What can Amazon’s search for a new HQ teach us about how to grow a city economy?

Amazon HQ, Seattle. Image: Getty.

Amazon’s announcement a few weeks ago that it will open a second US headquarters, and its invitation for cities to bid to become its new HQ, have sparked a lot of debate across the Atlantic. But the criteria set out by Amazon on what it expects from its new host city also offers interesting insights for places in the UK, and for the government’s industrial strategy.

It’s not often that a company explicitly states what it is looking for when it’s searching for a new location. But in announcing plans for its new HQ, Amazon did exactly that – setting out clear guidelines as to how bids from competing cities will be judged. In no order, it stipulates that the following conditions must be met by the successful city:

  • Appropriate office space – either already built, or land to build on;
  • Business friendly environment and tax structure – for business friendly, read low taxes and grants;
  • Appropriate labour force – a good supply of workers, measured in terms of the size (population centre of over 1m), as well as skill level (highly educated and a ‘strong university system’);
  • Strong transport links within the area – including a link to an international airport;
  • Strong digital infrastructure – fibre broadband and good mobile coverage from a number of providers;
  • Cultural and quality of life offer – a diverse population with good recreational and educational amenities to help attract and retain staff;

The document also sets out that Amazon only wants one bid per Metropolitan Statistical Area – which could be likened to a LEP or city region here – and that places bidding must have a population of at least 1m.

Of course, this is only one company (albeit a very big one – Amazon estimates the new HQ will create 50,000 jobs with an average wage of $100,000). Nonetheless, the list broadly chimes with the factors higher-skilled companies have named in conversations with Centre for Cities in recent years.

While Amazon doesn’t rank its criteria in terms of importance, it’s likely that the availability of a skilled workforce will be chief among them. As we show in our new briefing about why skills should be a key concern in the industrial strategy, British cities that can offer access to high-skilled workers and knowledge have been most successful at attracting high-paying, businesses and jobs.

Given the fundamental importance of skilled workers to a high-knowledge operation, there’s no reason to assume that Amazon would be any different. As such, improving skills-levels in UK cities has to be a top priority for local leaders and in the government’s industrial strategy.

But while skills are of the utmost importance, both the Amazon document and our recent What Investors Want report also illustrate that businesses and investors assess a wide range of characteristics when assessing the attractiveness of a particular city. Ultimately, firms are driven by their likely return or profit, and will be drawn to cities which offer them the best combination of skills, infrastructure, and a pro-investment city leadership with a strong record of delivery.

As such, improving transport, skills and housing should be top of the list for local leaders seeking to make their places more attractive to businesses. Crucially though, we found that this isn’t enough – city leaders also need to actively promote the advantages they offer, as well as focus on building stronger relationships with the private sector, and demonstrate a willingness to ensure big private sector projects get over the line.

What’s a little more surprising about Amazon’s criteria is that includes grants and subsidies as a key consideration. If we were talking about an Amazon warehouse, this demand would be expected. Such a facility would need access to lots of cheap land and workers, something which can be found in a large number of places, and so a sweetener would clearly help sway the decision. For example, this has been used by both the Scottish and Welsh Governments to attract Amazon warehouses to Swansea and Dunfermline.


But with the company’s new HQ, we’re talking about a higher-skilled operation. The clustering of high-skilled businesses in central London and Manhattan, two of the most expensive places to do business in the world, shows that high-skilled businesses are prepared to pay a premium for access to talent.

And it’s hard to see Amazon sacrificing this for the sake of some subsidies – indeed, it is unlikely the company’s decision to locate its UK HQ in Shoreditch resulted from similar interventions. The reality is that Amazon can only meet its need for a large skilled labour force, good transport links and a strong amenity underlines by locating in a major city.

This undermines a line of argument often put to us here at the Centre for Cities, which suggests that modern communications technologies allow big firms to locate anywhere. It also echoes a point made by Professor Michael Storper in his City Horizons lecture last September: that in the modern economy, firms like Amazon need cities as much as cities need firms like Amazon.

More broadly, it underlines the importance of cities to the economies of developed countries. In the UK, for example, economic activity isn’t evenly or randomly distributed across the country – it is clustered in cities.

For the industrial strategy to be successful in in raising prosperity and growth across the country, it therefore needs to focus on helping successful cities continue to thrive – and support struggling cities to overcome the challenges they face in boosting their economies.

Paul Swinney is senior economist at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article was first published.

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What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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