City planning was a reaction to industrialization: smokestacks make bad neighbors, so cities created zoning. Who would want to live near a smoke-belching factory? It was dangerous and unhealthy. And it smelled bad. London had “dark satanic mills.” Pittsburgh was “hell with the lid off.” But, zoning has since evolved to not only separate the industrial from the residential, but to separate commercial from residential, and residential (apartments) from residential (single-family). What in the world is zoning protecting me from there? The way I see it, it’s cars. Well, parking lots. And that’s creating a cycle of urban decline and reliance on oil (and deteriorated water quality, poor air quality, obesity, yada, yada).
We’ve had two themes running through planning for the last 75 years, and where they overlap is in the parking lot. The first theme is, make it easy for me to drive my car anywhere, whenever I want. Second, keep those cars away from my house! Here’s the problem: When you live in a city where everyone has a car, your stores need to have parking lots. But, who wants to live next to a parking lot? So zoning ends up separating your neighborhood grocery from your neighborhood. Then everyone has to drive there. Then it needs a bigger parking lot. Etc.
Right now, most cities have parking requirements built into their zoning codes. Want to put a yoga studio in your house? Good luck. You’ll probably have to supply enough parking spaces as if every person taking yoga with you drove by themselves. (And, be honest — they probably would.) But, big retailers, churches, and office buildings very often supply much more parking than is required. The retailers build their parking lots for the biggest shopping day of the year, churches want enough parking spaces for every seat in the sanctuary, and the owners of office buildings want flexibility for any possible tenant. And when you get a bunch of these buildings next to each other, you get parking lot after redundant parking lot. And you have to drive there.
So, how do we begin to solve this mess and pull our cities back together? It may fix itself, but not in a way that many of us would enjoy. If gas prices rise sharply, people won’t want to drive as much or as far as they do now. In the end, the market will react and we’ll probably see a trend back to neighborhood-scale retail and services. But what if we actually wanted our city policies to create a place where we could choose not to drive?
City policies could squeeze from two directions — do away with some minimum parking requirements and add parking maximums. It probably won’t destroy any neighborhoods to allow businesses up to a certain square footage to rely on on-street parking. And I’m sure we could come up with reasonable numbers for a maximum number of parking spaces for different land uses.
And what if we separated parking requirements from individual buildings? We do that in many downtowns. By virtue of locating in a walkable urban center, building owners are not required to provide parking, and it somehow works out. What if we did that in other places? Just said, we have enough parking here. No asphalt required. Or, no more asphalt, period. In growing suburban areas, it might actually inspire useful development of those empty spaces. And it could discourage tear-downs in more urban neighborhoods, too.
This is an incremental policy change, obviously. But building a city is incremental itself. Without changing the whole framework for city planning, this is how we make better places to live.