What a billion square feet of warehouses looks like

California’s Inland Empire, a sprawling region just east of Los Angeles that was once known for orange groves and grape vineyards, is now ground zero of America’s warehouse boom. The rise of online shopping has triggered a dramatic change in the landscape here and across the country — every $1 billion in online sales drums up demand for 1.25 million square feet of warehouse space.

Now, there’s an estimated 1 billion square feet of warehouses in the Inland Empire alone, according to a new analysis by the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer College. That’s nearly 37 square miles of warehouses.

The austere concrete boxes are relatively new transplants to the region, as an animated map released by Pitzer shows. As you watch the map, created using county-level data, you’ll see the warehouses crop up between 1975 and 2021, although development really started to take off in the 1990s with the onset of e-commerce.

A map of warehouse growth in San Bernardino and Riverside counties from 1975–2021 based on county data. All numbers should be considered an estimate.
GIF: Graham Brady/Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer College (with thanks to Lani Fox)

E-commerce giants including Amazon continue to gobble up space in the area. “Over the last 20 years, I’ve watched open land and farmland in the Inland Empire become a gridlocked sea of warehouses,” Susan Phillips, director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer, writes in a May 1st op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

“The Inland Empire is at a breaking point,” she writes.

The region is a canary in the coal mine of sorts for the rise of warehouses in America. It’s become one of the biggest warehouse hubs in the country thanks largely to cheap land near freeways, railyards, and the busiest port in the Western hemisphere (the Port of Los Angeles).

What you can’t tell from the map is what life looks like when your next-door neighbor is a warehouse sending and receiving truckloads of gadgets and other goods each day. For that, check out The Verge’s photo essay on life in Bloomington, California. In Bloomington, some residents are fighting to stop warehouse developers from bulldozing over ranches, gardens, and a unique rural culture shaped by immigrant families who moved to the area for its open space.

But warehouse sprawl isn’t stopping there. Warehouses are now the most common type of commercial building in the US, outpacing offices. So how communities in the Inland Empire deal with the influx of warehouses could carry lessons for others. Local activists, for example, have pushed regulators to crack down on the pollution warehouses attract via diesel trucks. The Inland Empire is the region with the worst smog in the United States, and some residents are fighting for warehouses to electrify their truck fleet.

“The battle is seemingly waged in a hundred places at once,” Phillips writes in her op-ed. To really see the full scope of social and environmental costs that can come with even more warehouses, those local battles need to be stitched together, like Pitzer’s researchers do with their map, to tell a larger story.