Strong Towns is an American movement that a colleague turned me on to the other day, and it is not only a provocative movement, it offers an array of new thinking about the rules that cities and towns have when it comes to development, whether housing and business development or the inclusion of city services in an area like a recreational centre.
One thing that really caught my eye was the case made by Strong Towns to abolish parking requirements for new development.
One article provided a bit of a case study around thinking differently about parking in a town called Standpoint. A large bank wanted to build a branch in a neighbourhood that had historical significance. That development, according to the “rules” would have to provide 200 parking spots for the development to be approved. Alternatively, the bank could pay $10,000 per parking space not created. While such payment seems cost prohibitive to a development, the irony is that the parking requirement (apparently in place for the good of the community) could be bought off. This suggests that money trumps what is good for the community (according to the rules) or it could mean that this parking requirement was not all that necessary.
The bank bought a pizzeria and tore it down, but still did not have sufficient parking, so it began exploring buying a café and other businesses to meet the requirement. In other words city rules indicated that for the bank to be a viable development, other businesses (i.e. small businesses) would be torn down. Not really a desired economic development result, is it? And certainly not indicative of policy and rules that support small business development.
Interestingly there was a city owned parking lot a block away from the bank’s intended site, but that had no bearing on the rules. But my guess is that a bank and its patrons are not all that interested in customers having to walk a block to do their banking. As consumers, we want the convenience of parking right by the places we spend or, in this case, keep our money.
That said, in the Edmonton context, and our collective desire to foster more walkable neighbourhoods, shouldn’t we come to terms with how that goal might conflict with our conventional views of parking requirements? If our environmental concerns are to be actionable, don’t those concerns indicate that actions are necessary to reduce automobile-centric development?
In the end, to keep the story here short (read it all here), creative minds came up with an alternative solution. The parking requirements were reduced to the parking the bank had already created through demolishing the pizza business, without any in lieu payments, and instead the bank agreed to include a business incubator in its development, which apparently is so successful that the bank promotes it as part of its community programming.
This seems like a win-win-win from where I am sitting. The bank gets its development without destroying additional businesses, avoids paying the in lieu of parking penalty, and creates a needed economic service in the area that benefits local entrepreneurs.
While I am not yet decided on where I stand about the abolishment across the board of parking requirements, I suggest we need to tie together goals (like reducing reliance on automobiles and creating more walkable neighbourhoods) and also perhaps be more analytical about parking. For example, during the day many people leave their neighbourhoods to go to work and currently the far majority do so in their cars. This frees up parking for business that operate during the day. At night these businesses close and the residents return home. In other words, the demand for parking changes with the time of day and should be considered by a municipal government in terms of the rules it wishes to put into place related to development.
Our current requirements of parking tends to favour large developments by large institutions that have the means to include the parking expense in their business development or expansion plans. They can, if necessary, buy up land to accommodate the parking requirements and sometimes in the process destroy other businesses. Small businesses cannot afford to do this. Not only that, small businesses become stuck at their current size because the cost of expansion, which includes creating a place for cars.
In a city where the goal is to improve environmental conditions, advance walkability, and foster more use of public transit, perhaps it is time to review and adapt parking requirements, if not abolish them altogether.
Perhaps seeing a development as a single entity subject to rules only about its own existence, we should be looking at shared parking requirements across developments and consider the demand for parking at various times of the day. Perhaps consumers need to change their expectations of parking at the front door of a bank or another business. And perhaps a rethink of parking requirements will actually foster more development that benefits a neighbourhood beyond the purpose of said development and increases the tax base for the municipal government.
What happens when you fill your city with parking? Lots and lots of low value land, and not much else.
Send this video to anyone who needs a crash course in why parking minimums are a major problem for American cities.
My city leaders keep insisting we need more parking. How can I, as a citizen, make the case for less?
We’ve built too much of the wrong stuff in the wrong places and market demand may never catch up or reinvent these landscapes.
Whether you’re a city staffer, nonprofit leader or just a strong citizen who cares, there’s something you can do to advocate for an end to parking minimums in your town.