An interesting New York Times article delves into what I’ve often thought of as the “elephant in the room” when it comes to urban and transport planning: parking. The article begins by highlighting the extremely high number of parking spaces available in many US cities – the fact that we give over so much of our city to the storage of cars (generally for “free”):
There are said to be at least 105 million and maybe as many as 2 billion parking spaces in the United States.
A third of them are in parking lots, those asphalt deserts that we claim to hate but that proliferate for our convenience. One study says we’ve built eight parking spots for every car in the country. Houston is said to have 30 of them per resident. In “Rethinking a Lot,” a new study of parking, due out in March, Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of urban planning at M.I.T., points out that “in some U.S. cities, parking lots cover more than a third of the land area, becoming the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment.”
Absent hard numbers Mr. Ben-Joseph settles on a compromise of 500 million parking spaces in the country, occupying some 3,590 square miles, or an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. If the correct number is 2 billion, we’re talking about four times that: Connecticut and Vermont.
Either way it’s a lot of pavement.
Making comparisons with the size of US states doesn’t typically mean much to me, but I’ve been on a bus through Vermont while travelling between Boston and Montreal. It seemed pretty big and empty (aside from the zillions of trees) so the concept of the USA giving over state sized amounts of space to parking lots is pretty damn scary. The article also quotes an absolutely superb Lewis Mumford quote, which I should print out and stick next to my desk:
As the critic Lewis Mumford wrote half a century ago, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.”
Looking at aerial photographs of Manukau City or Botany Town Centre confirm Mumford’s vision was absolutely correct: there’s no city here, just asphalt and cars:
I think the message is slowly filtering through that Botany and Manukau represent terrible urban outcomes and a general failure of planning, because the current planning rules have forced this kind of urban development, not merely enabled or even made an effort to stop it. But how do we turn the oil tanker around and create urban environments not entirely dominated by asphalt and parked cars?
Of course, an essential first step is to do away with the planning rules that require minimum levels of off-street parking to be provided. The New York Times article touches on this matter:
For big cities like New York it is high time to abandon outmoded zoning codes from the auto-boom days requiring specific ratios of parking spaces per housing unit, or per square foot of retail space. These rules about minimum parking spaces have driven up the costs of apartments for developers and residents, damaged the environment, diverted money that could have gone to mass transit and created a government-mandated cityscape that’s largely unused. We keep adding to the glut of parking lots. Crain’s recently reported on the largely empty garages at new buildings like Avalon Fort Greene, a 42-story luxury tower near downtown Brooklyn, and 80 DeKalb Avenue, up the block, both well occupied, both of which built hundreds of parking spaces to woo tenants. Garages near Yankee Stadium, built over the objections of Bronx neighbors appalled at losing parkland for yet more parking lots, turn out never to be more than 60 percent full, even on game days. The city has lost public space, the developers have lost a fortune.
The Pensacola Parking Syndrome is a term of the trade used to describe a city that tears down its old buildings to create parking spaces to entice more people downtown, until people no longer want to go there because it has become an empty lot. Cities should let the free market handle the construction of new parking spaces. People who buy or rent new homes can pay extra if they want someplace to park a car. Municipalities can instead cap the maximum number of lots or the ratio of spaces to dwellings and offices.
You get a feeling that Auckland was going down the “Pensacola Parking Syndrome” path in the 1950s-1970s when the council built all the parking buildings it now owns. Perhaps the saving grace of the Auckland CBD over the past 20 years has been the fact that it’s the only part of the city which does not require a minimum number of parking spaces. In fact, parking levels are restricted to limit the number of cars trying to get to and from the city centre (although this is undermined by the council continuing to provide so many off-street parking spaces and discounting peak time travellers through earlybird specials).
Setting that aside, it’s just bizarre that people wanting to live somewhere like Newton, where it’s possible to walk to the city, are effectively forced to also pay for two parking spaces with their apartment. Or that new retail or office space is likely to need to build (or at least buy) as much floor space for vehicle storage as for their actual business.
The article also discusses ways in which we can improve the visual aesthetics of parking, where it is provided.
It’s a no-brainer to argue that lots should be greener. The biggest advancements in lot designs have involved porous surfaces, more trees for shade and storm-water collection facilities. In Turin, Italy, Renzo Piano transformed part of the area around Fiat’s Lingotto factory by extending a grid of trees from the parking lot into the building’s formerly barren courtyards, creating a canopy of soft shade and a ready metaphor: nature reclaiming the postindustrial landscape. At Dia:Beacon, the Minimalist museum up the Hudson River, the parking lot designed by the artist Robert Irwin in collaboration with the firm OpenOffice is one with the art inside, trees in rigorous ranks rising subtly toward the front door. It’s an example not only of green design but also of treating parking lots the way people actually experience them: as the real entrance to a building.
In an urban environment, I don’t always think the answer to solving every aesthetics issue is “add trees” (and it’s a pity that so many landscape architects seem to think this is the case). One of the best things we could do to improve the aesthetics of places like Botany and Manukau is to “sleeve” the parking lots, either with shops that front the street (shops on the street, in a town centre, what a revolutionary concept!) or with terraced housing.
The idea of “sleeving” parking lots is being advanced as part of the proposed plan change at Milford Shopping Centre – softening the existing parking lot that surround the shopping mall by building a row of terraced houses around the edge of the site. Up close the result looks pretty good too, especially when compared to the current carpark that residents in the area look across at. Proposals like this one give me a bit of hope that our thinking on parking is evolving. Of course the Draft Auckland Plan also gave some hope, by highlighting the need for a different approach to parking, in that too much is probably an even bigger problem than not enough spaces. I suppose the real challenge will be to find ways to convince shopping mall owners and retail developers that they don’t need to provide as much parking as they have previously planned for. To give them the confidence to make these changes to the way they do business it will be essential for transport alternatives to be provided for to a very high standard.
New York could easily do away with parking regulations tomorrow and the benefits would be wholly positive – because such high quality transport alternatives exist. In Auckland, while I think we should still do away with minimum parking requirements as soon as possible, the real benefits of doing away with such controls are likely to mainly occur when high quality alternatives to driving exist, so people really don’t think it’s necessary for them to provide so much parking. This situation already exists in parts of the city, like Newton, Newmarket, Ponsonby, Parnell and other inner suburbs – but will take time to develop elsewhere. In the meanwhile though, even if we continue to dedicate far too much of our city to parking, we could at least start to hide it behind sleeves of shops or terraced houses.