Whenever a neighborhood undergoes any serious development, you’ll inevitably hear residents voice their concerns about the effects on parking. Sometimes it seems people are more concerned with where they store their cars than spaces in which they can live. Every surface parking space takes up land that could otherwise be a park, restaurant, retail space, or any other ingredient that makes for a great neighborhood.
It’s difficult to sell people on this idea because most people are territorial over their street parking, despising the idea of outsiders moving in and taking up valuable parking spaces. It makes sense. Convenience is king in our modern world and there’s nothing more convenient than a parking space right in front of your house. The problem here is that with more parking you end up with less of a neighborhood. Imagine the kind of town you drive through to fill up your car or get a bite to eat while on a road trip, the kind of town that makes you wonder who even lives there. Does this nowhere-ville have a shortage of parking? Or are there vast concrete plains of painted white and yellow lines surrounding every building? America is home to countless examples of places with ample parking, but about which nobody really cares.
Now this design makes sense in a little town off the interstate in which people only stop on their way somewhere else. These are the kind of places where parking and auto friendly infrastructure is essential to their purpose. It’s strange, however, to see so many big cities covered in areas that are built the same way as these stop over towns, but are connected to a larger urban framework.
Now imagine somewhere special, a city you’d take a trip to go see. New York City, for example, is a serious destination. People go to New York not because it’s convenient, but because it’s a place they feel is genuinely worth being in. Parking is tight in New York, particularly in Manhattan, but people accept that as the cost of an urban environment packed with wall to wall excitement.
Now let’s look at a less extreme example, like a typical downtown area of an American city. Downtowns are generally more walkable with much fewer surface parking spaces. Despite this, there is usually a higher demand for real estate within a city’s downtown than outside of it. People accept the greater amount of businesses and other amenities at the cost of a less convenient driving and parking situation.
It’s an unspoken agreement that stems from the culture of a neighborhood, which is a result of the way it is built. People who live in high density areas have a mutual understanding of the city as a public space, while residents of more sprawled areas are likely to put more emphasis on their private space, which extends to their cars and where they park them. Parking lots in front of every building make a street feel boring and unsafe for pedestrians, while narrow streets without abundant parking lots dissuade people from driving through them.
So why is it people are so often reluctant to adopt the building practices that makes a place interesting to visit? Streets lined with businesses that start at the sidewalks with apartments above are perfect for vacation strolls, so why not recreate them? Of course people need to be able to park near their homes, but how much of the convenience of ample parking comes at the cost of the convenience of being able to walk to places near one’s home? Parking a block away from your house occasionally is not the end of the world, in fact it’s good exercise. Nothing in the world is free, and the cost of surface parking lots is often the loss of a neighborhood’s personality.
Parking garages or underground lots can serve as an alternative, but are expensive to construct. Parking garages are also difficult to retrofit into anything else due to their low ceilings without room for ducts to be installed. These buildings are also almost exclusively made of concrete and steel, particularly unforgiving materials.
Parked cars are private property invading public space and should be treated as such. Prioritizing car storage over people’s engagement with their surroundings defeats the purpose of a city. Business owners may fear lack of parking will hurt their business, but the foot traffic that increases when urban landscapes accommodate pedestrians could likely make up for it. People over cars makes a happy city.
By Dan Goodman