support HGVs and goods storage.
  • Spatial planning requirements for column free spaces capable of supporting heavy loads.

Higher rental values are required to help cover the increased costs of the frame and the costs associated with providing access ramps, staircores and lifts.

Beds & Sheds

In contrast to industrial buildings, multi-storey residential buildings are typically constructed with a reinforced concrete frame, with flat slabs and blade columns. The spans between columns in comparison to industrial developments are small; columns can be hidden within party walls. Lateral stability for residential type development is usually provided by reinforced concrete lift and stair core walls.

When these uses are combined, the most efficient structure is not that obvious. The result in theory might be a hybrid steel and concrete framed structure, though this creates additional complexity in the design, in particular at the interfaces between materials.

The interface between two materials is likely to occur at a transfer structure over the industrial space. Transfer structural elements supporting multi-storey residential apartments over long span industrial spaces can be significant in terms of size and cost.

High apartment density and higher sales values need to be achieved to improve the viability of this concept.

Repurposed Retail Sheds

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers more than 11,000 outlets closed in 2020 with a further 9,000 closing in 2021, resulting in a net loss of over 11,000 shops over the last two years in the U.K. A significant number of these net closures were on the high-street.

Consumer behaviour is evolving, eCommerce experienced significant growth in 2020 primarily due to the effects of the pandemic, however this changing trend in consumer behaviour is set to continue as consumers value the convenience and ease of decision-making that online shopping offers.

With the rapid decline of unused retail space and increasing availability of disused land in city centre locations; converting retail into last mile logistics hubs may offer an opportunity to industrial developers. Adapting retail to suit the needs of a last mile logistics hub will require consideration to the following challenges:

  • Can planning permission be readily obtained for the change of use?
  • How flexible and adaptable is the existing layout?
  • Is there sufficient circulation space?
  • Is there space for external loading and unloading?
  • Does the structure require strengthening to increase the storage capacity?

Rental values may be lower as a compromise is likely to be required dependent on how flexible the existing building is for adaption.


The rapid growth of last mile logistics is set to continue over the next five years fuelled by the growth of e-commerce and online retail, as this demand grows. Rental growth will also increase which will improve the viability of these innovative concepts, though it is anticipated that the growth of these emerging trends will be gradual.

The increasing cost of land, materials and labour in the U.K. will offset the higher rental growth, therefore providing efficient cost-effective solutions to the technical challenges of urban logistics that will be critical to ensure their success; thus, improving viability to become established typologies in the U.K. market.

The Future

The rise of automation, robots and drones will challenge the design and specification of logistics buildings; this evolving technology will change the operational demands of logistics hubs that will require a greater need for flexible space.

Progressive legislation to meet the increasing urgency around reducing carbon emissions and developing sustainable designs will also have a significant impact in the development of logistics hubs in the very near future.

We can be confident that this sector will continue to find ways to innovate, and Urban Logistics Hubs will eventually become the norm as part of our town and cityscapes. Aesthetic sensibility will naturally have to be a key consideration as this sector flourishes.