Storage Spaces

In a recent piece in The Architectural Review, Marianela D’Aprile examines the significance of one ever-proliferating element of our collective urban landscapes: the self-storage facility. D’Aprile draws a parallel between self storage units and luxury condos, another use of urban space that’s largely devoid of human life, and yet similarly important for the functioning of capitalist urbanization. Even though neither is meant for actual human habitation, their importance comes in their ability to store either one’s excess wealth or excess material belongings. As D’Aprile writes:

“Practically speaking, storage units hold items for people during times of transition: relocating to a different city, changing homes following a break-up or a divorce, a loved one’s death. These things, of course, happen to almost everyone, so these facilities seem to fill a nearly universal need.”

Despite filling a nearly universal need, I suspected that this need isn’t met in a geographically universal way. Indeed, thanks to another recent piece from RentCafe that I came across more or less at the same time, my hunch was confirmed.

As the table below shows, the geography of self storage space varies quite dramatically from place-to-place, and that’s true even when looking at just the top 10 metro areas. Part way down the table, you can see that Atlanta already ranks as one of the nation’s leading metros when it comes to self storage space. Atlanta already ranks 8th nationally with nearly 40 million square feet of self storage space in inventory, with another 3.5 million planned or under construction as of March 2022, a figure which ranks us 7th nationally.

MSAs by PopulationTotal Population (2020)MSAs by Total Storage Space InventoryTotal Inventory (by sq ft)MSAs by Storage Space Under ConstructionPlanned Storage Space (by sq ft)
#1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA20,140,470#1 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX71,668,813
#1 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA11,863,734
#2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA13,200,998#2 New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA71,653,718#2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA6,324,477
#3 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI9,618,502#3 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX68,285,797#3 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX5,378,565
#4 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX7,637,387#4 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA67,915,312
#4 Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ4,629,836
#5 Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX7,122,240#5 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI48,456,168#5 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL3,963,007
#6 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV6,385,162#6 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV45,634,594
#6 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD3,852,158
#7 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD6,245,051#7 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL40,311,628
#7 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA3,541,086
#8 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, GA6,089,815#8 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, GA39,826,205
#8 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV3,006,318
#9 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL6,138,333#9 Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler, AZ35,663,505
#9 Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV2,698,725
#10 Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler, AZ4,845,832#10 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA33,753,663#10 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI2,608,456

While there’s a pretty close connection between self storage space and population that makes Atlanta’s top 10 ranking unsurprising, these metro-level rankings make it clear that the geography of storing our stuff doesn’t actually match up neatly with where people are as a whole. And while part of RentCafe’s analysis breaks down the siting of these new storage facilities by urban vs. suburban locales – with Atlanta’s recent construction heavily tilted towards urban centers rather than our sprawling suburbs – their analysis doesn’t give us any more granular of a look at the geography of self storage and what it might mean.

So using data from the artist formerly known as ReferenceUSA, I collected data on all the businesses in the Atlanta metro area that are primarily coded under the NAICS heading for “Lessors of Miniwarehouses and Self-Storage Units”. This yielded a total of 854 different locations. While just the four largest brands – Public Storage (113 locations), Extra Space Storage (100 locations), Life Storage (56 locations) and Cubesmart Self Storage (51 locations) – account for a significant percentage of this total, the majority of these 800+ self storage facilities don’t seem to be associated with a larger chain or brand.

After cleaning the dataset by deleting 61 locations without an exact location, I aggregated the remaining 793 locations to a uniform hexagonal grid spread across the metro area, representing the density of self storage facilities as proportionally sized hexagons on the map you can see below.

Based solely on the location of these storage facilities, it’s evident that despite the seemingly universal need for such places, this demand is met more in some parts of the city than others. Most of these storage spaces are located in the metro’s core counties, especially concentrated along some of the key highways and thoroughfares, with relatively few in the furthest reaches of the suburbs. Even though the difference isn’t absolute, there is also an obvious divide in the clustering between the predominantly white and predominantly Black parts of the Atlanta metro, with many fewer located in the southwestern parts of the city and surrounding counties that tend to have much larger Black populations.

While we as humans of course require some number of material objects to live, and especially to live comfortably, the proliferation of places for our things to live in the absence of affordable places for actual people to live suggest there’s a fundamental imbalance between the two; between how space is being utilized, who it is being utilized by and for. The structure of our society and economy is such that it makes more sense to devote tens of millions of square feet of space to store peoples’ things rather than actually create spaces where people can live with their things in a safe and healthy home.

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