Solving Cities

Parking lots are devouring our cities

Posting in Architecture

There could be as many as 2 billion parking spaces in the U.S and they're a hinderance to our cities. Here's how we should rethink parking lots.

There could be as many as 2 billion parking spaces in the U.S.

Michael Kimmelman, of The New York Times, has some more sobering statistics about parking spaces in the U.S.

  • A third of all parking spaces are in parking lots
  • There are eight parking spots for every car in the U.S.
  • Houston is believed to have 30 spots per resident
  • At most, the total area of all parking spots in the U.S. could cover Connecticut and Vermont

Many of the stats come from a study due to be released in March called "Rethinking a Lot," from Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of urban planning at M.I.T. From Kimmelman:

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.” Yet we continue to produce parking lots, in cities as well as in suburbs, in the same way we consume all those billions of plastic bottles of water and disposable diapers.

Covering our cities with parking lots just don't make much sense. The amount of land area that it takes to move people by car is much greater than bikes or buses (here's a great visual representation). Some might argue that more parking spaces are important for the economy of a city, but the more parking space there are (and less bike and bus infrastructure) the less people there are stopping at stores, eating at restaurants, and exploring the city. So when cities build giant parking lots to attract more people downtown, it often backfires.

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.

So what else can cities do? Kimmelman says that big cities, especially New York, should do away with zoning codes that require housing and retail units to have a certain number of parking spaces based on the square footage of the property. But in general, as cars won't go away anytime soon, cities need to rethink how parking spaces are incorporated into the urban environment.

[W]e ought to take these lots more seriously, architecturally. Many architects and urban planners don’t. Beyond greener designs and the occasional celebrity-architect garage, we need to think more about these lots as public spaces, as part of the infrastructure of our streets and sidewalks, places for various activities that may change and evolve, because not all good architecture is permanent. Hundreds of lots already are taken over by farmers’ markets, street-hockey games, teenage partiers and church services. We need to recognize and encourage diversity.

"Taking Parking Lots Seriously, As Public Spaces" [The New York Times]

Photo: UIC Digital Collections/Flickr

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure